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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Wisconsin's Economy has Deep Roots in Agriculture


WUWM begins a week-long look at the state's food economy in our series, Project Milwaukee: What's on Our Plate? The foods that are grown here have always been intertwined with the state's history. Some analysts believe food is also key to the region's future. In our first installment, Ann-Elise Henzl reports on how Wisconsin became so closely associated with food.

Indigenous people hunted and gathered in this part of the world for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that food became the center of commerce. That's when Europeans started flowing into the area.

"They wanted land that was suitable for farming, they wanted woods where they could get their building supplies from, a source of wood for heating. They liked marshy areas where they could harvest the native hay crops. Also, parts of Wisconsin were very similar to parts of Germany, Norway, Sweden," says Bryan Zaeske, the historic farmer at Old World Wisconsin.

"And it wasn't just the people from Europe that were coming. You also had people that were moving from the northeast part of the United States. We're talking about the early 1800s here, and already they were wearing out the land in the New England states and were moving west looking for better farmland," Zaeske says.

Zaeske walks me through a couple of the farmsteads at the historical site. We pass a huge pig, who's eating corn kernels scattered about the pasture. Zaeske says farmers realized the fertile land could grow crops that pigs ate. The livestock would be fattened and sent to market.

"They had to be moved from point A, the farm, to point B, where they could either be loaded onto railroad cars and moved, or where there was a facility -- especially like in Milwaukee -- where already they had places where they were slaughtering animals and salting the meat or doing whatever processing that they were doing with the meat at that time," Zaeske says.

Farmers also invested in dairy cows. Swiss immigrants brought their knowledge of cheese, and started to produce and sell it. But the biggest cash cow was wheat. Milwaukee historian John Gurda says farmers here were growing so much wheat, that it supplied eastern states and global markets, where growing conditions were poor.

"This is where the price of wheat was set internationally -- among the markets that really was the price maker for a world-wide industry," Gurda says.

Gurda and I chatted at the Grain Exchange building in downtown Milwaukee, where the prices were set by buyers and sellers in the late 1800s.

"Right in middle of the floor in the Grain Exchange, this is the place where they had the pit. And it actually was not a depression, it was actually an elevated platform. And it would put the traders in close proximity to each other, so they would say 'buy sell, buy sell, buy sell,' very fast, very fast -- kind of a lightning round," Gurda says.

Gurda says pictures from that period capture some of the activity as traders sifted their hands through bins of grain.

"There's wonderful old photographs of these guys in their fancy hats and their ties, kind of getting the feel of what winter wheat was doing in this particular harvest. People had a sense -- a nose for quality and a sense for what the market was doing as well," Gurda says.

Gurda says the wheat grown in Wisconsin and surrounding states was funneled through Milwaukee because it offered the best natural harbor on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He says the federal and local government and investors committed huge amounts of money to improve the port, and build a network of railroads to move grain throughout the Midwest.

"The fact that we had rail access to the interior, interfacing with the port, really helped Milwaukee thrive in what could have been the suffocating shade of Chicago," Gurda says.

Agriculture also spawned related businesses and jobs. For instance, Gurda says farms were connected to banking.

"Places like Northwestern Mutual. In the 19th century, the heart of their portfolio was mortgages on Wisconsin farms, so they were a major investor in farmland in Wisconsin in the Milwaukee area and far beyond," Gurda says.

And agriculture helped the area gain its reputation in manufacturing. The Case company in Racine, for instance, became the largest manufacturer of farm implements in the world.

"The first products were essentially made to make plowing easier, made to make digging through the dirt faster and less of a task for the farmer and for the farm animals," says Chris Paulson, executive director of the Racine Heritage Museum.

"Gradually, Case put horsepower to different uses and had animals pulling different parts of machines, grinding and creating threshing machines. And then the natural evolution of that was to apply the steam engine to the process of harvesting, threshing, baling, sorting -- anything that you would do with a crop in the field," Paulson says.

By the end of the 1800s, inventors here were creating everything from machine parts to storage units for harvested crops.

Throughout the 1900s, the face of the state's food economy started to evolve.

Corporations began gobbling up many family farms. So did developers. And supermarkets started offering foods from around the globe, while processed items grew in popularity.

Bryan Zaeske, the farmer at Old World Wisconsin, says eventually the public became disconnected from the land.

"A lot of people think that pork chops come from the grocery store, that there's not the farmer that breeds the animals, raises them, feeds them -- and that's the step into getting it to the grocery store," Zaeske says.

However, there are now movements underway to return to more locally-produced foods. We’ll report on that subject later this week as our Project Milwaukee series continues. And Tuesday, we’ll explore the wide variety of food products that you might not realize come from Wisconsin.