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Extension > Agriculture > Crops > Small Grains Production > The Small Grains Field Guide > History of wheat, barley & oats in Minnesota & North Dakota

History of wheat, barley & oats in Minnesota & North Dakota

by J.J. Wiersma, J.K. Ransom
Copyright © 2012 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

NOTE: This is an excerpt adapted from the Small Grains Field Guide.

In 1803 the United States negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. With this single treaty, the threat of war with France was averted and the size of the young country was doubled. The purchase included over 600 million acres at a cost of less than 3 cents an acre. It opened up the heart of the American continent and allowed the land west of the Mississippi to be settled.

The Louisiana Purchase included the southern half of Minnesota and about half of North Dakota. Being part of the Oregon Country, the British Empire laid claim to the Red River and Devils Lake basins.

The Minnesota Territory was established in 1849 and included Minnesota and the eastern half of the Dakotas up to the Missouri River. There were only 5,000 white settlers in the whole territory at that time. These earliest settlers introduced wheat, barley, and oats to both states.

Wheat was not commercially important until 1858, after which production skyrocketed. By 1868, 62 percent of the cultivated land in Minnesota was devoted to wheat. The majority was grown in the southern part of the state. Wheat production did not start in the Red River Valley until 1873. In the twenty years that followed, wheat almost completely disappeared from the southern part of Minnesota, and the center of production gravitated to North Dakota and the western and northwestern part of Minnesota.

Beginning in 1880 and for 50 years thereafter, Minneapolis was known as the “Flour Milling Capital of the World.” The mills along the banks of the Mississippi received grain via rail lines stretching across the Northern Plains’ grain belt. At the industry’s peak, the Washburn A Mill was the most technologically advanced and the largest in the world. It could mill the flour needed for 12 million loaves of bread in a day. Since those boom times, the flour mills in Minneapolis have long been closed. Small grains, however, continue to have a prominent place in the cropping systems of Minnesota and North Dakota. Combined, the two states account for a third of the total U.S. barley production, more than half of the U.S. spring wheat production and nearly three quarters of the U.S. durum production.

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