“When I was very small I can remember very clearly my grandfather and dad using horses for a lot of the work on the farm. I was probably too small to really be doing any work, but I thought I was doing a lot of the work. The horses were well trained, and I think I could have been gone and they would have worked by themselves.
“As I look back on things, I guess we were pretty busy. Fourth of July was a bigger holiday than it is now. Growing up on the farm here ... we always seemed to have time to play, time for recreation. It seemed even though we had less to work with at that time, we still had more time to visit with neighbors, to see more of the neighbors. A real interesting time, of course, was the thrashing season.”
You have just met Mike Whitty and his father, Bob Whitty. Mike and Bob, their wives and children, their fathers and mothers, and grandfathers and grandmothers—all the way back to the Civil War—have been farming this land near Reedsburg, Wisconsin since the days of the first settlers.
Let’s hop into our Hawkhill time computer and go back to those days, all the way back to the years just before the first Whittys came over here from Ireland to homestead this land.
In those days before Europeans came to Wisconsin, many different Indian tribes lived here. These Native Americans gathered wild nuts. Berries, fruits and vegetables. They caught fish in the clear lakes and rivers and hunted deer, beaver, muskrat and bear. Some of the tribes also grew small gardens of corn and squash, beans and pumpkins.
They knew, too, how to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. They knew the value of the wild cranberries that grew in wet bogs in the center of our state. They gathered wild rice that grew in our northern lakes. They were our first Wisconsin farmers.
Most of what is now Wisconsin was covered with forests or prairie grasses and oak tree openings in those days. When the first French explorers and fur traders came to this land, the Indians taught them how to raise corn, squash and beans—also how to girdle trees to clear the forests and open up some of the land for farming.
After the Erie Canal opened in 1815, more and more settlers began coming to Wisconsin from the east and from Europe. Almost ail of these Yankee, Irish, German, Norwegian and other immigrants who came to Wisconsin came to farm. And farm they did.
One of the reasons they came to Wisconsin was cheap land. A dollar and a quarter an acre in the early days. “Earthly Paradise!” one settler wrote. In fact, when the Homestead Act was passed in Congress, a family could come and claim 160 acres and if they made it into a working farm. the land was free!
“The Federal Government homesteaded this land to the Whitty family. By homesteading they mean they assigned it to the Whitty family with the promise
that the family at that time would develop it into a working farm. And it has been in our family name since the middle of the 1800s, about the time of the Civil War—before Wisconsin became a state. Our generation is the fifth or sixth generation to be on this farm—my wife and I and our children.”
After the first settlers cleared the land they planted crops. They grew crops like oats, rye, barley, corn and potatoes. But the most popular crop to plant was the one that would bring in the most cash money. In the early days this was wheat.
So much wheat was grown in Wisconsin, as a matter of fact, that we became known as America’s breadbasket. Wheat was king, people said. When the Civil War came, Wisconsin wheat was very important in feeding the northern soldiers. With so many farmers off to the war, machines were invented to take their place—or at least, help take their place.
Cyrus McCormick in Chicago invented reapers to cut the grain and rake it into bundles. Jerome Case in Racine developed a threshing machine that separated the wheat grain from the stalks or straw. Before that invention, cattle trampled over the grain plants to separate grain from straw. This method left the grain dirty. Also much was wasted and lost.
John Appleby in the small Wisconsin town of Mazomanie invented an important device that knotted the wheat stalks into bundles. These advances were useless, however, in stopping the invasion of chinch bugs in 1880. These parasites destroyed entire wheat crops. Then came another parasite, rust disease, which destroyed more wheat. Soils, too, became less fertile from growing the same crop year after year.
And finally, states to the west of Wisconsin were being settled now, and their soil and climate was better for growing wheat than ours was. Thus it was that in the late 1800s farmers began turning from wheat to dairy farming.
Wisconsin soils and climate and people turned out to be ideal for dairy farming. Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss cows were brought to Wisconsin. They gave good milk. Farmers also made some of the milk into good cheese.
Dairy farmers soon organized a dairy association to share ideas on how to improve their herds. William Hoard of Fort Atkinson started a magazine to help spread dairy information. It is still published today and read by dairy farmers around the country and around the world. It is called ‘Hoard’s Dairyman.”
In 1890 Stephen Babcock at the University of Wisconsin Agricultural School invented an important machine that could separate milk and measure the amount of butterfat. Now dairy farmers had the tools to improve the quality of their milk and keep it constant.
New and better seeds, fertilizers and insecticides were also developed at the Agricultural School and in private companies. All these helped the farmer do a better job. And helped all of us to get better food at a lower price.
In the 20th century, progress on the farm has continued. Let’s let Bob Whitty tell about one of the most important steps forward.
“I remember real well when we first got electricity here. Probably one of the biggest milestones in farming history as far as progress was concerned. Shortly after rural electrification, we were able to get a milking machine. Electric motors. Rural electrification really gave farmers an extra hand.
“In fall and winter time on the short day we needed one hand to carry a lantern with, and you could only work with one. Now we can turn a switch and work with both hands.”
In recent years progress on the dairy farm has, of course, continued. In fact, speeded up so that today Wisconsin produces more milk and dairy products than any other state. We’ll look at some of the recent changes in Part Two of this program on Wisconsin Agriculture.
Before we do that, though, we better not forget to point out that even though dairy farming is the most important agricultural industry in Wisconsin—not all farmers in Wisconsin are dairy farmers.
Cranberry growing, for instance, has also had a long successful history in Wisconsin. Cranberries grew wild here and were eaten by native Americans long before white settlers arrived. Since that time many farmers in central Wisconsin have begun to cultivate the flat peat bogs to grow cranberries commercially. Some years, in fact, more cranberries are grown in Wisconsin than in any other state.
Other farms in the state specialize in other crops. Some grow corn and hay, not for their own dairy cattle, but to sell as feed to other farmers. Potatoes are an important Wisconsin crop. Also sweet corn, peas, carrots, and lima beans are grown in large quantities to be frozen and canned for sale ail around the country.
Wild rice is still gathered on our lakes by Native Americans and sold in grocery stores around the country. Maple syrup is made in Wisconsin “sugar-bushes,” and honey is gathered by Wisconsin beekeepers. Cherries, apples and Christmas trees are important crops.
Our Wisconsin forests make us number one in the nation in paper production in the whole country. On many farms in the state, beef cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals are raised for market. Wisconsin farms also produce about one-fourth of the mink pelts of the nation.
Now you know a little of the history of Wisconsin agriculture. With that in mind, let’s jump now into our time computer and zip forward to take a look to see how Wisconsin Agriculture works today.
Part 2: Today
Do you like pizza? Wisconsin’s dairy farms produced enough mozzarella cheese to make over nine hundred million pizzas last year. That’s enough for everyone in Wisconsin to have four big pizzas a week.
Of course most of the pizzas—and cheese and milk and ice cream—made in Wisconsin do not get eaten in Wisconsin. We send them all over the country—in tact, all over the world!
Yes, agriculture is Wisconsin’s number one industry. In fact, about one out of every five workers in our state has a job that depends on agriculture for his or her livelihood.
And of all the kinds of agriculture in Wisconsin, dairy farming is number one. We are America’s dairyland. Wisconsin dairy farms produce more milk and dairy products than any other state in the Union. Dairy farming is also a way of life in Wisconsin. Let’s let Mike Whitty tell you first the basics of how it works.
“There are two basic operations that we have on our farm, two basic operations. One is the dealing with the cattle and feeding and raising, milking those cattle. And the other aspect of our farm is the developing of the crops and the feeding and the harvesting of the crops that we feed our cattle.
“Here we raise Holstein cattle, the big black and white cattle that you see. And these cattle are known for their milk production ... for their ability to turn roughage or a lot of lettuce and salad-type things into milk.
Then we have the crop end of the farm. In raising these crops, take a crop like corn, for example. We plow the ground or turn it over so we can plant the crops. And then we’ll work it down and make the seed bed so the plants and the seeds, corn kernels can grow well. And we’ll plant the crop. And then we’ll put fertilizer on it to make it grow better. And chemicals on the ground to help control the weeds and grass that would hurt the corn’s production. Then we wait and let the corn grow and mature and get ready to pick. Then we harvest the corn. And store it for feeding the cattle in wintertime.”
That’s the basics. Of course it isn’t quite that easy in practice. Wisconsin dairy farmers work a long day to produce all that feed and to milk and take care of all those cows. And remember, cows never take a day off, so they must be milked twice a day, 365 days a year (366 every leap year!). Here’s the way Mike’s wife, Robin, puts it.
“Dairy farmers don’t have a lot of time off. Mike has to milk the cows every day. So the kids and I sometimes go off by ourselves in the summer.”
On some dairy farms both husband and wife work at the basic farm work. On others, as on the Whitty farm today, the wife may have another career also. “Like a lot of farm families today, I have a separate career. I got my degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin and I teach music at eighth and ninth grade in Reedsburg.”
Dairy farming today requires large investments of money as well as time. Good land is no longer a dollar and a quarter an acre! More like a thousand dollars or more an acre! Barns and other buildings must be built and kept in good repair. Tractors, milking machines, and other farm machinery is a necessity. And it is expensive. So, too, are good cows. Here is one view of how it has changed in the last fifty years.
“Changes from horses to machinery were very gradual on this farm because my dad was a real horse lover. I think we did have the big change when rubber tires came on the tractors. Then the machinery gradually grew ... till today I guess any one of our tractors, even the smallest, would be worth more than our whole machinery inventory was worth in 1930 for example.”
Hard work and more investment in farming is only part of the Wisconsin dairy farmers’ story. They are also working much smarter! The result is they are much more productive today than they were fifty years ago. Much of this increase in smartness is due to the research of the University of Wisconsin Agriculture School. Both Mike and his father, Bob, graduated from this school.
Everyone knows in general about how this research has led to better cows, better hybrid corn, better crop management, contour plowing, water conservation, etc. Just as important—well, let’s let Mr. Whitty tell it.
“The most significant thing I learned in the agriculture school is I really believe how to keep on learning, how to keep on reading and how to understand what I read and how to evaluate what I would read from time to time. I think that was the function of the education. The Ag school was a tremendous school. It was staffed by wonderful great people as it is now. I really appreciated the college, the chance to go.”
When his son Mike went to University of Wisconsin Ag school, he saw it differently ... and the same.
“There were a lot of innovative ideas coming around at that time. A lot of different ways of looking at things. We learned a lot at that time how to apply different practices they were teaching you, the home situation. And adapting them to your own home situation on your own farm. That was a real day. And encouraging you to read and think on your own was real important. The reading and thinking and the encouragements to do that on your own was a real big part of my education in Madison.”
All of the parts of the dairy farming story in Wisconsin today could be retold, with interesting variations, using other Wisconsin crops. Cranberrying, for instance. Or potato farming. Chicken farming. Cattle ranches. Mink ranches. Peas, sweet corn, field corn, forestry. Even fish farming!
All of these important Wisconsin agricultural crops require machinery, expensive land, research and development, better genetics, new kinds of insecticides and herbicides to protect them, new kinds of irrigation rigs; the list is endless.
Farming, in other words, is no longer a business you can go into as the pioneers did, with little capital or experience. Some even wonder whether the little farmer. The family farmer. can survive in a world of big corporations and industries.
Mike Whitty thinks they can.
“Those farmers who can produce a good product and market a good product are going to be successful. The American people can know for sure that their food will be of high quality delivered as best as the farmer can control. They can be sure they’ll have enough to eat ... I genuinely hope that this farm will continue another generation or two in the Whitty name.
“I don’t really see the small farmer as moving out of agriculture. I see him as filling a bit different role possibly ... the economy of scale works only to the point of a manager’s ability to manage. A farmer who can manage a large farm well is going to succeed, and a farmer who can manage a small farm well will succeed.”