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Cartwright, Carol Lohry; Shaffer, Scott; Waller, Randal / City on the Rock River : chapters in Janesville's history

3. Agriculture,   pp. 52-57

Page 52

Carol Lohry Cartwright
he first white settlers in Wisconsin needed an easy and profitable way to farm the virgin
soil of the new territory. They found it in wheat, which required little start-up money
and was easy to grow. By the Civil War, wheat was "king" in Wisconsin and the state
was briefly the top producer of the crop. But wheat growing quickly depleted the soil, and
after the Civil War, prices declined, making wheat growing less attractive in the second half
of the nineteenth century. (Wyatt 1986: Agriculture 1-1)
As wheat growing declined in Wisconsin, some farmers moved westward to find virgin soil.
Farmers who remained in the state began experimenting with a variety of crops, ushering in
the era of diversified farming. Some of these crops had fleeting popularity, such as growing
hops in the 1860s. But other attempts at diversification endured, including growing a variety of
feed crops or vegetables, raising livestock, and dairying. European immigrants, who began
coming to the state in great numbers in the mid-nineteenth century, were familiar with
diversified farming from working with ancient farmland in their home countries. These settlers
introduced many farming ideas that helped diversify Wisconsin's agricultural base. (Wyatt
1986: Agriculture 1-1)
One of the lasting trends in Wisconsin agriculture was the cultivation of feed crops and grains,
an integral part of the dairy industry. Prior to the dominance of dairying, the production of
oats, corn, hay, and other forage crops was not profitable to Wisconsin's farmers. But by 1890,
when dairying became the dominant agricultural activity in Wisconsin, feed and forage crops
amounted to 90 percent of the state's cropland. (Wyatt 1986: Agriculture 5-1)
Another diversified farming trend was livestock raising. During the mid-nineteenth century,
farmers kept livestock for doing fieldwork and for producing food and fiber for the family's use.
Except for draft animals, livestock on early farms was given minimal attention. When
livestock raising became popular, more attention was paid to the care and propagation of farm
animals. Most farmers dramatically improved the care of livestock by the late nineteenth
century, and a number of farmers in Wisconsin turned their attention exclusively to stock raising.
Beside cattle raising, hog, sheep, and poultry raising became popular. (Wyatt 1986:
Agriculture 8-1-8-2)
The most enduring and significant change in Wisconsin agriculture was the transition to
dairying. Modern dairying was promoted in Wisconsin by many immigrants from New York
familiar with milk and cheese production. These innovators formed the Wisconsin Dairymen's
Association in 1872, but it took at least two more decades to complete the transition to dairying.
Most of the limited amount of butter and cheese produced in Wisconsin in the mid-nineteenth
century had a reputation for poor quality, and few markets existed for either liquid milk or
milk by-products. (Wyatt 1986: Agriculture, 9-1-9-3)
During the Civil War era, there was an increased demand for dairy products. The boost in both
demand and prices gave impetus to furthering dairying in Wisconsin. Leaders in dairying
established cooperatives to gather milk for cheese factories and creameries that began to
produce a higher quality of finished product. By the 1890s, Wisconsin agriculture was
dominated by dairying. It provided a cash income to farmers, and the crops needed to support
dairy herds could be grown successfully by most farmers. (Wyatt 1986: Agriculture, 10-1-10-4)

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