Point Labaddie Farmers Market
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Once farmer’s market season begins, my husband and I have to be very deliberate about taking some time off and getting away once in a while. We manage two farmers markets and have “regular” jobs as well. So practically speaking, each of us has had three jobs for the last several years. The first season that we took on two markets at once really took us by surprise and exhausted us on many levels. We took no time off from April through October. The following season, I set down and scheduled monthly fun, extended getaways or special weekend activities. We couldn’t “get away” until later Saturday afternoons, but managed to make it work for the last 5 years or so. We really look forward to those extended, long weekend getaways. Much needed and really enjoyed. A two hour drive to Springfield, Illinois to a friend’s house on Lake Springfield fits the ticket perfectly. The temperature there ALWAYS seems much cooler, nice breezes, a very nice pool and a quiet neighborhood. Perfect.
On the way to Springfield and driving on Interstate 55 North, looking out the window at the endless, thousands of acres of corn fields, got me thinking. Of course! I started thinking about the history of the thousands of acres of corn (and soybeans) in Missouri and Illinois. When did this all this corn and soybean farming start? Who owned the land? What was all of this land like before agriculture? Was it sod and prairie? Was it forested? I thought about the vision of those huge fields of agriculture with that one, old, big tree in the middle of it. Or how the farm houses have trees and yards at the perimeters of these big fields. Maybe it was a mix of sod and forests? As we passed all of these fields of corn, I told my husband I was going to do some research and find out and I did.
I did a bit of research on the history of agriculture in Illinois, but quickly moved to the history of agriculture in Missouri and spent most of my time reading about this side of the river. To be quite honest, the information I read is not what I expected, but it was quite interesting none the less. The first piece of ag history that I came across was that Admiral Perry introduced the first soybean seed to the United States after returning to a trip from Japan in 1854!!
As I suspected from my research over the last several years, the invention and growth of the railroad system throughout the U.S. had a significant impact on our food system and shipping of food across the country. With the innovation of refrigeration in the railroad cars, our food system was changed even more. The amount of railroad tracks that were laid, doubled in the 1870’s and 1880’s. In 1880 the first patent for a refrigerated railcar was granted.
As I read and researched about the unexpected and long history of those thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, I became rather sad in some respects. In a very short period of time, just a few decades (1850’s-1875) there was a rapid growth in farms, acres farmed and prices for corn, soy and wheat as well as farm animals followed by a more drastic decline and loss.
At the beginning of the 1870’s there was less than 150,000 farms and 9.1 MILLION acres of farmland in production. IN 1880, there were 215,000 farms and 16.7 MILLION acres of production. In 1870 Wayne County, Missouri had NO railroad connection and had 27,000 acres of farmland and produced 290,000 bushels of corn. After the railroad tracks were laid in the area, farmland production was up to 47,000 acres and 525,000 bushels.
And as quickly as the railroad brought prosperity, it brought quicker loss. With the railroad coming through, farmers were able to grow, produce and ship grains all over the country. Therefore, our State experienced the growth in the purchase and production of farmland. But soon thereafter with all of the growth, there quickly became more competition. In 1874 a bushel of corn was bringing $.67 and the very next year in 1875 it was down to $.24. The same devastating price drop happened with farm animals (pork and beef).
Farmland had increased significantly and the decline of farm crop prices had decreased too rapidly. High interest loans and credit to farmers had become readily available during the brief time of growth and prosperity. Many family farms were lost and repossessed by the 1890’s. In the 1930’s there was a statewide drought and in 1936 there was a plague of grasshoppers that attacked and destroyed millions of acres of corn and other crops.
In 1945 Missouri had 240,000 farms and by 1997, there were 99,000 farms. The USDA now records 96,800 farms in Missouri with 28,500,000 acres in production.
One more interesting fact regarding the history of agriculture in our State is that of a man named Norman J Colman. He was a New Yorker with a law degree and a newspaper man that came to the St Louis area in the 1850’s. He became an alderman in St Louis’ 5th ward as a member of the Whig party. He started writing and publishing a paper called The Valley Farmer. As a result of the publication he became known in the farming circles. His path then became that of a career politician that he began in the Missouri House of Representatives. Later, he became the 17th Lieutenant Governor in Missouri. And this is what may be one of the first steps of politics and agriculture in our State history and then on to a National level. This was really interesting to me. Norman Colman served on the State Board of Agriculture from 1867-1903 (that’s a long time). He was a pioneer and encourager of Missouri farmers to adopt more scientific methods in their farming techniques. He wanted them to be more competitive in the national and international marketplace. He was a founding member of the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri. In 1885, President Cleveland appointed him as the Commissioner of Agriculture. Through legislation he was involved in, his lobbying efforts helped produce the Hatch Act. He also lobbied for a national department of agriculture. He was later appointed as the first United Stated Secretary of Agriculture in early 1889. He only held that office for a few weeks as it was never approved by the Senate. He later returned to St Louis and resumed work in the newspaper business.
After all of this studying and learning more about the history of “big ag” in our state I am reminded and also happy that I am supporting the family farmer and the local, seasonal food “movement”. The plight of the farmer really came to light as I read about the economic and rapid rise and fall of those that grow our food.
I am thankful to know some great folks that grow some delicious, nutritious, beautiful food. And in addition, those that humanely raise and produce healthy and very tasty eggs and meat.
See you at the market. There’s a few more weeks.