Nothing tells the story of Champaign County like a review of the USDA's Census of Agriculture publications, with the latest one released two months ago. Two of the more telling trends, for example, are the diminution of dairy farming and the development of soybeans.
The first census to show any widespread agriculture in Champaign County was in 1850, which disclosed that 22,873 acres of land were considered improved for farming. By comparison, the 2017 Census said that 582,689 acres of the approximately 638,200 acres in the county were devoted to agriculture.
The 1850 census also said there were 1,136 horses, 1,057 milch cows (a cow kept for milk) and 428 working oxen on farms in the county. Most of the county's acreage went to the production of "Indian corn" with lesser amounts for oats, wheats, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and buckwheat. Farmers also reported producing butter, cheese and maple sugar.
More than 150 years later, the 2017 Census found that the two major crops in the county were corn (277,293 acres planted) and soybeans (266,472 acres). Far less land was devoted to oats, popcorn, rye, sorghum, sunflowers, wheat and winter wheat.
Soybeans weren't even listed as a crop in the 1925 Ag Census, but by 1929, 1,410 of the 3,315 farms in the county were growing beans. That number grew to 2,496 farms in 1934. By 1950, the county's farmers devoted 255,965 acres to corn and 121,423 acres to beans and, by 1969, the difference had narrowed to 235,657 acres for corn and 213,062 for soybeans.
Cattle farms once were plentiful in Champaign County, but only 100 Champaign County farms today report having cattle and calves, and just three farms have milk cows. Fifty years ago, there were 612 farms reporting cattle and calves and 78 reporting milk cows.
The 1929 Census, by comparison, said there were 3,163 farms in Champaign County with cattle and calves and more than 14,000 cows. Even as late as 1954 there were 1,505 farms in the county with milk cows and a total of more than 7,600 milk cows.
But dairy farming nationally has undergone a sharp consolidation in recent decades, and many of those who have remained in the industry have been hurt. Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies in 2018 for the third consecutive year, and nearly all were dairy farmers.
The first census to dive more deeply into farm life was in 1935, when it addressed issues such as the race of farmers (3,406 white farmers in Champaign County and three "colored"), the average value of a farm ($19,424 in Champaign County), and whether operators were full owners, part owners, managers or tenants (two-thirds in Champaign County were tenant farmers).
The 1940 Ag Census found that about half of the 3,120 farms in the county had electricity and telephone. Nearly every one had an automobile and most had motortrucks or tractors.
By 1945, about half of the county's 3,267 farms had running water and the vast majority had electricity, radio and telephone. Most had an all-weather road within a tenth of a mile and 94 percent had at least one automobile. The average farm was 188 acres and was worth (land and buildings) $42,707. The average farmer was 47 years old.
The 2017 Census found that in Champaign County there were 1,214 farms, the average size was 480 acres and the estimated market value (land and buildings) was $4.4 million. The average farm had more than $320,000 worth of machinery.
Like the rest of the country, the great majority of farm operators in the county were male and between the ages of 55 and 64. Almost as many farm operators said their primary occupation was "other" (929) as it was "farming" (1,003).
While the business of agriculture in Champaign County has changed greatly over the last 200 years — there were 5,022 farms here in 1880 versus 1,214 today — the county's land is still overwhelmingly agrarian. The 582,689 acres devoted to farming is still more than 90 percent of the land use in the county and not that far from the 627,785 acres in farmland in 1900.
Tom Kacich's column appears in Sunday's News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.