Long before statehood, humans secured a living from the land in what is now Minnesota. Native peoples planted and harvested crops even as they shaped an environment favorable for hunting and gathering. With the arrival of territorial interests in 1849, fundamental changes in the way people used the land began.
Among the most significant were the introduction of legal title and permanent settlement on a single piece of land. These two changes made it all but impossible for newcomers to share the land with native peoples.
Broadly speaking, agriculture has played a dramatic role in shaping Minnesota, and we can best understand it by looking at the intersection of farming with the land, labor, the market, and politics.
Perhaps in no area has agriculture shaped Minnesota more than in relation to the land. Two principal developments are at work regarding the land: the taking of it and then the transformation of it. The first of these processes took several decades and the second is ongoing.
Minnesota as a political entity was, at its origins, primarily about the taking of land from First Nations and transferring it to newcomers. Though lumbering and railroad interests were present from the start and mining concerns were never far below the surface, the key interest of the state's founders was land for farms or speculation. In a series of treaty negotiations and violations with the Dakota, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), and Ho-Chunk peoples, the US government came to own most of Minnesota by 1854, and following a violent conflict with the Dakota in 1862, the issue of who would control the land was largely settled. This transfer of property from native peoples to the US government involved broken treaties, land theft, and genocide. It represents an essential legacy of agriculture in Minnesota and in the United States.
After taking the land, Minnesotans began to transform it. Very little of the land was naturally suitable to US farming methods. Farm families, with help from hired hands and draft animals, broke virgin prairie with the steel plow, cleared pine or hardwood forest, and drained the land of excess water to prepare Minnesota for planting. These changes in the land, generated as farms were carved from nature, represent one of the lasting impacts of agriculture on the state. Gone are the Big Woods that covered much of the southeastern part of the state. Gone are the massive wetlands that characterized much of central and southern Minnesota. Gone is the original pine forest of Paul Bunyan legend. And gone is almost the entire long- and short-stem prairie that covered the rest of the state. In addition, Minnesota's rivers and remaining lakes and wetlands have suffered from runoff of all kinds and its soil has experienced considerable erosion. Agriculture, as it is practiced in the United States, is an extractive industry, and it continues to impact the environment of Minnesota.
Agriculture and farming are about the mixing of land and labor to create a harvest of crops or livestock. In Minnesota's early years, the labor used to change the land and generate a harvest was done by hand with considerable help from oxen, mules, and horses.
The family worked together; men, women, and children all contributed. In the first years of a farm settlement, men's work generated little income; it took men a long time to prepare the land for farming and what crops the land did produce were difficult to sell because of primitive roads. The labor of women—in butter making, collecting eggs, gardening and preserving, and handicrafts—often provided needed cash income to help Minnesota's first farms stay afloat and eventually prosper. Children, too, contributed significantly to the farm, and we remain tied to a school calendar that reflects this tradition of family labor.
Minnesota farm families relied heavily on the community, as well. Friends and neighbors gave labor freely with the understanding that eventually, the favor would be returned.
From the start, Minnesota farmers also used hired hands and migratory workers, often immigrant and poor. They sometimes used orphans shipped to the prairie from the East Coast. Starting in the 1870s, large highly mechanized farms, known as bonanza farms, produced massive quantities of wheat in the Red River Valley and required thousands of migratory workers to plant, harvest, and thresh the crop. As early 1928, there were about 7,000 seasonal sugar beet workers of Mexican origin in Minnesota. And well into the twentieth century, threshing involved hired threshing teams in addition to the community.
Over time, Minnesota farmers used machines more extensively, first powered by animals, then steam, and eventually modern fuels. Since World War II, mechanization has exploded as farms have grown dramatically in size and most farmers have become dependent on chemicals and genetically modified seeds.
After land, nothing proved as essential to the success of early Minnesota farms as skilled and tireless toil. Of course, most farms did not succeed, and the story of farm labor was often one of hard work and eventual failure due to the demands of debt and the risks of nature and the market. More recently, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the challenges of market-based agriculture have led to a mass exodus of farm families and a like decline in rural towns and cities.
Farmers have always been sharp watchers of the market, recognizing its opportunities while looking for ways to limit their risks. Minnesota's first farm families eagerly awaited transportation improvements in water, roads, and rail to allow them to market their crops more effectively. Once the market opened up, they wasted little time before challenging its lack of competitiveness. Farmers often noted that when they traveled to town, they were told by merchants how much to pay for nails, salt, flour, or cloth, but when it came time to sell their crops or livestock, they were unable to set fair prices. This was especially frustrating given the burden of debt farm families endured to acquire and cultivate the land.
The first major crop to dominate in Minnesota was wheat, a grain that is milled to make flour. Because hard spring wheat grew well in the state's cold climate, and because Minneapolis millers who turned that wheat into flour were committed to technological innovation, Minnesota earned a reputation for superior flour milling. But beginning in the 1880s, millers, grain merchants, and railroads successfully worked to limit competition for the buying and grading of wheat, which kept prices low. Many farmers turned to cooperatives, or co-ops, to improve prices.
Farmers' co-ops still dot the Minnesota landscape, some in the form of farmer's grain elevators, others as CENEX stations, as mutual insurance companies, and for those who abandoned wheat for dairy, as Land O'Lakes butter and milk. Historian Steven Keillor explains that co-ops were a part of the rural business environment designed to "bring democracy to the marketplace." And according to an April 2011 report by journalist Lee Egerstrom, "Minnesota leads the nation in cooperative business development, with at least 1,016 Minnesota-based co-ops accounting for nearly 42,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in wages." Co-ops provide necessary bargaining power for farm families within the framework of a democratic business enterprise.
Since the early days when wheat dominated and then began to give way to dairy in the 1880s, the state's farmers have moved into many more areas of production. From massive fields of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets, to efficiently run hog, cattle, and turkey farms, Minnesotans produce plenty of food. Minnesota farm families pioneered in the area of corn-based ethanol and used a cooperative structure to do it. In 2008, Minnesota was the sixth-largest agricultural producer in the nation, and today, hundreds of farm families, often recent immigrants to Minnesota, are returning to local markets for their harvest in the form of community-supported agriculture and farmers' markets.
Creating democratic businesses like co-ops is one way Minnesota farm families have sought to protect their investment in land and labor. Throughout the state's history, farmers also have played active roles as citizens and have used the state to aid them in various ways. The first instance of seeking state support was in securing land from First Nations, and here, the coercive power of the state assisted farm families. Though often conservative in their politics, Minnesota farm families subsequently have demanded and received state support in times of crisis.
The Grange began in Minnesota in 1867 under the leadership of Oliver H. Kelley and helped lead the way to railroad and business regulation. The Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party continued calling for the regulation of railroads and grain trading in the 1880s and 1890s, and advocated for monetary inflation to ease the burden of debt during the deflation of the late nineteenth century. The Nonpartisan League challenged banks, grain dealers, and the party system in the early part of the twentieth century. During the Great Depression, the Farm Holiday Association carried out penny auctions and blockaded roads to save farms on the auction block. The Farmer-Labor Party responded to activism in the countryside by achieving foreclosure relief for families at risk of losing their farms. And for nearly 100 years, farmers have lobbied for their interests by joining the Famers Union and the Farm Bureau Federation. This is only a small sample of the civic activism that characterizes Minnesota farm families.
Minnesotans also have benefited from federal programs like the Homestead Act (1862) that gave free land to farm families that improved their claim. Also significant was the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) that created the School of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. The University has an agricultural extension service that includes programs on agricultural production, community development, environmental restoration, family assistance, gardening, and 4-H. Through the extension service, each Minnesota county has a human link to the Land Grant College.
During the 1930s, the United States created its first comprehensive agricultural program, domestic allotment, where farmers voluntarily joined county administered programs that paid them to take marginal lands out of production. The purpose of the plan, still largely the backbone of US agricultural policy, was to conserve soil while limiting production to help maintain prices. More recently, some Minnesota farmers have benefited from federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol and myriad other programs contained in federal legislation.
Though declining in number, Minnesota farm families still feed the nation and the world. They understand their role in society and have used politics and exercised power with considerable skill from territorial days until the present.
The farm in Minnesota has been about mixing land and labor to create food and fuel. Critical in this enterprise has been the ability to sell the surplus from the farm in the market. Because debt is such a constant burden in the lives of farm families, a fair market-with fair prices-has been essential. To achieve fairness, farmers have banded together to form cooperatives and exercise political power.
Consider the case of the grasshopper plagues that confronted Minnesota farm families between 1873 and 1877. The "Rocky Mountain locusts" that laid waste to crops on the plains would not have found a favorable home had the prairie not been plowed, because the insects needed worked soil to lay eggs. Minnesota farmers had broken the sod to plant the wheat they needed to pay off their debts. This left the farmers vulnerable to plagues of hoppers.
Once suffering and with a greatly diminished harvest to market, farmers reluctantly looked for relief. They turned first to the Grange at the local, state, and national levels, but the Grange, though helpful, was not up to the task. Farm families then turned to county and state governments, as well as the federal government, but their requests for help resulted in limited charity, not relief sufficient to the crisis.
According to historian Annette Atkins, it was as if the plagues that ravaged western Minnesota and forced already poor farm families into more desperate conditions were brought on by their own failings. In the future, she notes, farmers would no longer ask for relief; instead, "they organized and demanded." In the grasshopper plagues, we see the fullness of agriculture in Minnesota: nature mixed with labor and the market led to unpredictable results, and farm families organized to survive on the land and feed a hungry state, nation, and world.
Jeff Kolnick is associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. His work on Minnesota history ranges from political history to a project that looks at Minnesota's connection to the San Lucas Mission in Guatemala. Kolnick is a founding member of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy.
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Minnesota agriculture has its origins in the taking of land from native peoples who lived in what is now Minnesota before white exploration and settlement.
Treaty violations and violence represent an essential legacy of US and Minnesota agriculture.
Once settled, Minnesota farm families transformed the land by plowing, cutting down ancient forest, and draining wetlands.
Farm labor was carried out by family units, including the critical labor of women and children.
Farm families were, of necessity, assisted in their labor by animals, machines, hired help, and community members.
Farm families worked to feed themselves and to generate a surplus to sell in the marketplace.
Farm families worked to tame the excesses of the marketplace by developing cooperative enterprises.
Today, Minnesota farms produce a variety of crops and animal products, and in 2008, they were the sixth largest agricultural producer in the United States.
Minnesota farmers are active citizens who have organized in their interests since the founding of the state.
Minnesota farm families participate in numerous government programs to help them survive on the land.