Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Although the first American explorers who passed through the Territory reported that the region was totally unfit for human habitation, history records that the Indians who lived on the Kansas plains before the coming of the white men practiced agriculture after a crude fashion. Thus the first Kansas farmers were Indian squaws who raised small crops of corn and beans to supplement the diet of game. They planted seeds in holes punched in the ground with sharpened sticks, and cultivated the crop with implements fashioned from buffalo bones. 

 

The first white farmers were Frenchmen who settled in the Wolf River country, now Doniphan County, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and planted fields of corn in the rich glacial soil of this northeastern corner of the State. 

In 1827 the Government decided to conduct agricultural experiments in the Territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase and sent Daniel Morgan Boone to teach farming to the Kansas Indians. This son of the famous Kentucky frontiersman took a farm of one hundred acres on Stone house Creek in the present day Jefferson County, less than fifty miles from the land broken by the Wolf River Frenchmen of the previous century. The early missionaries also engaged in agriculture to some extent; but it did not become the major occupation of the Kansas Plains until the Territory was opened to settlement in 1854. 

Many of the early settlers, who turned to agriculture as the only means of livelihood a precarious means at best had no natural aptitude or training for it. They were brought into the Territory by the New England Emigrant Aid Company and other organizations solely for the purpose of setting up communities of anti-slavery voters, and were hastily selected with little thought of their fitness as practical farmers. Consequently, it is not strange that Kansas agriculture, hampered from the outset by climatic conditions that were frequently adverse, inexperience on the part of settlers, and bitter political strife, did not prosper. 

The pioneer farmers of the 1850's broke the sod with ox teams hitched to crude plows. Many of them planted corn by slitting the sod with an axe, dropping the kernels into the slits, and closing them by stamping. This was in violation of the belief then common that "you can't grow corn on sod." Strangely enough one of the unorthodox corn planters raised a crop that averaged nearly one hundred bushels to the acre. The story of "Sod corn" Jones was widely circulated, but few of the settlers gave it credence, persisting in the theory that newly broken sod would not grow anything but pumpkins and melons. Corn was cultivated with the hoe; wheat was sown by hand, harvested with a cradle, and threshed with a flail. The first Mennonite wheat farmers separated the grain from the straw by rolling or dragging cogged cylindrical stones over the bundles (see NEWTON). 

At the close of the Civil War the Government offered homesteads in Kansas to Union Army veterans and more than 100,000 took advantage of the opportunity. These sturdy young veterans were Kansas' first real pioneer farmers. The majority had been reared on farms in the older semi prairie States of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and understood the difficulties confronting the farmer who breaks virgin soil in prairie country. Others came from Kentucky, the mountains of Tennessee, and Missouri. 

Farming was a year round occupation in the Kansas of that time. Sod turning was a tedious process with oxen and a plow not adapted to the task. A team of oxen with one man to drive and one to hold the plow could not break more than an acre in a day, and since this work had to be done between the thawing of the ground in March and corn planting time in April, a farmer could break only a small amount of land each year. Hand planting and cultivating consumed all the farmer's time until midsummer; then he cut prairie hay and stacked it; and after that the corn had to be husked. 

Wheat, a minor crop in the early days, and oats were sown broadcast by hand after the sod had rotted long enough to permit the seed to be covered. These grains were harvested by primitive methods precisely like those used by Roman farmers 2,000 years before. 

The first radical change in Kansas agriculture occurred in 1874 when a colony of Mennonites came to the plains of central Kansas from southern Russia. Originally German, these bearded farmers had migrated to Russia at the time of Catherine the Great to evade military service, to which they were opposed on religious grounds. During their sojourn in Russia they had developed a variety of hard wheat called Turkey Red because of the color of the grain and because the seed had originally been obtained from Turkey. This variety thrived on the steppes of Russia a semi arid plains region and the Mennonites rightly believed it was adapted to Kansas' peculiar conditions of climate and soil. 

Turkey Red grew better in Kansas than varieties of the grain brought by earlier settlers from their eastern farms, as it was more drought resistant and hardy. Observing the success of their oddly dressed neighbors, the American born farmers bought quantities of Turkey Red seed from them and in turn prospered as wheat growers. Thus began Kansas' greatest industry. 

Prior to 1874 Kansas had never produced as much as 5,000,000 bushels of wheat in a year and no one expected it to become a great wheat raising State. Corn was king in those days and corn bread spread with sorghum molasses was the staple fare of Kansas farm families. Today, thanks to the Mennonites and their imitators, Kansas produces thirty times as much wheat as it did before these immigrants brought their Turkey Red to the State. An average wheat crop today is 170,000,000 bushels. The record yield, in 1931, was 240,000,000 bushels. 

The second revolution in Kansas agricultural methods, machine farming, was hailed at its inception as the dawn of an era of everlasting plenty, but it has resulted in near disaster. Prairie agriculture had two elements that encouraged the rapid development of machine farming: the general levelness of the plains and the abundance of horsepower. There were few trees to be cut in clearing the land, no stumps to impede the progress of wheeled implements. There were also thousands of wild horses in Kansas and horse wranglers prospered in the 1880's by roping and breaking these animals for use on farms. At the same time horse breeders began to import heavy European work horses and cross them with the wild horses for the farm market. 

Farming in Kansas during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth was a matter of horsepower and wheeled machinery. Corn was still the leading crop; it was in the more highly mechanized age to come that wheat gained the ascendancy. Horse drawn plows broke out fresh acres of sod, horse drawn corn planters sowed the grain. During the growing season teams of horses or mules pulled cultivators along the corn rows. Kansas became a great corn State, reaching its peak of corn production in 1889 with a yield of 273,000,000 bushels. 

But in these years of apparent prosperity thousands of Kansas farmers were faced with poverty and foreclosure. After the first wave of homesteaders swept across the State following the Civil War, a period of mass development and speculation began. Many Kansas farmers worked under the handicap of a heavy mortgage from the beginning. In the early 1800's the pioneer farmers paid the interest on their mortgages by killing buffalo and selling their hides. After ruthlessly exterminating the buffalo, they paid taxes and interest by gathering buffalo bones and selling them to fertilizer manufacturers. 

In Missouri and other States eastward to the Alleghenies a new farm was un-mortgagable because no one would lend money on it until it was well improved and showed a profit. In Kansas, however, speculators acquired large areas of land during the frenzied boom days of the 1880's, lured prospective farmers to the treeless plains with promises of wealth, and sold them land on mortgage. The settlers, having acquired the land under this precarious title, were forced to borrow more money to buy material for improvements and for machinery and livestock. Thus mortgaged before the first plow was put to sod, a large proportion of Kansas farms never showed a profit. 

Hundreds of farmers were facing foreclosure in 1890. The record-breaking corn crop of 1889 had done little to relieve the situation. Hampered by their heavy mortgages and with the ever-present specter of drought, Kansas farmers needed both a bumper crop and a good price to break even. But a nationwide depression had lowered the price of farm produce so that corn sold as low as ten cents a bushel, and farmers sold their corn as fast as they husked it to meet interest at the bank. Most of the buyers were speculators who took advantage of the farmers' plight by driving a sharp bargain and holding the grain for a better price. One village banker boasted of buying thousands of bushels of corn at ten cents a bushel and selling it the following year for sixty-five cents. Crop failures in the 1890*5 brought foreclosures and tax sales. Gradually much of the land reverted to the speculators and farm tenancy began in Kansas, the land of opportunity. 

The Farmers' Alliance, which later became the Populist party, appeared at this time, advocating "free silver," a reform of the banking laws, and other measures calculated to enable the farmers to pay off their mortgages. In 1892 the Populists elected a Governor and succeeded in securing a majority in the State legislature. Some benefits resulted but on the whole the speculators and industrialists succeeded in defeating the aims of the Populists. 

Accompanied by a steady increase in farm tenancy, Kansas agriculture moved into the twentieth century and the motor age. The use of motorized farm machinery may be thought of as a third cycle in Kansas farming. In 1910 there were 1,150,000 horses and mules on the farms, and these draft animals provided a home market for $50,000,000 worth of Kansas' corn and other feed. But tractors began to replace draft animals in 1915 and the number of all kinds of tractors and motorized harvesters steadily increased. The greater efficiency of large-scale farming led naturally to the introduction of the combine; and the World War, through its enormous consumption of grain, accelerated its use. 

This machine, the mechanical answer to the demand for more wheat produced with less labor, harvests the grain in a single operation, threshes it, and pours it into motor trucks for shipment to the elevators. Its introduction materially reduced the number of "harvest hands," those picturesque laborers who crossed the State in an army during every harvest season (see Tour 4). Gone is the Kansas of which Vachel Lindsay wrote: 

And we felt free in Kansas From any sort of fear And 30,000 tramps like us There harvest every year. 

Horses also continued to increase in number until 1919, when they reached a peak of 1,300,000 draft animals; thereafter their number began to decline sharply. Seventeen years later (1936) motorized farming was at its height with 63,000 farm tractors and 24,000 combines; in the same year there were only 545,000 draft animals. 

As the overproduction of wheat and loss of foreign markets brought prices down, the wheat farmers, by improved technique, increased production in an effort to compensate for price losses. At this time the "suitcase farmers" entered the field. They were non-resident owners who had purchased large areas of land and hired farmers in the neighborhood to plow and seed them to wheat. The term, "suitcase farmer," has also been applied to the small town bankers and business men in the western Kansas wheat country who bought or leased lands and employed farmers to plant and harvest their crops for them. This practice, defended because it furnished employment for the farmers, was also widely condemned as mere speculation, not farming. It was not unusual for a single suitcase farmer to finance the planting of from 3,000 to 5,000 acres of wheat. With a crop once in five years he could make money, providing he received a good price for his grain. 

In 1914 under horse and mule power, Kansas farmers planted 9,000,000 acres and harvested 181,000,000 bushels of wheat which they sold for $151,500,000. In 1931, at the height of the motorized farming period, they planted 12,000,000 acres and raised 240,000,000 bushels which they sold for $81,500,000. Motorized farming surpassed the older type by a margin of 60,000,000 bushels of wheat in a year; but smaller crops brought greater financial returns. With machines the farmers raised more wheat, by 60,000,000 bushels, and received less money, by $70,000,000. The price per bushel was ninety cents in 1914 and thirty cents in 1931. 

Wheat is in some ways a substitute for corn, and the thirty-cent wheat pushed corn down to ten cents a bushel. Feeding this cheap grain to hogs and cattle in an effort to market it in the form of high-priced meat, the unfortunate farmers depressed the market for hogs to two-and-one-half cents a pound. It took a 200-pound porker to bring in a five dollar bill, just as in 1889 the farmers had to load fifty bushels of corn on a single wagon to get five dollars for one trip to market. 

It was not until 1914 that wheat acreage exceeded that of corn; there were 9,116,138 acres of wheat and only 5,279,552 acres of corn, the deposed king. This shift represented a sharp increase in wheat acreage rather than a heavy decrease in corn. Wheat reached a peak in 1931 with an acreage of 12,345,596; it dropped in 1933 to 5,755,328 acres, owing partly to the depression price of this grain, which caused many farmers to sow their land to other crops or let them lie fallow, and partly to the U. S. Agricultural Adjustment Administration program. In that year corn, with an acreage of 7,725,043, briefly regained its former supremacy. 

Hot winds and inadequate rainfall during the growing season resulted in a series of corn crop failures in eastern Kansas that brought hundreds of formerly prosperous farmers to the verge of bankruptcy. Desperately in need of a cash crop to meet taxes and interest in the fall of 1936, many of these corn growers tore down their corn field and pasture fences, sawed the hedge fence posts into stove wood lengths, and sowed the fields to wheat. The venture was successful. With a good yield and prices ranging from $i to $1.10 a bushel, profits were large. 

Consequently new wheat fields were planted in 1937 and the State's total wheat acreage leaped to the all-time record of 13,549,000. The purchase of tractors and combines absorbed much of the profits from the 1937 crop, however, and a short crop in 1938 with a much lower price gave the novice wheat growers a severe setback. Agricultural advisers had counseled against turning the fertile river valleys and glacial uplands into a one-crop country; their reasons for advocating diversification and a partial return to the old corn-hog economy were strengthened by weather conditions favorable for production of the traditional crop. Farmers who had stubbornly "stuck to corn" were able to fill their bins for the first time in five years, while their get-rich-quick neighbors were marketing a scanty wheat crop at less than sixty cents a bushel. Grain sorghum and other forage crops were cultivated with success and the replenished supply of grain for livestock feed brought beef and pork "on the hoof" back to deserted pastures and hog lots. 

In 1936 there were 174,580 farms in cultivation in the State, averaging 275 acres in area. Of these 96,896 were wholly or partially owned by their occupants, while 76,771 were occupied by tenants. Farms vary in size from lo-acre truck patches in the eastern river valleys to 50,000 acre ranches in some of the western counties. In sections of eastern Kansas, where rainfall is adequate and soil sufficiently fertile to permit intensive farming and wide diversification, 80 to 160 acres is normally a subsistence homestead. On the western plains where wheat is often the only crop, few farmers attempt to make a living on less than 240 acres and many wheat farmers plant several sections. 

The northeastern section of the State is regarded as part of the Corn Belt, especially Doniphan, Atchison, Brown, Nemaha, Jackson, Jefferson, Leavenworth, and Shawnee counties, which have large areas of rich glacial drift, and to a lesser degree the remaining counties in the northern tier as far west as Jewell County. Before the drought cycle of 193137, more than half of the average homestead of 160 acres was devoted to corn. The remaining portions of the typical Kansas corn-hog farms were pasture, and small fields of wheat, oats, or grain sorghum. The farmer developed the self-sustaining corn-hog economy by feeding his corn to the hogs to fatten them for market and selling the surplus grain. 

The river valleys of northeastern Kansas and the major portion of southeastern Kansas are devoted to general farming with diversified cultivation. The Flint Hills region, which is carpeted with blue-stem grass, is one of the finest grazing sections of the United States. West of an imaginary line extending north and south through Salina and Wichita to the Oklahoma Line is the winter wheat country, where until recent years, nearly one-half of the hard wheat in the United States was produced. 

Efforts at fruit growing, especially in eastern Kansas, met with phenomenal success during the early seventies. The Kansas horticultural exhibit at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 gave the State a widespread reputation. But, as the virgin soil was drained of its productivity, many orchards died and were never successfully replanted. The upland glacial drift in Doniphan County, however, still supports large apple orchards and the cultivation of this fruit is a leading industry in the areas along the great bend of the Missouri River. Strawberries are also grown in the three river counties. 

Broom corn is grown extensively in the southwestern corner of the State, in Seward, Stanton, Stevens, and Morton counties. Prior to the dust storms that accompanied the recent drought cycle, the towns of Elkhart and Liberal were among the largest shipping centers of this product in the world. Sugar beets are grown in the Arkansas River Valley near Garden City and Larned where large areas are irrigated. The cultivation of flax, which was an important crop before the introduction of winter wheat, has been revived to a considerable extent in recent years, especially in southeastern Kansas. Experts from the State College are urging farmers to grow flax on a larger scale. 

In the fertile valleys of eastern Kansas, particularly the Kaw Valley, potatoes and melons are major crops. In a good season the State produces 2,500,000 bushels of Irish potatoes. Alfalfa, a deep rooted drought-resistant hay, is important among the lesser crops. Introduced by Charles J. Grosse, of Marion, who planted 90 bushels of seed imported from California in 1869, its first recorded acreage was in 1891, when 34,384 acres were planted. A peak acreage of 1,277,875 was reached in 1918 and the ten-year average since 1927 has been approximately 750,000 acres. 

Kansas has never suffered from a lack of transportation from production center to market, owing to the fact that the State, after the first decade of immigration, was settled as part of a great railroad expansion scheme. But farmers during the past fifty years have had to fight ceaselessly against two enemies: land speculation and drought. Through the various agencies of the Federal Government the farmer of the "dust bowl" and semi-arid areas has managed to survive a long period of subnormal rainfall. Economically, central Kansas has weathered adverse climatic conditions better than the eastern and extreme western sections, as crop failures have been less frequent in the central part of the State. 

In general, the years of drought have considerably reduced the returns from Kansas agriculture; yet in one of the worst drought years, 1934, the wheat crop was valued at $67,205,989, and the corn crop at $9,183,968. The 1937 wheat crop was valued at $170,000,000. In 1933 Kansas livestock was valued at more than $100,000,000. Prior to the emergency drought programs of 1934 more cattle were raised on Kansas farms than in the days when the western part of the State was an open range. It is estimated (1937) that Kansas has nearly 3,000,000 cattle; 2,500,000 beef cattle, and 500,000 dairy animals. Approximately 2,000,000 hogs and 300,000 sheep are raised for market annually. 

In contrast to the reverses from drought and wholesale speculation are the benefits of scientific research carried out by trained workers at Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. After years of experimentation great improvement in production has been made by selection of the varieties of crops planted. The idea that "rain follows the plow," which grew up during the boom period of the 1880's, has finally been dis-proved. Farmers are now adjusting their methods to climatic conditions rather than to the futile hope that turning the sod of the arid High Plains will increase the annual rainfall. 

Drought resistant strains of corn and wheat have been developed, and farmers have learned through experience to diversify their crops. In recent years the acreage of grain sorghum, of which many varieties have been produced, has increased, especially in western areas where the rain fall is not adequate for growing corn and the soil has been pulverized to the danger point by a series of unsuccessful attempts to grow wheat. 

Nearly every Kansas county is receiving the benefits of the extension service conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture and Kansas State College. The three phases of this service include work with the farmers in agricultural methods, work with farm women in home economics, and work with boys and girls in the 4-H Clubs. 

"Through the development of the head, heart, hand, and health," writes M. H. Coe, State club leader, "comes the term '4-H,' which signifies the fourfold educational development or training which 4-H Club boys and girls must receive to insure success in any undertaking." Each club member selects a project designed to show some better practice on the farm or in the home. In 1933 there were 19,353 members in 100 counties with 26,239 completed projects. In the same year 4-H Club members made 4,321 entries at the Topeka and Hutchinson State Fairs and won $4,325 in prize money." The total value of products raised by 4-H Club members was $387,726. 

The long succession of abnormally dry seasons turned a considerable area in western Kansas into a near desert. Wheat planting had destroyed the natural coverage of buffalo grass and left the soil exposed to the ravages of drought and wind. By 1934 soil blowing had become a major problem, and by the following year the area affected had increased to 8,871,227 acres. Preventive measures adopted by the Federal Government and the State department of agriculture have largely checked the inroads of wind erosion. Submarginal land has been withdrawn from cultivation and in some areas efforts are being made to revive the buffalo grass pastures. By 1938 the Kansas dust bowl had almost disappeared, and soil drifting was confined to three or four counties in the extreme southwestern corner of the State. 

On the recommendation of the U. S. Farm Security Administration, the State department of agriculture, the State planning board, the agricultural extension service, and other conservation agencies, soil-building crops, such as the legumes, are now being planted and a far reaching program of water conservation and flood control has been adopted. 

Related Articles: 

  1. The Agrarian Crusade A Chronicle of the Farmer in Politics
  2. The Homesteader