A Historical Look at Local Food Supply
Before early Europeans settled in the area, Native Americans harvested indigenous foods such as strawberries, blueberries, wild game, and fish. Foragers today still harvest native foods and the Upper Peninsula is well known for its hunting and fishing resources. In the late 1800s, recruiting campaigns by railroad companies aimed to have farmers settle in the Upper Peninsula. Many tried, some with success and others with failure. The County’s rich mining history has also influenced food production as many small but productive farms were established on land circling mining towns.
Early mining and agriculture had a strong relationship. “The opening of mines has not only brought farmers into the area but it has also furnished a market,” cites J. Russell Whitaker. Mining also provided opportunity for families to pursue farming. Living on land close to the mine, the families of miners often tried farming. Seasonal mining allowed individuals to mine during the winter and farm during the summer months. Some, usually dairy farmers, retired from mining and took on farming as the sole source of family income.
Potatoes were the most prominent crop produced in the County’s agricultural past. According to an early report there were 58 farms producing 100,000 bushels of potatoes annually at the turn of the century. The Upper Peninsula’s first potato show took place in Marquette County in 1916 and by 1977, 700,000 bushels of potatoes were produced annually. The potato industry in Marquette County thrived for decades. Locals remember several potato warehouses along railroad lines. There was even a large processing plant in Wells Township that processed frozen fries.
The number of farmers declined by the 1960s. Farms either expanded to try to address the pressures of producing more or shut down due to the economic conditions of the industry. As agriculture became industrialized, farmers found themselves facing high capital costs for equipment now needed to manage large acreages. Mineral fertilizer was also used and farmers became dependent on it. As reported in October 1969, “farmers were able to produce more than in former years, despite the cutback in the amount of land under cultivation, by pouring on more fertilizer, by using more mechanical equipment and by improved tillage practices. At the same time, the demand for farm products was on the rise and the prices paid for them somewhat higher. Even though the farmer received only a fraction of this additional revenue- most of it going to the middle man- it was of some benefit.”
Perhaps the ultimate demise of the potato industry was competition. Farmers reported increasing difficulties getting shelf space in stores because other large-scale potato suppliers were able to offer retailers incentives that Marquette County farmers could not.