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Looking Back to See the Future

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Indiana is celebrating its Bicentennial. As a result, there is a lot of looking back at our past. In the case of agriculture, a look back at our history will give us a glimpse of our future. This is the first in a series of columns on how agriculture has shaped the state’s economy, landscape, and culture. It is also a look at how the farming of the past has and will direct our agricultural economy of the future.

When you think of cattle drives, images of the west come to mind with cowboys driving large numbers of livestock across the western plains. Yet, in the early part of the 19th century, the big cattle drives took place in Central Indiana. According to Purdue historian Douglass Hurt, Indianapolis was truly a cow town and a place where large numbers of cattle were gathered.   These herds were then moved east to Central Ohio where they were fattened and prepared for slaughter.

Today, travelers on I-70 from Indianapolis to Richmond have no idea they are traveling one of the great cattle drive trails in U.S. history. Those who raise cattle today in the Hoosier State may be wondering where all this livestock came from. While Indiana is not a major livestock state today, in the 1830s it was. Much of what is now cropland was then grassland and great for cattle. According to Hurt, herds numbering in the thousands covered the grassland of Indiana.

Over the next hundred years, the cattle moved west; the swamps were drained; and corn production began to flourish. Indiana agriculture adapted and thrived. Farmers learned to grow new crops in new ways and, with amazing innovation, laid the groundwork for a modern farm economy that now feeds the world. The next 100 years will require that same kind of innovation.

The take way is that Indiana agriculture has a heritage of adaptation and innovation. It is this heritage we will need to take with us into the future. We are seeing the signs of this today as Indiana leads the nation in the adoption of cover crops and research into soil health. We have statewide programs to foster innovation in biosciences. Just as our predecessors did, we are adapting to new markets, new technology, and new cultural forces.

As agriculture today does not look like Hoosier agriculture 200 years ago, our future will look a lot different than today. What will remain the same is that producing food, fiber, and energy will be just as important 100 years from now as it is today or as it was when Indiana become a state.

By Gary Truitt