Agriculture and Farming in Ohio

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P. Z. Blue's farm in Henry County, Ohio. Located five miles from Hamler, the farm consisted of a house and several outbuildings. Blue owned three farms consisting of more than 350 acres in 1910.

Throughout history, farming has been a major component Ohio’s economy.

The long history of agriculture in Ohio dates back to 5,000 years ago at the beginning of the Late Archaic Period. During this time, indigenous peoples domesticated local plants, including squash, sunflowers, goosefoot, maygrass, barley, and sumpweed. The domestication of these plants contributed to the rise of the cultural groups in Ohio, the Adena and Hopewell, who are most well-known for constructing Ohio’s mounds and earthworks. These early indigenous peoples practiced advanced farming methods, including genetically modifying their crops by selecting seeds from the most useful varieties for the following planting season. The Ohio Valley is considered one of five or size regions globally where ancient peoples domesticated local plants.

Into the historic period, American Indian people grew corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins. Besides multi-colored corn, they developed varieties of eight and ten-row corn. They also grew numerous varieties of beans, including kidney beans, navy or pea beans, pinto beans, great northern marrow beans, and yellow eye beans. The American Indians planted corn and beans in small mounds of soil and often pumpkins, squash, or melons in the space between. They also grew many other vegetables, including cabbage, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams, and onions and leeks. Europeans introduced the watermelon and muskmelon into North America in the seventeenth century, and American Indians in the interior were growing these fruits within a few years.

Europeans continued to rely on agriculture as the primary means of feeding one’s family as they moved into the Ohio country during the mid-to-late 1700s. Most of the original Europeans to settle Ohio raised wheat, corn, and other grain crops. By 1849, Ohio produced more corn than any other state, and ranked second in wheat production. In 1885, the most commonly grown crop was corn, followed by wheat, oats, potatoes, barley, rye, and buckwheat. Farmers in southern Ohio also raised tobacco. It was the major crop in southern Ohio by the 1830s. During the 1600s, 1700s, and the 1800s, many people believed that tobacco had medicinal qualities. Farmers in southern Ohio also grew hemp, which they used to make rope and cloth. Numerous Ohioans also planted orchards from seeds that they brought with them to the region or purchased from residents living east of the Appalachian Mountains. John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, played an important role in developing apple orchards in Ohio. Due to the climate, apples and peaches were especially easy to grow and became quite popular. Along the Ohio River, especially near Marietta, apple orchards flourished. Strawberries and Catawba grapes also grew well. Ohio farmers also raised livestock, most importantly cattle, sheep, and pigs. While all of these animals served as food sources for Ohioans, sheep also provided their wool to textile factories that opened in Ohio as early as the 1810s.

As Ohio's population grew in the nineteenth century, many residents began to diversify their economic interests. Some Ohioans even ventured into industry, but it is important to note that most early factories and industries grew out of Ohio's agricultural past. For example, by the 1810s, Dayton had a tobacco processing plant. Cincinnati became known as "Porkopolis" during the 1800s, because the city was the pork processing capital of the United States. Bezaleel Wells established a woolen mill in Steubenville in 1815, employing more than one hundred workers. Many manufacturers produced farming machinery, including Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey. McCormick invented the reaper, while Hussey developed an early version of the mower. Both of these men lived in Cincinnati during the 1830s. While some people developed new businesses, agriculture continued to dominate Ohio's economy. Many early businesses sold their products for grain crops. Many farmhands and skilled artisans also received payment in grain rather than in money. During the first half of the nineteenth century, a day's wages for a person was a bushel of wheat. Workers may also have been paid in corn at one and one-half bushels or in oats at three bushels.

Industries continued to grow as Ohio became more heavily populated and as available land became scarce. Production flourished in all types of factories and on farmlands as a transportation infrastructure came into existence. The first component of this system was paved roads and turnpikes. The National Road, the first paved (gravel) road to cross the Appalachian Mountains, connected Ohio with the East Coast by the late 1810s. These paved roads helped make transportation easier across the Appalachian Mountains, but most Ohio farmers who produced a surplus continued to sell their products locally or sent them down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. River traffic became even easier with the invention of steamboats. Canals arose during the 1820s and 1830s and diverted some of the traffic from the Ohio River especially in northern Ohio, where farmers sent their products across Lake Erie to the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal ended at the Hudson River in eastern New York, and provided a quick route to East Coast cities. The Ohio and Erie Canal also provided Ohioans with a navigable water route connecting the Ohio River and Lake Erie. By the 1840s and 1850s, railroads connected Ohio with much of the rest of the United States. This allowed farmers and businessmen to transport their products quickly and relatively cheaply to market.

The Ohio economy grew for most of the nineteenth century, and many people prospered. While some Ohioans began to invest in other businesses, the vast majority of Ohioans, like the natives before them, continued to farm the land to ensure their survival. By the late 1800s, Ohio farmers had a more difficult time earning a living off the land. Competition from states in the West reduced the prices that Ohio farmers could receive when they sold their crops. New farm machinery also was very expensive, forcing smaller farmers out of business because they could not compete with their larger neighbors. There were periods of success for Ohio farmers, especially during World War I and World War II, as the United States provided its allies with food, but farming, for the most part, was in decline. Ohio began to rely increasingly more on industry and less on agriculture by the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, a majority of Ohioans lived in urban areas and found employment in other industries besides farming. Still, agriculture remained an important segment of Ohio's economy during the twentieth and, now, the twenty-first centuries.

See Also