Soybean Farming in Butternut Valley Township (Part 1 of 2 parts)
Brian Wayne Wells
Although officially organized May of 1858, settlement in Butternut Valley Township, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, was still quite new in 1900. As previously noted, the first settlers in Butternut Valley Township raised wheat. (See the article called “Case Part II: Steam Engines and Threshers” in the March/April 2006 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.) Wheat was the predominate crop in Butternut Valley Township and the neighboring townships of Cambria, Judson, Garden City and Lincoln Townships. However, as the twentieth century progressed wheat production declined as corn replaced wheat on farms. By 1921, more that 109,778 acres of corn were planted and harvested in the whole of Blue Earth County while wheat acreage had decreased to 43,520 acres for the county as a whole. With the coming of the Second World War, production of corn continued dominate the agricultural landscape of Blue Earth County reaching 136,900 acres of corn harvested in 1943. Meanwhile, wheat production in Blue Earth County fell to a miniscule 7,600 acres in 1943.
During the same period of time, other changes were occurring on Blue Earth County farms that were reflected in the crops that were raised in the county. Acreage allotted to the raising of hay in Blue Earth County fell from 59,505 acres harvested in 1921 to 41,100 acres harvested in 1943. This reflected the fact that farmers were purchasing more farm tractors and selling off their horses. Consequently, they no longer needed to feed the horses all year long. Thus, the average farm could reduced the amount of hay raised each year. As a result, the average farm in Blue Earth County had acreage that could now be devoted to some other crop.
For a time in the 1920s barley production rose to fill this gap in production acreage on the average farm in Blue Earth County. In 1921, only 7,134 acres of Blue Earth County’s arable land was planted to barley. However, in 1927 barley acreage shot up to 12,300 acres. In 1928 barley acreage in the county doubled to 25,200 acres. Eventually, the dramatic growth of acreage planted to barley in Blue Earth County reached a total of 33,800 acres in 1938. However, barley production in Blue Earth County fell as dramatically as it had grown. By 1943, the acreage devoted to barley in the county fell to only 5,400 acres and in the following year (1944) barley acreage fell to a mere 700 acres in the county.
Coinciding with the decline in the production of in barley was a rise in the production of flax in Blue Earth County. In 1938 only 2,300 acres of flax had been raised in Blue Earth County. However, in 1939 flax acreage shot up to 11,900 acres. Blue Earth County production of flax continued to climb and in 1943, 20,300 acres in the county was planted to flax. However, in 1944, acreage planted to flax was cut in half—down to only 9,500 acres in the county as a whole. As suddenly as it had appeared, flax production fell to nothing. Farmers in Blue Earth County were turning to production of something else apart from wheat, apart from barley and apart from flax. The crop to which they turned was the lowly soy bean.
Native to the orient, where it was a staple of human consumption, the soybean was introduced in the United States in 1804. In 1879, two agricultural stations in New Jersey started growing and working with the soybean. Ten years later, in 1889, several more agricultural experiment stations were actively researching the soybean. In 1896, famous botanist George Washington Carver, from Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, discovered and refined over 300 by-products derived from the soybean. The two most important marketable products of soybeans were edible oil and meal. In 1922, the first soybean processing plant in the United States was opened.
However the soybean lacked a lucrative market for itself or any of its many by-products. Henry Ford set out, in the 1930s, to develop a market for the soybean. First he sought to make a bio-fuel from soybeans which would power the growing number of automobiles that were starting to populate the nation. (Robert Lacey, Ford: The Men and the Machine [Little Brown Co. Pub.: Boston, 1986] p. 231.) Only later, did he and his Ford Company engineers create a plastic from soybeans that could be used in the Ford car. (Ibid. p. 233.) In 1937, Ford built a soybean processing plant right on the grounds of the Ford Company Rouge Works factory located on the banks of the Rouge River in Detroit Michigan. (Ibid.) Soon, plastics comprised about two pounds of the weight of every Ford car manufactured. However, the two pounds of plastics in Ford cars were limited to small parts like insulated casings and knobs and buttons on the interior of the car. (Ibid.) This was still did not represent a major market for soybeans and their products.
Despite all this early attention and product research, the potential of soybeans remained unrealized—a promising product without a real market. Accordingly, soybeans remained a side line venture in agriculture until the Second World War. With the United States’ sudden entry into the war, there arose a real demand for clear lightweight plastics products—especially, for windshields and cowlings on military aircraft.
Stimulated by military purchases of airplanes fitted with plastic cowlings and windshields, the price of soybeans soared. Farmers began planting soybeans in a big way. The farmers of Blue Earth County followed this trend. In 1941, the last year before the war, only 3,400 acres of the arable land in the whole of Blue Earth County had been planted to soybeans. However, in 1942, soybean acreage in the county tripled—reaching 11,100 acres. By 1945, the acreage devoted to soybeans in Blue Earth County would nearly triple again—up 31,000 acres. Continue reading Soybean Farming in Butternut Township (Part I of 2 Parts)