Farm Belt - Environment
The settlers who moved across the Appalachians and onto the eastern interior plains were concerned with survival and pursuit of a livelihood. Except for the resistance of the local American Indian population and the usual vagaries of nature, the environment was supportive. Most of Ohio, Indiana, and lower Michigan was covered by a mixed hardwood forest. The trees encountered indicated to the experienced easterner where the best soils were located. They also provided considerable local fuel and building material. Near the western margin of Indiana and farther into Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the small openings and glades in the forest were larger and more frequent. Except along the rivers and in hillier country, Illinois, Iowa, and parts of southern Minnesota and northern Missouri appeared to be as much open grassland as forest. By the time settlers reached north-central and western Iowa, the dense woodlands had been left kilometers behind.
In general, the presence of trees indicates adequate moisture for crop growth. And except for the northwest corner of the region and a few sections of Michigan and eastern Wisconsin, the entire Farm Belt receives an average of more than 75 centimeters of precipitation each year. The southern margin of the core can expect in excess of 100 centimeters. More important, most of this precipitation occurs between the end of April and the beginning of November, during the growing season. Also important to plant growth, the variability of this rainfall over a 10-year period is low. Summer rains do often come in the form of intense thundershowers, occasionally accompanied by damaging hail and high winds, but even in this the region's farmers are less likely to be economically crippled than are those located on the open plains.
Like other interior regions of America, the Farm Belt is characterized by a wide range in its temperatures. The coldest winter temperatures at a given latitude are often as low as those occurring much farther north. Similarly, summer temperatures can be expected to climb as high as those found at more southerly latitudes. At Peoria, Illinois, for example, near the center of the Farm Belt, the average temperature in January is -4C, while the average in July is 24C.
For the agriculturalist, the high summer temperatures encourage rapid crop growth; for the average nonfarm resident, summer can mean a miserable combination of hot days, warm nights, and high humidity. The Farm Belt's winters are long, often gray, and uncomfortably cold.
Just as the Farm Belt's climatic mix is highly appropriate for farming, the region's topographic relief is properly moderate. The landscape is gently rolling with few areas of either very flat or very hilly terrain. The low relief means that a very large proportion of the total area can be used for cultivation, and fields can be as large as practical for good management without a high risk of erosion.
As farm machinery was developed, it could be used throughout the region. The scattered hillocks and stream courses that broke up the unending land swells were obvious locations to maintain woodlot or pasture. The rolling landscape also permitted good soil drainage and, in most cases, restricted swamps to small areas.
The landscape that dominates the Farm Belt is largely a consequence of the same glaciation that created the harbors of Megalopolis. As the heavy ice mass spread outward from its Canadian Shield center, soft sedimentary hilltops were ground down by the weight and movement of the ice. The debris removed in this way became incorporated in the ice sheet, gradually settling out and partially filling the valleys between the decapitated hills.
As the glacier fronts later retreated, long, low hills of this debris remained to offer a few lines of slightly greater relief for the human populations that followed. The tremendous quantity of meltwater released by the glacial retreat eroded several major river outlets, such as the Illinois River west and south from Lake Michigan and the Mohawk-Hudson river valleys east and south from Lake Ontario. The higher surface altitude of the Great Lakes during this period submerged large areas of what is now dry land south of Chicago, south of Saginaw Bay in Michigan, and the Black Swamp lake plain extending from Toledo, Ohio, to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In north-central Kentucky is a large basin many would argue does not belong within the continent's Farm Belt. The Bluegrass Basin, or Bluegrass Plains, nevertheless extends the region of low relief and highly productive agriculture into the margins of the Appalachian Plateau. The low, rolling relief of this region is primarily a residual karst terrain, one that has developed over thick limestone bedrock. The limestone is gradually soluble in moving water and permits many major surface features to be worn away. The limestone is also dissolved underground and forms stalactite- and stalagmite-columned caves that can extend for miles. The Mammoth Cave complex southwest of the basin is probably the best known in this region.
The soils of the Farm Belt are good, often much better than average, but usually not excellent. With the major exception of central Illinois and south-central Wisconsin, soils east of central Iowa are alfisols, formed under conditions of moderate moisture and usually in association with coniferous or mixed forests. Although the thin surface soil is deficient in humus, the soil retains agriculturally important minerals. In general, the soils found throughout the eastern Farm Belt require only careful plowing, some form of crop rotation, and the application of agricultural lime to remain productive.
Western soils within the region and those throughout much of Illinois are mollisols, among the most fertile of all soils and naturally suited to grain production. These soils were formed under grasses rather than under forest cover. They range in color from dark brown to almost black, indicating a very high organic content. They also tend to be rather deep, with the surface horizon between 50 and 150 centimeters.
The major soil exceptions to these two broad categories are the alluvial soils, found within the main river valleys and former lake beds, and the swamp soils. Both types of soil are capable of high fertility but often require special treatment.
The natural environment of the Farm Belt provided highly beneficial transportation opportunities. Even prior to the railroads and to extensive development of the road network, the river and lake connections within the region permitted easy and inexpensive shipment of goods to the eastern seaboard population centers and to the main international trade ports.
All businesses, including farming, are subject to many risks and require various decisions to minimize and overcome these risks. Historically, the farmer has retained the risks associated with farming, i.e., taken his or her chances with fate. Today's farmer has a substantial investment in fixed assets and planting production costs, so the risks are even higher. A prudent business person needs to reduce some of the risk to remain in business and have some certainty in the future. The farmer must make many difficult decisions in how much risk shifting can be afforded.
The farming industry differs from other businesses as it is a true competitive, market-driven industry. The farmer has no control over the price received, and all crops produced may be sold at the same price. If the farmer does not use marketing strategies the inability to control price is a major risk confronting the farmer, especially since the production cycle generally occurs on a yearly basis. Furthermore, the farmer has no control over the prices of the fuel, fertilizer, chemicals, and equipment used in the production of grain.
Unlike other businesses, nature is a significant risk in farming. Entire crops can be destroyed by a natural disaster such as drought, flood, or hail. Crop diseases and pests can also cause major losses and even destroy an entire crop. Nature and market price risks make farming a series of high stake gambles.
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