HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE IN MICHIGAN
Agriculture has always played an important role in the economy of Michigan, but the nature
of its role has changed greatly since the early period of pioneer settlement. The
states indigenous peoples--its first true farmers--supported themselves through a
combination of hunting and gathering and simple agricultural techniques. Their modest
plots produced corn, beans, peas, squash, and pumpkins. However, the Indians used only a portion of their holdings for crops and
so caused few lasting changes in the countryside.
Thus, the French explorers in the
17th century found the land virtually untouched. French farming, too, was limited in
scale, because from the beginning, the crowns New World interests centered more on
the lucrative lumber and fur trades than on agriculture. One notable exception was in the
cultivation of fruit trees, especially pear and apple, and the French developed three new
apple varieties in and around Detroit.
As the fur trade declined and trapping operations moved westward,
farming grew more important. Its early development, however, was deterred by a number of
factors: the continuing presence of hostile fur traders, the prospect of British rule, and
a series of unfavorable land survey reports kept many prospective farmers from coming into
the territory. For example, the 1816 Tiffin survey
described Michigan as a land of unhealthful swamps and a sandy waste that was wholly
unsuitable for agriculture. Such misleading reports were widely circulated and did little
to encourage the sale of land.
In the following decade, however, several key events opened the door
for pioneer settlement. The 1825 completion of the Erie Canal
opened a new and easy route to the territory via the Great Lakes and Detroit, and by 1833,
federal Indian policies had removed most Native Americans to the west of the Mississippi,
which paved the way for government land surveys and, thus, for increased agricultural
settlement. It was these government surveys that divided the land into sections and
townships, designations that are still applied, and greatly influenced the size and
location of early farms.
The southern third of the state was settled first. It was the first
portion surveyed and included some of the best farmland in the state. In addition, the
Chicago Road, the Monroe Pike, and other transportation arteries provided easy access from
principal entry points such as Detroit. A majority of the early pioneers were New
Englanders. These settlers found that the small prairies
and oak openings of southern Michigan were well adapted for
wheat, and wheat and wool eventually became the states principal cash agricultural
products. People arrived in such numbers that between 1820 and 1834, the population
increased tenfold. By the time Michigan was about to become a state, Michigan Territory
had become the most popular destination of people moving west.
The Upper Peninsulas more limited agricultural potential was not
tapped until the mid-1800s. As the areas fledgling lumbering and
mining industries drew more and more people to the region,
agriculture was introduced to provide food for the new arrivals. It was found that many
crops, particularly hay and potatoes,
did well in the rigorous northern climate.
During the late 1800s, European immigrants began pouring into Michigan,
mixing their cultural traditions with those of the states previous settlers.
Although most immigrants were subsistence farmers, some were highly skilled; and the
efforts of these people helped to diversify the crop base of the state. The Germans settled predominantly in southeastern Michigan and in
Saginaw and Berrien Counties, areas that proved to have excellent farmland and even today
are top agricultural producers. The Danes were another group of skilled farmers, and they
specialized in growing potatoes in the area northeast of Muskegon. The
Dutch arrived in 1846 and introduced the raising of celery; even
today, the area around Grand Rapids remains a Dutch stronghold, and celery and other truck
crops are still grown there. Some groups, such as the Finns,
were brought to Michigan in the 1870s to work in mines of the Upper Peninsula; their real
interest, however, lay in farming, and settling on the eastern edge of the mining
district, they worked long and hard to raise money to buy farms.
Agriculture continued to be the principal source of livelihood for
Michigan residents throughout the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, the Industrial
Revolution was transforming agriculture from a small, self-sufficient family art to a
large, mechanized, scientific industry. The tractor, the telephone, and the automobile
revolutionized cultivation, communication, and transportation, and rural isolation was
broken. Although farm conditions improved, people left the farms in droves and resettled
in the cities. Rural depopulation became so severe during the 1920s that many farmers and
growers had to import migrant labor.
The transformations in the life of the farmer brought changes in crop
production as well. Before 1900, the state was the nations largest producer of
winter wheat, but an increase in the amount of wheat grown in
states farther west and competition from the prairie provinces of Canada caused Michigan
to drop in rank. The states wool production, once of primary importance, now ranks
twenty-third in the country. Michigan now leads the nation in the production of cherries
and navy beans, and other major agricultural products in the state include dairy products,
grains, and livestock.
The key to Michigans agriculture in the 20th century has been
specialization that utilizes the states great diversity of soil, topography, and
climate. Potatoes in selected sandy soils of the north, navy
beans in the Saginaw Valley, sugar beets in the thumb area, fruit
along the Lake Michigan shore, peppermint and spearmint
in the midlands, soybeans in the Monroe area, and vegetables
in the muck soils of the south have supplemented much of the
general agriculture of an earlier era. Because of increased specialization, however,
farmers are now less self-sufficient, and scientific techniques have resulted in fewer and
larger farms, bigger yields, and a greater use of fertilizer and mechanization. Michigan State University, a pioneer land-grant college in
the country, supports outreach and research programs to develop better farm practices and
improve crop varieties.
Thus, although agriculture is still a leading industry in Michigan, its
role is relatively less important than in the past. The following statistics indicate the
scope of the change. In 1860, 85% of the population depended upon agriculture for its
livelihood; in 1960, only 26% of the people lived in the country, and even fewer actually
supported themselves through farming.