a large portion of my time over the past several months has been devoted to uncovering the story of how Elkhart County’s agricultural industry has developed over the last 150 years.
When I began research on this topic last fall, I admit that I did not think I would uncover a whole lot of exciting history. I was raised on a small farm in the massive corn-producing region of southeast Iowa. When I moved to Elkhart County four years ago, I failed to recognize that an agricultural industry even existed. I did not see the rows of corn and soybeans stretching beyond the horizon which I associated with farming. I assumed that because these crops were not being produced, farming was not a significant industry in the county.
Indiana is, by many standards, a very typical Midwestern farm state. The state’s top agricultural outputs are corn and soybeans. In 2007, Indiana’s ranked fifth in the nation in grain crop sales. However, Elkhart County does not rank highly among grain producing counties, ranking fifty-fourth out of ninety-two Indiana counties. Instead, the county ranks first in the production of corn for silage — an economically efficient form of dairy cattle feed. For the past 150 years Elkhart County has served as a leading producer of dairy products in Indiana and today remains the largest dairy producer in the state.
Elkhart County has maintained the strength of its agricultural industry without conforming to national trends. While many farms across the country have steadily grown in acreage, Elkhart County farms have remained surprisingly small. While the statewide average farm is 242 acres, the average size of farms in Elkhart County is just over 100 acres. What explains this difference, I wondered.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Elkhart County farmers continually searched for new ways to achieve prosperity in the agricultural industry. Local farmers proved extremely creative and resourceful. They experimented with different crops such as onions, celery, peppermint, and hemp. While many of these industries died out over time, Elkhart County’s dairy industry remained intact. From the sources I had available, three distinct trends emerged that help explain the development of Elkhart County’s unique agricultural demographics: close proximity to large urban markets, unique soil conditions, and the presence of a thriving Amish community.
Elkhart County’s close proximity to the large urban markets of Chicago and Indianapolis allowed farmers easy access to a large number of buyers, providing the county’s farmers with an advantage over farmers in the southern portion of the state. Following Chicago’s rise in the 1850s, production of wheat skyrocketed in the county, solidifying the county as a top agricultural producer. Eventually, dairy farmers would rely on these markets as well.
Elkhart County’s short growing season, combined with its unusual soil types would not support the specialized commodity production of corn. Farmers responded by seeking alternative crops. Fueled by the ease of access to large urban markets, the county’s farmers would prove extremely resourceful in their efforts to produce commodities such as onions, hemp, peppermint, and celery. However, a majority of farmers found that the county’s climate and location among major markets made livestock production more profitable. By 1920 dairy emerged as the county’s primary cash commodity.
Elkhart County’s large population of Anabaptist religious groups also set the county apart from most other regions of the Midwest. Early Amish settlers, for example, brought a tradition of agricultural innovation and livestock production to the county. As they sought new markets to sell crops in an expanding market economy, Amish farmers fluently merged their unique agricultural traditions with modern technologies and markets. As a result, the Amish emerged as one of the most capable producers of crops for market through much of the 20th century. However, due to cultural and religious beliefs, Amish farmers did not follow national trends in the same way as many of their non-Amish counterparts past the year 1920. For this reason, Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and similar cultural groups can be seen as the source of Elkhart County’s high number of farms and relatively small farm size. Together, these three characteristics of the county produced an agricultural industry like no other in the state.
This image of the Howard Dausman farm in Union Township foreshadows the enormous technological changes that would alter agriculture and farm life in the twentieth century.