Dairy to Ducks
Illinois’s oddball agriculture
See Illinois (unpublished)
More stuff from the cluttered attic that is the manuscript of my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. Whether one looks at acres planted, environmental effects, or gross receipts, agriculture in Illinois appears to mean corn and soybeans, two particular crops raised in particular ways on particular kinds of land. Farming in Illinois means lots of other things, however. The details of these accounts are now dated, but the essential fact—that Illinois agriculture is more varied and interesting than the stereotyped version—remains accurate.
Where terrain permits it—mainly on the river bottoms and the uplands between streams—the corn and beans duopoly prevails in Illinois. However, three factors keep corn and beans from perfect dominance. Not all land in Illinois is suitable for mechanized, industrial-scale grain production. For one thing, much of the local upland surface in western Illnois is older and thus more incised by streams, leaving fewer of those famously plowable expanses common elsewhere in Illinois.
Local demand creates markets for specialty crops in some parts of the state. In northern Illinois, the region’s nearness to hungry Chicagoans created a market for fresh dairy products and truck crops that local farmers were, and are, eager to supply; for instance, the sandy soils in the western reaches of the region are excellent for melons, and once the railroads provided a means to quickly get such perishable produce to market, towns like Thomson became centers of the melon-growers’ art.
Finally, commercial canneries have created markets for agricultural exotica. West of Rochelle in Ogle County, for example, extensive fields of asparagus line the highway for two miles, fields that supply a local cannery. The Kishwaukee River valley boasts a fifth of Illinois’ acreage of vegetables and sweet corn, which keep the more than 400 people who work in the Pillsbury/Green Giant plant in Belvidere busy. There is enough popcorn grown around Shannon to supply not one but two popcorn processing plants.
Land in northern Illinois that is too steep or thin for optimum corn or soybean cultivation can grow grassy crops too—hays and oats mainly—that can be fed to livestock. Only one Illinois county has more grassland, measured in both acreage and percentage terms, than does Stephenson County. As for forage crops, of the state top ten producers of oats in the late 1990s, seven (including the top six) were in old Sinnissippi.
Animals are magic machines that can convert low-value hay into high-value meat. Farmers in Sinnissippi rely more on cash from livestock sales than does the typical Illinois farmer. Three-fourths of all farm receipts in the Driftless Area come from the sale of livestock. Nearby Henry County is one of the several self-proclaimed “Hog Capitals of the World” in Illinois, whose porcine population in 1999 numbered more than 200,000; De Kalb County also is among Illinois’s Top 10 hog producers. Hogs are big in western Illinois too; see Hogs R Us.
Counting dairy cattle and calves, seven of Illinois’s top ten cattle counties were in northern Illinois, including No. 1 Carroll County, which in 1999 had more than 46,000 head of all kinds.
The authors of the 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois, motoring south from Savanna on what is today’s Illinois Route 84, called attention to the Texas-born Herefords that they saw gracing the hillsides in Carroll County. That part of the state mains the best place in Illinois to raise beef. Jo Daviess County is a perennial top producer, counting nearly 17,000 head of beef cows in 1999.
Dairy cattle have likewise figured in Sinnissippi agriculture. Milk must be handled fresh, so herds tend to congregate near big markets like Chicago. In 1999, five of Illinois’s top ten counties for milk cows—Stephenson, Jo Daviess, Boone, Carroll, and Winnebago, with more than 34,000 head among them—were located in Sinnissippi. The sight of grazing animals on hillsides is iconic, and adds to the Wisconsin-ish feel of the place.
In 1888, a condensed milk plant opened in Dixon, in part because an artesian well there supplied plenty of cold water used for refrigeration; located just west of the city limits, it was then the largest plant of its kind in the world. The western parts of Sinnissippi also were dotted with smallish, family-owned cheese-making plants. A few of the latter survive. One is the Torkelson Cheese Co. in Lena. Another is the Warren Cheese Plant, which produces 4.5 million pounds of cheese a year including its own Apple Jack variety as well as string cheese (“You have never tasted string cheese until you have tasted ours”).
Cheese-making was once a commonplace domestic chore but today is exotic enough to attract eager tourists. In 1914, Chicago cheese wholesalers J. L. Kraft & Bros. Co. opened the first cheese factory of their own in Stockton, having bought a local creamery. Within a year they begin producing for a class of customers for whom their newly patented “process cheese” was an improvement—the armed forces in the field during World War I. Today, the majority of Swiss cheese produced by Kraft General Foods Company is made at the Stockton plant.
As is true of hogs and other livestock, the dairy business is in decline in Illinois, succumbing to more efficient corporate-scale operations in other states. Painter George Atkinson, one of the “Heartland Painters” and a specialist in Illinois landscapes, has undertaken to document the state’s vanishing family-owned dairy farms such as the Offenheiser Guersney farm outside Elizabeth via line drawings of astonishing photographic realism.
Beef cattle, hogs, and dairy cattle are the local mainstays but animal husbandry in the region has a whiff of the Ark about it. Sheep are common enough that drivers do not stare when encountering one. Hanover can plausibly call itself the "Mallard Capital of the World" thanks to the firm known as Whistling Wings, which calls itself the world's largest mallard duck hatchery. The company annually supplies some 200,000 ducks all over the world, to restaurants, to hunt clubs (where they are used to train hunting dogs) and to taxidermists wanting perfect birds on which to show off their skills.
Southern Illinois's original settlers brought with them traditions of subsistence farming, because such farming offered independence. Vestiges of that earlier, simpler farm life persist. The mule for example remained an honored part of farming in Egypt for years after it had been replaced by tractors in the rest of Illinois. The region did not only use the half-horse, half-ass but bred them. In the 1930s the main attraction of the annual Enfield Homecoming Day was a mule sale, prior to which the animals were paraded through the streets along with the local VFW and high school bands. (Enfield’s Mule Day started in 1921 and survives as one of the oldest festivals in southern Illinois.) Athletes of the Fairfield High School in Wayne County are known to this day as the Fightin' Mules.
Nowhere in Illinois is agriculture more perfectly adapted to corn-and-bean farming than in the Grand Prairie of east central Illinois, but even here the chat at the coffee shop can turn to the exotic, agronomically speaking. Many Kankakee valley soils, for example, are sandy and less fertile than the loamy, loess-based soils familiar from the rest of the Grand Prairie. Area farmers have specialized in crops suited to these conditions. The region has a relatively larger acreage planted in such truck crops as sweet corn, melons, dry onions, and head cabbage, flowers, and sod.
There is a lot of sand in the soils along the eastern banks of the Illinois River in central Illinois. it is perfect medium for growing melons and squashes of all kinds. Beardstown has long called itself the Watermelon Capital of the World, which is dubious, but it is probably the watermelon capital of central Illinois, which to local residents is just as important. Upstream, around Morton, just east of Peoria, is pumpkin territory. Each fall, more than 100,000 tons of pumpkins are canned at plants in “The Pumpkin Capital of the World,” which supplies about 80 percent of the canned pumpkin consumed nationwide.
A disproportionate share of Illinois’s nursery and greenhouse acreage is in east central Illinois. Gladiolus for example is a major crop near Momence, and Onarga in Iroquois County is home to a major supplier of seedlings to suburban garden shops. Like so many Illinois cities, Pana in the 2000s boasts of what it used to be, in this case the City of Roses. A commercial grower named Nelson started the local rose-growing industry in the early 1900s, finding that Pana had two advantages that uniquely suited Pana to the greenhouse business. For one thing, the town enjoyed excellent rail links to the rest of the nation that made the delivery of still-fresh flowers feasible. Another advantage was a quirk in the climate that was thought to make Pana one of the least likely places in the country to have a hail storm–important in the days when greenhouses were glazed with glass panes.
In time, other firms opened, until six major wholesalers were producing nearly 20 million roses a year in Pana. At the industry’s peak there was more than local 100 greenhouses, operated by several firms that shipped cut roses in the tens of millions. Recently, however, local nurseries could not compete with South American growers; the airplane gave the latter access to international markets much the way the railroads had given Pana growers access to national ones.
As for brooms, that part of Douglas County that rolls from Arcola south for 25 miles to Neoga constitutes what used to be Illinois’s broom corn belt. Sorghums are grown for grain, for fodder, or for making molasses. The dried leaves of one variety, Sorghum vulgare, make perfect bristles for brooms. Broom corn plant was important all over Illinois in the 1800s, and each region had its own “broom corn capital.”
For years, east-central Illinois was the largest producer of the plant. In the 1890s the Barnums in charge of the street fair in nearby Sullivan built a Broom Corn Palace to promote the broom corn raising east of town. Located at the intersection of Harrison and Main, it was covered and thatched with broomcorn and was large enough that horse-drawn vehicles could pass through it.
As recently as 1935 there were 60,000 acres of broom corn under cultivation in the Arcola area. But even today’s nimble farm combines are not capable of the complex operations required for its harvest, and the cost of hand harvest labor doomed broom corn cultivation. Most factories suffered the fate of the one near El Paso, near Bloomington-Normal, whose Utility Broom Co. closed in 1925.
The local industry today devotes itself to processing fiber harvested elsewhere. Arcola’s Libman Company may be the world's largest broom manufacturer. Arcola also is home to the Thomas Monahan Company, the world's largest broom corn broker, and to the monthly Broom, Brush & Mop, which has been read attentively by manufacturers (today more than 1,300) since 1912.
In addition to its contribution to the local domestic product, the broom corn business is a lovely excuse for the rollicking Broomcorn Festival held every September. Centerpiece of the fun is the Broomcorn Festival Parade which features, among other thrills, performances by the Lawn Rangers, the local precision lawn mower drill team whose exploits have been recounted to an amused nation by one of its members, syndicated humorist Dave Barry.
Some of the Germans in the American Bottom planted horseradish. Yes, horseradish. Collinsville calls itself the Horseradish Capital of the World, which is not something that a town is likely to do without reason. The fields around Collinsville yield one of the more exotic of Illinois’s contributions to the nation’s palate. More than half the U.S. horseradish crop–more than nine million pounds–is harvested from Madison and St. Clair counties.
The crop was introduced by German immigrants, who grew it back home. From the late 1800s into the 1920s, Illinois was to horseradish what California was to be to airplanes, accounting for 80 percent of the U.S. production. Since the 1920s, the state’s share has dwindled, mainly because of diseases that ruin the pungent roots. University plant wizards are trying to stop the slide, partly by enabling Illinois farmers to grow more by using disease-resistant varieties, partly by persuading a generation of Americans that has learned to like hot flavors in condiments that horseradish is a “low-calorie” and “natural” alternative to salsa.
Since the 1980s Collinsville has held an International Horseradish Festival each year; travelers should be aware that the “Collinsville Burger” served at the Sandwich Shop on West Main Street comes topped with a horseradish/mustard sauce made from homegrown horseradish that departs vividly from the usual roadside fare.
Cheap artificial fertilizers have made corn and soybeans the staples of southern Illinois agriculture since the mid-twentieth century (although yields are consistently lower than elsewhere in Illinois), but farming has always been a more miscellaneous enterprise in Egypt than anywhere else in the state. The list of crops grown in Egypt in the old days makes farming in southern Illinois sound more like hunting and gathering than modern commercial agriculture. In addition to the staples of grains, hogs, cattle, and poultry, area farmers harvested maple syrup, honey, grapes, roots, berries, crab apples, plums, persimmons, mushrooms, nuts, fish, deer, and fowl; in the 1830s, Sparta and Chester were national centers of castor oil production.
The Civil War cheated Northern mills of their usual supplies of cotton from the South, and cotton was king in the region for a while. But the crop was quickly deposed as a pretender after the war.
Tobacco had always been grown for personal use by early Egyptian farmers. But the Civil War opened commercial possibilities for it too, when prices more than tripled. In 1863 more than 20 million pounds of leaf were harvested in Illinois, all of it from southern Illinois, but by the 1890s it was again little more than a hobby crop.
There was a boom in wheat planting in the 1850s that saw southern Illinois farmers boost planting of that staple six-fold. Illinois was a major wheat grower for some years after that; World War I brought another boom in demand which brought more land into wheat. But the region’s soils and terrain are not really suited to that grain, and profits proved scarce except when prices were at their highest, and wheat farming too become a minor sideline of the region’s farmers.
The hills and hollows of southern Egypt are especially clement for fruit. The southernmost counties enjoy a relatively long (for Illinois) average frost-free growing season of 230 days. The terrain creates “microclimates” that are free from drastic temperature fluctuations; the freezing air that sometimes rolls into the region in spring after the trees have budded slides down the into the ravines away from fruit growing on the ridgetops.
In the 1840s, English visitor William Oliver passed through Vandalia, where “I do not think I ever saw or tasted finer apples. . . . . Apple trees grow [here] with great rapidity, and get to a large size in not many years.” Some orchards in that era numbered 1,000 trees in many varieties growing on grafted stock, most of which went into cider. For many years after the Civil War, strawberries constituted the region’s principal fruit crop. (Irvington, in Washington County, was center of production in the 1890s, when some of the local strawberry patches covered a hundred acres.)
Berries and orchard fruit remained a mainly local delicacy, however, until the invention of refrigerated rail cars enabled growers to deliver fresh fruit in one day to hungry Chicago buyers. Centralia’s situation near the heart of the southern Illinois fruit belt explains why that city was the site of early attempts to produce refrigerated cars; in 1868 the Thunderbolt Express, said to be the first temperature-controlled fruit train in America, began regular operation between Centralia and Chicago.
In time many such trains rolled out of southern Illinois bound for Chicago and St. Louis from Anna, Dongola, and similar towns. A minor crop in statewide terms, fruit was locally crucial, especially in and around Union County. Between 1900 and 1930, Balcom got fat on fruit. (The local specialty was a cantaloupe known as the Balcom Gem.) Enough fruits and vegetables were shipped out of Cobden that several box and crate factories set up shop there, and the People’s Fruit and Vegetable Shipper’s Association constructed a large market facility in 1934; to this day Cobden High School athletes are known as the Appleknockers.
Edgar Allen Imhoff, in his memoir of growing up in the southern half of Jackson County in the 1930s, Always of Home, described how trainloads of the local delicacies were sped toward market.
Each night of the season, I would wait on an elevated platform in Murphysboro, with the rest of an icing crew composed of old men and boys, while boxcars and boxcars of peaches were pushed onto the siding by the ice plant. When the train stopped, we boys on the crew would leap on top of the boxcars (“recklessly,” said the old men), open the lids of the refrigeration bunkers, and frantically fix a portable chute between the platform and the boxcars. Then, we would leap about from platform to car to platform breaking ice and shoving blocks of it down the chutes to fill the bunkers that would “ice” the peaches. The old men would supply us with big cakes of ice and would curse and laugh to see us getting so little done with so much energy . . . . By the time we iced the last of the peaches, it was the wee hours of the morning.
Alas, good prices tempted too many growers to plant too many trees. Sociologist Jane Adams notes that the collapse of the wheat market after World War I freed up land that many Union County farmers put into peaches, which were then earning as much as $3,000 per acre. The number of local peach trees jumped from 270,000 in 1920 to 540,000 in 1930, which created a price-wrecking oversupply.
Worse, the same transportation innovations—refrigerated rail cars and later, trucks—that opened Chicago to southern Illinois fruit later opened it to fruit from other places. New growers in Western states in particular—with federally-subsidized irrigation water, year-round growing season, bigger spreads worked with cheap Mexican labor—could deliver more and better-looking fruit.
Out-packaged and out-advertised, Egyptian growers by the 1950s watched their markets disappear as Illinois supermarkets filled up with fruit from the other areas. A local canning industry, which would have eased local dependence on the fresh fruit market, never developed.) As had happened with cotton and tobacco and wheat, the fruit boom went bust. In 1925, nearly 37 percent of all farms in the region had peach orchards; by 1954 only 5 percent still raised peaches for market; as of 2001 there were barely 900 acres of peach orchards in Southern Illinois. (The numbers of farms raising apples showed a similar decline.)
The region’s past as a fruit-growing center lives on in the town names. There is an Orchardville in Wayne County, and Berryville, a hamlet few miles west of Jonesboro, was named for the strawberry nursery there. It survives too in the local culture. Du Quoin hosts an annual Pear Festival. A Peach Festival, complete with the coronation of a queen, is held in Cobden during August; over in Murphysboro folks call their Apple Festival the longest, continuous running festival in Southern Illinois. The last event—held every year second weekend after Labor Day—draws thousands to apple pie- and apple butter-making contests (followed by an auction of the winners), an apple pie-eating contest, an international apple peeling contest, and of course a Miss Apple Festival pageant.
Southern Illinois's traditions of subsistence farming have been much battered in 175 years, with much ground surrendered to the exigencies of commercial industrial agriculture. But farming in the parts of the region has long been more like the farming of a century ago than in any other part of Illinois outside its Amish communities. Farms are often rented, are less mechanized than in northern counties, and many are too small to support a family. Much of the “farming” done in the region is done by pensioners augmenting their retirement checks, or exurban hobbyists, or people with off-farm incomes who raise a few cattle in order for their land to be classified as a farm for tax purposes.
In an era in which even Illinois’s most sophisticated, best-capitalized farms, working its finest soils, are struggling, does farming have a future in southern Illinois as anything more than a hobby? During the Depression, some farmers were driven to selling bird houses they made from tree branches or honey they collected from wild bees. These days, the whole industry is being counseled to do much the same. Experts are urging Egypt farmers to diversify, to find new markets, new products. new ways to use land—timbering, grape growing, aquaculture, hydroponics, shrimp farming, fee hunting (an indirect method of the original settlers’ reliance on the rifle to augment the family larder) and the cultivation of specialty crops such as herbs. The new farm future envisioned by the experts looks an awful lot like Egypt’s farm past. ●