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Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture

Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture
Wisconsin transformed from the No. 1 wheat state in 1900 to the No. 1 dairy state by 1920.

Countless news releases cross my desk every month talking about sustainable farming practices and sustainable agriculture. Sustainability has become quite the buzz word during the past decade. Many people talk about it, but I'm not sure everyone understands what it is.

If you look the word up in the dictionary, you will find that sustainable means "able to be maintained." Sustainable agriculture is defined as "exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area."

Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture

Wheat producing state
That's fair enough, but when I think of sustainable agriculture, I first think of what agriculture was like in Wisconsin 100 years ago or more. For the most part, agriculture from 1860 through the early 1900s was not sustainable. I learned this from reading back volumes of issues of Wisconsin Agriculturist dating back to 1887. Did you know in 1900 Wisconsin was the No. 1 wheat producing state? Not Kansas, not South Dakota, Wisconsin.

Wheat is a crop that requires a lot of fertility and it saps the fertility out of the soil. Many Wisconsin farms grew wheat in the 1800s and early 1900s. A lot of farmers would grow wheat without rotating it with other crops. While most farms had a few chickens and a cow or two for milk, cream and butter for their own family's use, few Wisconsin farms were truly diversified before 1900. Many farmers would grow wheat year after year after year without fertilizing the soil and after a few years when the soil was depleted, they would move to another farm and buy or rent that farm and do the same thing.

Learning these facts about Wisconsin agriculture surprised me, but it explained why the Ingalls family in the Little House on the Prairie books and television show moved from farm to farm in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.

There were farms in Wisconsin that were sustainable and diversified that dated as far back as the 1840s. This is evidenced by the families in Wisconsin who are the sixth and seventh generation of their family's to farm on the same land. Many of them have been recognized with Centennial Awards (100 years) and even Sesquicentennial Awards (150 years) through the Wisconsin State Fair, however, before 1900 these farms were the exception and not the rule.


Between 1900 when Wisconsin was the No. 1 wheat producing state in the nation and 1920 when we became the Dairy State and produced more cheese and milk than any other state, a huge transformation occurred in Wisconsin agriculture. A large number of cheese plants sprang up across the state in the early 1900s and the demand for milk lead many farmers to start milking cows – more than the one or two they kept for milk for their family. They built barns to house and milk the cows in, silos to store corn silage and haylage and converted wheat fields to pasture and hay fields, rotated crops and perhaps most importantly spread the manure they cleaned up from behind their cows on their fields which helped restore fertility to the soil and made Wisconsin farms sustainable. Viola!

Diversified agriculture
By 1920, Wisconsin farmers quit moving from farm to farm and stayed on one farm because most farms had become productive and sustainable. Converting a lot of Wisconsin's rolling hills and highly erodible acres from producing small grains like wheat and oats to pasture and hay proved genius by the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Undoubtedly, Wisconsin farms would have suffered similar erosion problems like Kansas and Oklahoma endured during the Dust Bowl years if the transformation from No. 1 wheat producing state to the Dairy State hadn't been completed before the 1930s.

The diversity in Wisconsin's agriculture lead farmers to produce beef cattle, hogs, corn, potatoes and other vegetable crops, cranberries, apples, cherries and soybeans as well as wheat. Corn is the main crop grown in Wisconsin today followed by soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. And even though the number of dairy farms in the state has declined from 48,000 in 1978 to about 10,500 today, there are still 1.2 million dairy cows milked on those farms. Wisconsin's agriculture generates $59 billion a year in revenue – $26 billion of that comes from dairy.

So when people talk about "sustainability" or "sustainable agriculture" that's why I think about Wisconsin agriculture which truly is the definition of "sustainable agriculture."

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