The Minnesota River basin is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. A complex interplay of a number of natural forces made the soils fertile and our wide open rolling landscapes. This thirteen part series, Minnesota: Rivers and Fields, explores the natural history and ongoing agricultural development of this historic watershed, along with understanding the early humans and settlers who called the Minnesota River basin 'home.'
The series, produced by the University of Minnesota, Morris, begins by exploring the legacy of the glaciers, which just a short 10,000 years ago, covered the land beneath. These vast sheets of ice, miles upon miles thick, physically shaped the river basin and enriched the soil by depositing essential sediments and nutrients as these glaciers constantly expanded and retreated.
As this region warmed and the glaciers melted, prairie grasses began to dominate the valley. In order for this vast prairie ecosystem to grow, a region must have the right mix of precipitation and temperature. While forests grow best with higher rainfalls and cooler temperatures, prairie thrives in drier, warmer climates. The first inhabitants of this region relied on the prairie for resources such as food and shelter. The lush grass provided excellent forage for wild game such as deer and bison, while the prairie plants and seeds were key ingredients in early cooking.
While the first European-Native American contact happened during the early fur trade, it wasn't until European settlers arrived in the 1800s that the Native American's relationship with the prairie would change forever. European farmers, converting virgin prairie to cropland by plowing it up with a steel bottom plow powered by oxen, began to grow plants that weren't native to the region.
These early European farms were fairly self-sufficient, growing crops and raising livestock and poultry that would later be used for food. Early farmers began to use crop rotation techniques and mechanical controls to combat weeds and pests, and they hoped favorable weather would lead to a bountiful crop.
Over the course of the next century, farms began to grow and specialize in one or more commodities. As people moved from horsepower to steam, fewer people could farm more acres, resulting in increasing yields. With specialization, farm families began to buy many of their supplies in small towns or cities, and farmers stopped being so diversified. After 1900, most farmers in the Minnesota River basin were growing corn and soybeans using machinery that would plow, seed and harvest more than previously imagined.
Trends in livestock and animal science during the 1950s began to find their way onto the farm, Milking parlors that milk cows automatically along with hog and cattle confinement buildings are becoming common. Feeding and nutrition programs, from years of research, have also given the farmer an edge on animals that grow faster, larger and leaner.
While farming might be physically easier on farmers than it was decades ago, it is still economically challenging. Good weather and improved growing techniques have contributed to worldwide surplus in grains and livestock, which have driven commodity prices down. Many farmers have been forced out of business, leaving remaining farmers to choose a course of action that may or may not lead to prosperity. Some farmers have opted to make their operations larger, hoping selling more commodities will keep their farms viable. Others have opted to simplify their farms to reduce cost.
Today, a small number of farmers are working with the idea of value added products - products that can increase the value of a commodity by processing it locally and selling it. For two decades, ethanol is a prime example. Farmers form cooperatives and receive a profit from selling their grain and also from selling the ethanol.
Now, as we move into a new millennium, farming communities are dealing with difficult issues. As many farmers have lost their farms, our rural towns have grown smaller. Falling commodity prices are not only creating economic stress for farmers, but social and personal stress at well. Now, as economic stresses threaten farming communities and concern for the environment causes many people to re-evaluate our use of the land, farmers, scientists and economists are working to find ways to keep farming economically viable while preserving our land for future generations.
Minnesota: Rivers and Fields aired on Pioneer Public Television out of Appleton, Minnesota and
KTCA in the Minneapolis/St. Paul.