History of Missouri - Reconstruction, Industrialization and Modernization: 1865–1901 - Agricultural Changes

Agricultural Changes

The railroad brought significant changes to Missouri agriculture during the late 19th century, providing both external markets for local crops and competition from producers in other parts of the United States. Norman J. Colman, an agriculturalist who served on the state Board of Agriculture from 1867 to 1903, encouraged Missouri farmers to adopt scientific farming techniques to compete in the national market. In 1870, Colman convinced the General Assembly to establish a College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a process aided by state legislator and university curator James S. Rollins. Well-known agricultural researcher Jeremiah W. Sanborn served as the college's second dean starting in 1882, and in 1883, the college sponsored dozens of agricultural institutes across Missouri to educate farmers on modern practices. Colman continued to encourage agriculture in Missouri after his appointment in 1885 as U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture (in 1888, Colman became the first Secretary of Agriculture when the department became a cabinet-level agency).

As a result of the efforts of Colman, Sanborn, and others at the University of Missouri, the number of Missouri farms experienced significant growth during the 1870s. At the beginning of the decade, the state had slightly less than 150,000 farms and 9.1 million acres of farmland; by 1880, there were more than 215,000 farms and 16.7 million acres of farmland. With the arrival of the railroad, some counties and towns experienced rapid growth: in 1870, rural Wayne County had no railroad connection, had 27,500 acres of farmland, and produced 290,000 bushels of corn. In the early 1870s, however the town of Piedmont in Wayne County was made a junction of the Iron Mountain Railroad, and production expanded dramatically; by 1880, the county had 47,000 acres of farmland and produced 525,000 bushels of corn. Piedmont itself went from an unplatted village in 1871 to a town of 700 residents by 1880, who included a variety of occupations beyond farming.

Farming in Missouri
Year Number of farms Acres of farmland (millions) Rural population (as percent of total)
1870 148,000 9.1
1880 215,000 16.7 74.8
1890 238,000 19.8 68
1900 285,000 22.9 67

Despite the growth brought by the railroads and new techniques, Missouri continued to undergo urbanization during the late 19th century. Labor-saving devices such as the sulky plow, corn planter, mower, and reaper forced Missouri farm laborers to seek alternative employment in the growing towns and cities. In addition, the competition brought by the railroad generally caused a decline in farm prices after 1873; in 1874, a bushel of Missouri corn sold for 67 cents, but its price dropped to 24 cents in 1875 and remained in the 20 to 40 cent range for most of the 1870s and 1880s. As a result, although the acreage of Missouri farmland had increased from 1870 to 1880, the value of crops produced saw a decline from $103 million to slightly less than $96 million in the same period.

In response to declining prices and general economic problems of farmers, Missourians began forming and joining chapters of the Patrons of Husbandry (commonly known as the Grange). Oliver Hudson, a U.S. Bureau of Agriculture employee, formed the first Missouri Grange chapter in 1870, and by 1875, there were more than 2,000 chapters in Missouri (the most of any state). In addition to organizing social events for farmers, the Grange organized them economically by creating trade fairs and collective sales of farm produce, and the group opened no fewer than eight cooperative stores where goods could be bought at reasonable prices by Grange members.

In spite of the efforts of the Grange, however, most Missouri farmers remained economically disadvantaged during the 1880s and 1890s. As it had during the 1870s, the number of farms and acreage under cultivation again increased in the 1880s and 1890s. However, roughly half of the state's claimed land remained uncultivated in 1900, and in 1903, the state still had more than 400,000 acres of unclaimed federal land available under the Homestead Act. By 1900, urbanization had reduced the rural population to two-thirds of the state total, down from more than 75% at the close of the Civil War. After significant declines during the 1880s, land prices recovered slightly during the 1890s, although the market remained unstable and largely dependent on the particulars of the farm. Another factor in the continued economic issues of the farmer was the increasing availability of credit from eastern bankers; high interest rates frequently led to repossession of farmland and sheriff's sales during the 1890s.

The late 19th century was a time of continuity in terms of crops produced in Missouri, with the majority of acreage given to the production of corn and wheat. In 1900, farmers devoted more than 7.5 million acres (of nearly 23 million total) to corn, although yields declined overall as less productive and fertile land was brought into use. Most corn in Missouri also was consumed in the state by livestock, and hay and pasture land for livestock made up 10.5 million acres of farmland in 1900. Livestock income provided 55% of farm income in 1900, or roughly $142 million.

The largest group of livestock consisted of swine, totalling 4.5 million in 1900, followed by cattle, which in 1899 totalled nearly 3 million. Missouri farmers produced 7% of the national total of hogs in 1900, and only Illinois and Iowa had larger herds. Sheep, goats, and turkeys were insignificant, although chicken raising was an important supplementary income for farmers during the 1890s; as with swine, the state ranked third among poultry raising states. Missouri mules remained nationally significant; from 1890 to 1900, mules in the state increased from 196,000 to nearly 250,000. During the Boer War from 1899 to 1902, the state shipped more than 100,000 mules to Britain, and the U.S. government purchased significant mule stocks during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and 1899.

Before 1870 the original Ozark settlers in the southwest part of the state were part-time farmers, herders and hunters. During 1870-1900 the region became one of general full-time small farm operations, with diverse crops and livestock. Hunting and fishing became leisure activities, rather than a necessity for subsistence. After 1900 commercial agriculture increased and livestock production surpassed cultivation. The general farm of yore vanished.

Only dairy farming survived the pressure of livestock production. By the 1970s, however, agriculture in the Ozarks had come full circle. Many modern farmers survived only by becoming part-time farmers. Much of the population commutes to paid employment for most of their income, in much the same way as the pioneers had been forced to diversify their efforts.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Missouri, Reconstruction, Industrialization and Modernization: 1865–1901

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