Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Farm States of South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

The areas suitable for plow agriculture in the Great Plains is affected by past glaciation.  Great glaciers covered much of North America during the Pleistocene (~2.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), and as they they receded they left behind a deep and fertile soil covering. The glaciers did not reach everywhere.  In the Dakotas, they traced a diagonal line from midway on the western border of North Dakota toward the northeastern corner of Kansas. South of the glacial line, the top soil today consists primarily of thin layers of windblown loess not suitable for plow agriculture. 

Physical divisions of U.S. and maximum extent of
glaciation/USGS map

South Dakota

We followed the Bad River Valley east along highway 14 from Wells, South Dakota, towards Pierre (pronounced Pier by the locals) the state capitol, on the Missouri River. This area, south of the line of glaciation, is dominated by cattle ranching and small irrigated crops over an undulating western landscape.
Bad River drainage, South Dakota/Platek
In Pierre we swam in the Missouri River and hobnobbed with local Trump voters. Three young city employees tended a well kept river-front park with weed-whackers. Others were setting up for a local hog farm's annual barbecue in the park. "I'm 24 years old, and I have to pay $400.00/month to add my two year old to my health plan," complained one of the city workers. "I still support Trump. Perhaps he'll make a difference." He was a friendly young man. He sounded less than adamant. Perhaps he'll be receptive to a pitch for universal health care from Bernie?

Pierre, South Dakota/s3.amazonaws.com
The Missouri River forms a distinct boundary line between ranching and plow agriculture. Moving east from Pierre along highway 14 we drive over glacial till next to fields of alfalfa, canola, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat. The terrain is flat, treeless, and the crops stretch wide across the horizon.

South Dakota has a small population of 865,000, but it has 32,000 farms. There are 4,075 farms between 1,000 acres and 2,000 acres; 3,667 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and 1,970 farms with more than 5,000 acres. The average farm size is 1,366 acres (fifth place behind the large cattle ranching states of Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada).


Although we cross no discernible natural border, there is an unmistakeable transition as we cross into Minnesota on our way to Minneapolis: the farms are more numerous, smaller, and they are nestled among stands of trees. 
Minnesota farmland/Robert Mizrahi 
Minnesota, just 11% larger, has twice as many farms as South Dakota (74,542), but the farms are smaller: only 205 farms exceed 5,000 acres; there are only 1,960 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and only 4,003 farms between 1,000 and 2,000 acres.  

Minnesota has a population of 5.5 million. Hillary Clinton eked out a 1.5% victory in Minnesota over Donald Trump in 2016 (46.9% vs. 45.4%). The "never Trump" Evan McMullin (1.8%) and the libertarian Gary Johnson (3.9%) were the spoilers for Trump in Minnesota. 

Minnesota is represented by five Democrats in the House of Representatives (Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan) and three Republicans (Jason Lewis, Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer) and by two Democrats in the Senate (Amy Klobucher and Al Franken). 


From Minneapolis we drove south on Highway 52 into Amish country. At Cannon Falls, home of Pachyderm Studio, we turned left towards the Mississippi River, and entered Wisconsin at La Crosse, the largest city in Western Wisconsin. [Yes, the name is derived from the Indian game] Wisconsin is only slightly smaller than South Dakota and Minnesota, yet it has nearly the same number of farms as Minnesota (69,754); but its farms are much smaller. Only 74 farms are larger than 5,000 acres; there are only 587 farms between 2,000 to 5,000 acres; and only 1,580 farms from 1,000 to 2,000 acres. 

Forty-six percent of Wisconsin is covered by forest. It has been gaining, not losing, forest acreage as marginal crop and pasture land has been planted with trees, or reforested naturally. Today the state  has more forestland than at any time since inventories began in 1936.

The stereotype is true: Wisconsin is a heavy hitter in the production of milk (30 billion pounds annually) and cheese (3 billion pounds annually).  Wisconsin, just forty percent the size of California, produces nearly as much milk as California and produces more cheese than California. 

Glaciers largely bypassed the western uplands region of Wisconsin. Erosion in this "Driftless Area" was accelerated when ice dams, backing up large lakes, suddenly gave way as the ice receded. Rivers draining into the Mississippi have carved shallow east-west trending valleys in this region.

Regions of Wisconsin
In the fertile central plain soft hills were formed by glacial moraines. 

Drumlins formed by glacial moraines west of Milwaukee
Wisconsin has a population of 5.8 million. They gave the nod to Trump by 1 percentage point (47.9 vs. 46.9) in the last election. The lefty, Jill Stein, received 1.1 percent of the vote, and the libertarian Gary Johnson received 3.6 percent of the vote.  

Wisconsin is represented by five Republicans in the House (Paul Ryan, Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy, and Mike Gallagher) and three Democrats (Marc Pocan, Ron Kind, and Gwen Moore) and by a Democrat (Tammy Baldwin) and a Republican (Ron Johnson) in the Senate. 

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