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Agricultural evolutions in Stevens County

Early threshing technology still took a lot of manpower. In addition to the threshing machine, farmers needed a steam engine to power the machine and a water tank and fuel to produce steam, which took about 10 laborers. Photo courtesy of the Stevens County Historical Society

MORRIS – In 1920, Stevens County was home to nearly 9,800 people and more than 10,000 horses.

Although the first documented farmers in the area originally used oxen, horses quickly replaced them in the community, reaching a peak in the 1920s before the invention of the tractor shifted farming technology yet again.

Ward Voorhees, a retired soil scientist and former research leader at the USDA-ARS Soils Lab, gave a presentation on the history of agriculture in Stevens County this week that highlighted how farm technology and demand have changed the fields of the community.

The first documented white settlers arrived in Stevens County on June 22, 1866. The six farmers settled in what is now Framnas Township where they grew potatoes, turnips and wheat.

“Having come from Scandinavian countries, they were very used to rocks, so farming in this area wasn’t new to them,” said Voorhees.

The Stevens County Historical Society has good information about the early settlers in the county thanks to a journal written by Thomas Thomason, a Norwegian farmer who arrived in 1867. The museum has the journal translated from Norwegian and is in the process of publishing a children’s book based on Thomason’s journey, Voorhees said.

Over the almost 150 years that farmers have been cultivating land the county, the number and variety of crops has decreased. Over time, farmers have planted potatoes, wheat, barley, oats, flax, rye, soybeans, sunflowers, kidney beans, sugar beets, and corn.

The periods around World War I and World War II were peaks for agriculture in the community. During WWI, wheat was grown to send to troops overseas. Wheat was preferred to corn because corn would spoil when it was shipped.

At the time, wheat planting and harvesting was a labor intensive activity. Using a cradle scythe, a person could cut about two acres per day. They would be followed by other laborers who would gather and stack the wheat until it could be threshed.

In the late 1800s, threshing machines became more common, but still required a lot of labor. In addition to the threshing machine, farmers needed a steam engine to power the machine and a water tank and fuel to produce steam, which took about 10 laborers.

On a good day, farmers could produce between 30 and 60 bushels of grain per hour. Today, a single farmer in a modern combine can process about 200,000 bushels per hour, Voorhees said.

The county’s complicated relationship with the county ditch system began in 1906 when decision makers drained Moose Island Lake in the southern section of the county. This created County Ditch 1, along with more farmland at the expense of wetlands.

“That was very controversial at the time and it still is a thorn in the side of the county commissioners because it’s always someone complaining about land getting too much water or not getting drained enough,” said Voorhees. “This event really changed farming throughout the county.”

During WWII, flax production in the county peaked: linseed oil, made from flax, was used to make explosives, and linen from flax fibers was used to produce parachutes.

“It used to be really nice, you’d see this big fields of blue when it’s blooming, but you don’t see much of that anymore,” said Voorhees.

Farmers in Stevens County also have a history of raising livestock including pigs, sheep, chickens, dairy cows and cattle.

The number of dairy cows has gradually increased since the 1940s. At one time, every town in the community had a creamery. Stevens County was also home to two cheese factories – one in Swan Lake Township in the 1890s and another in Hancock around 1900.

“They only lasted four or five years because the demand for butter was higher than the demand for cheese,” said Voorhees.

Today, “corn is king” in Stevens County, said Voorhees, although the total number of acres of corn in the county was relatively constant between 1950 and 2000.

“Whatever the demand was for corn in Stevens County, it was being met by pretty much a constant number of acres because of increased yields,” said Voorhees.

Over time, the input cost for corn has also dramatically increased. In the early days of farming, farmers used a “jabber” to poke holes in the ground to plant a corn kernel. Farmers could buy a jabber for $.56 from Sears Roebuck and used it to plant about two acres per day. Today, a farmer using a multi-row corn planter, a farmer can plant at least 200 acres per day for about $300,000.

New technology offers about a 100 percent increase in planting capacity, but comes with a million times greater cost – “The cost of this technology has gone up much, much faster than increased capacity.”

The number of farms in Stevens County increased rapidly until World War II, but has declined since. In contrast, the size of farms has remained relatively steady over that period. Today, these figures have reached an equilibrium: there are about 600 farms in Stevens County and at average of 600 acres each.

One reason for this is the way the Internal Revenue Service defines a farm – anyone who owns 40 acres of land is considered a farmer. As a result, there are probably very few “average” sized farms; instead, there are many small, 40-acre hobby farms with several large farms to balance it out.

Voorhees concluded his presentation with a big question: Can American farmers keep up with the increasing demand for food around the globe? Are we headed towards a feast or famine?

Today, one U.S. farmer can feed about 140 people. If technology continues to increase yields, farmers may be able to keep up. But if technology has maximized the amount of food that can be produced on an acre of land, it may be difficult to keep up, Voorhees said.