Full Plate Series Kickoff: Exploring Wisconsin's Connection To Agriculture

Like most major metropolitan areas, there was a time when most of southeastern Wisconsin was farmland.  And while the area that surrounds the city of Milwaukee is today home to suburbs and exurbs, there is still much evidence of our agricultural heritage - in many cases, a living heritage.

This summer, Lake Effect is exploring what agriculture means to our region in a series called Full Plate. Help us shape this series, what questions do you have about food and its production?

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Lake Effect kicks off the series by sharing an overview of agriculture here; a topic that contributor and Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek knows well. 

Brief History of Agriculture in Southeastern Wisconsin

"Milwaukee Feeds and Supplies the World" was first used as a slogan in 1898.
Credit MILWAUKEE PUBLIC LIBRARY

"I always like to say that we've got one hip pressed against all that fresh water and then another cheek pressed against one of the seven great rivers of the world," Cherek explains.

For much of Wisconsin's economic history, its placement next to Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River had a great deal to do with its success and domination of the national and global market. Until the end of the 1800s; Cherek says, Milwaukee was the premier Great Lakes port - primarily shipping wheat.

However, since wheat crops deplete the land quickly, farmers introduced pigs and cows to reinvigorate the soil.

"Out of that pork and dairy industry grew our agriculture," Cherek explains. "So you need to grow things to feed them - you realize you need to rotate those things and have cover crop.  Well, if you’ve got that cover crop like soy - which we are one of the biggest producers in the world, you’ve got that to sell."

With the boom of more diverse crops also came the additional infrastructure to support the rotational sales of corn, wheat and soy.

"When the national freeway system came through with (President Dwight) Eisenhower, Wisconsin as a state had more paved roads than any other state in the union, because our farmers needed to get their produce and their grain and their animals to market," Cherek says.

Wisconsin is still a state that relies on traditional crops, but a shift that started in the early twentieth century has diversified our offerings. He explains that we now are great producers of things such as mint oil, sweet potatoes and cranberries.

Reliance on Food Jobs

"When you look at census data and there's the categories of 'food jobs' - we're in the 90th-plus percentile for all of those jobs in Southeastern Wisconsin except for two," Cherek says.

He also says that for all of the physical food and products grown in Wisconsin, there is also a great supply of human resources in agriculture.

"I'm not talking about brats and beer, I'm talking about the technology," says Cherek. "If you need a really good chemist within flavorings or malting or brewing...they're probably walking down the street in downtown Milwaukee or one of the suburbs."

Tradition Continues

Today, the tradition of agriculture and food knowledge continues through many outlets such as farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, home pickling and canning, and more stores that simply get their stock from local farms.

"Food is the story of humanity," says Cherek. "When we domesticated crops 10,000 roughly BCE, it changed everything. And we've been living for better or for worse in sync with that experience and either heeding it or fighting with it ever since."