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Farm Belt - Agriculture

Deep North; Farm Belt Movement of settlers into the region was earliest along the larger waterways. The southern Great Lakes, the Ohio River, the Illinois, Wabash, and Wisconsin Rivers to the east of the Mississippi, and the Missouri River westward to Kansas City all provided major routes of entry for settlers and major routes for marketing their produce. The eastern Great Lakes offered more direct shipment through the Mohawk-Hudson routeway to New York City. The entire interior river network funneled into the Mississippi River system and was navigable by small boats and barges with very few interruptions throughout.

The city of Detroit, Michigan, grew as a military control point and focus for farm products. This city, whose name means "the narrows" in French, is located at the best crossing point between Ontario, Canada, and Michigan and is also near the entry of the northern lakes into Lake Erie. The southern Michigan hinterland was not as rich agriculturally as that of northern Ohio, however, and Cleveland, Ohio, remained more populous until after 1910, when mass-produced automobile industries transformed Detroit's economic structure.

Located at the Great Bend of the Ohio River, Cincinnati, Ohio, became the main collecting and shipping center for agricultural products from the southeastern portions of the Farm Belt as early as 1820. Kansas City, Missouri, at the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, also experienced early urban growth by handling large quantities of agricultural products in river transit. Chicago's location, near the southernmost end of Lake Michigan and only a short land distance from the upper Illinois River, also was beneficial to rapid growth. The transshipment opportunities provided by this site were supplemented by extensive canalization projects and by land connections built west and south across the rich Farm Belt and, later, eastward directly to the growing cities of Megalopolis.

As the settlement frontier moved westward across the Farm Belt during the early 19th century, it was accompanied by a wave of wheat production for eastern markets. The bulk of raw wheat was not a great problem for shippers while water transport was continuous, but flour milling soon became established at the points of embarkation (such as Cincinnati on the Ohio River) or at sites at which the grain was to change from one transport mode to another (such as Buffalo, New York, at the lake terminus of the Erie Canal). Continuous wheat farming was hard on the region's soils, however, and primary zones of production moved westward with the expanding line of settlement.

For farmers who remained behind, the next best agricultural product was meat from domestic livestock. Both cattle and hogs were raised. So economically reliable was feed grain and livestock farming that it quickly supplanted wheat production as the dominant farming system throughout the Farm Belt.

Corn (maize) was the grain that best met the combination of environmental requirements and high economic return. Well adapted to a humid summer climate, corn thrives during the region's long hot days and warm nights. Also, yields are high since plants can be grown close together, and each plant produces two or more ears of grain. Furthermore, the large quantity of vegetative matter produced by each plant can be used as feed with appropriate supplements and cutting.

The mixed farming operation of crop-livestock production provided farmers with economic security beyond that found in any other U.S. agricultural region.

A distinctive characteristic of the central Farm Belt landscape is a semiregular rectangular field pattern. The original 13 U.S. states had developed their internal boundaries in an unsystematic manner, using the metes and bounds system of lot designation that relied on visible landscape features, compass directions, and linear measurement. The irregularly shaped results were often subject to confused interpretation and litigation. Through the Ordinance of 1785, the land north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania, known as the Northwest Territory, was delimited according to the regular rectangular township and range survey before it was opened to settlement. The irresistible logic of this system remains visible in the predominantly rectangular road network of most of the United States between the Appalachians and the Rockies.

While the land survey system and the ecological and economic realities of the Farm Belt produced an inevitable homogeneity to the landscape, there are portions of the Farm Belt that lie beyond the "Corn Belt." In Wisconsin and central Minnesota, north of the centers of grain production where the climate prevented feed grain maturation, farmers chose dairy farming as an economic substitute. Corn in silage, other grains such as oats and barley, and abundant hay crops provided excellent support for large dairy herds. When the supply of fresh milk exceeded even the large demand of the nearby cities, it was converted into butter and cheese for more leisurely shipment to more distant markets. Wisconsin continues to produce a large proportion of America's surplus milk and approximately half of its cheese output.

Another distinctive extension of the agricultural core's boundaries occurs around the western Great Lakes, where fruit production is possible in a narrow band along the Lake Michigan shores of Wisconsin and Michigan. The moderating influence of the lake retards fruit tree blossoming in the spring, usually until after the last frost, and also retards the arrival of the first killing frost in the fall. Sour cherry, apple, and, to a lesser extent, grape production are all important. A similar effect is found along the southern shore of Lake Erie, especially the few lakeshore counties in Pennsylvania and western New York, where grape production has been significant for more than a century.

The 30-year decline in prices which brought Populism to the farm belt finally turned around in 1897, but the Panic of 1893 added mining distress to agricultural depression. The value of all farm crops had declined by almost one-third between 1890 and 1894, and there had been little recovery since.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:04 ZULU