Ag Roots Run Deep

By Dennis Boone

Natural resources helped, but this region blossomed as an agribusiness powerhouse because of visionaries, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Lots and lots of land hereabouts—admittedly, expropriated from the original tenants—called out to a nation of immigrants, expansionists and opportunists in the 19th century. Fertile as it was, though, the ground underfoot didn’t make Missouri and Kansas the farming and agribusiness powerhouses they are today.

Water did.

In the Show-Me State, the interstates of the early and mid-1800s were the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. They were key to the development of cities as centers of trade for products raised by the farmers branching out from the riverbanks in the three decades before the Civil War. And nearly a century later, in Kansas—which becomes increasingly arid as you inch closer to Colorado—the face of agriculture underwent a huge makeover with new irrigation technologies after World War II.

That, in turn, contributed to the demise of the stockyards and animal processing in Kansas City, leading to another kind of westward immigration as feedlot operations and packing houses flooded into southwest Kansas over the past half-century.

So land, yes, and water played foundational roles in it, but the history of agriculture in this region, and Kansas City’s deep roots in it, is far more nuanced. And the end result of agricultural and agribusiness development in this region is a metropolitan area that occupies a link in the food chain unlike that claimed by any other city.

“For most of its history, the ultimate destination for this food was Chicago,” says Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, an agricultural historian from Kansas State University. “Kansas City was in a better place to consolidate and send those products to Chicago. That’s why Denver and Dallas were not good places for those activities; they were father from Chicago,” which was long the epicenter of U.S. beef packing, rail shipping, technologies like refrigerated railcars and boxed meats, and direct access to eastern population centers. “With western markets,” Lynn-Sherow said, “it was just not as important, until very recently, to send food that direction.”

A look at the history of agriculture in this region prompted discussions with farmers, farm-policy experts and agricultural historians attempting to answer a question: “What cultural, political, geographical or mechanical advances, trends or personalities paved the way for this two-state region to occupy the space it does in American agriculture?”

Their answers, varied and complex, offer some insights into why Kansas City succeeds as a region today—a success that is often overlooked by economic-development initiatives that focus on the new, the trendy—and often, the unproven—and seem to take for granted the one business sector that has buttered this region’s bread since Lewis & Clark rowed their way upstream. And that success, as Steve Baccus notes in his capacity as president of Kansas Farm Bureau, derives
from a simple biological imperative: “People,” he says, “have to eat.”


The farming narrative in the Midwest was authored by the explorers and settlers who came in pursuit of opportunities, and it has a decidedly east-to-west plotline. Missouri, after all, had a considerable jump on Kansas with respect to statehood: It came into being in 1821, thanks to the Missouri Compromise; Kansas didn’t follow until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and even then, only as a territory. Two generations of Missouri farmers had been born before Kansas became a state in 1861.

“As KC began to develop, starting in the 1820s, it was based on fur trade, which is an agribusiness form,” says David Boutros, a retired administrator for the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center in Kansas City. “After that, it began to develop as a hub for commerce, providing goods to the immigrant Indians coming into the area, and that continued into the 1850s.”

That came against a backdrop of profound social unrest in Europe, where revolutionary movements in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and throughout the Austrian Empire were displacing tens of thousands.

“We had waves of immigration, and those people settled along the rivers because that was how you transported things, and a tremendous amount of settling due to the revolts in Europe,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. His wife’s family, in fact, was among that wave, which was followed by an influx of groups like Scots-Irish from Kentucky and Tennessee, yielding small towns that here were primarily Catholic in their faith, or there were Lutheran. “You can still see all that driving through small towns, and in the voting patterns yet today,” Hurst said.

Not until railroads began to build a web through the state in the late 19th century did regions like northeast and southeast Missouri climb fully aboard the agribusiness train; before that, they were largely populated by people raising crops or livestock for local consumption.

The railroads were but one factor altering Missouri’s agricultural record. Technology on the farm was another, as were advances in plant science—factors that are still in play today. One example of the fundamental change is the growth in soybean production, which now accounts for more than 22 percent of farm receipts, worth $2.3 billion in 2012, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

“I don’t know of anything else that compares to the development of soybeans,” Boutros said. “I’m sure there are some, but that has to do with farming practices and to some degree, the demand—there’s far greater demand as a food stock for soybeans, but they’re used for a lot of other things, making plastics
and whatever.”

Prior to that, mechanization was the great game-changer in the state, Hurst said.

“Overall, productivity was very slow growth until mechanization occurred, which took a long time to happen,” he said. “My grandfather, born in 1900, was still farming in 1988, but he grew up farming with mules. During his lifetime, we saw tremendous gains in yield and productivity per man-hour on the farm, starting in the ’20s and ’30s, when farmers started getting tractors.”

Today, the state’s ag heritage is taking on new directions, especially in research and development. The rise of research and development, driven in large part by the Danforth Plant Science Research Center in St. Louis, programs run through the University of Missouri as a land-grant college, and the emergence of the animal health corridor from Columbia to the Kansas City region and west to Manhattan, Kan., have all solidified this region’s place in the new high-tech hierarchy of agribusiness.


Too often, we view history through a lens that never changes focus. Not Bonnie Lynn-Sherow. Immigration to Kansas in the mid-19th century, she says, was vastly different from the immigration that defined America in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“When people came to Kansas after the Civil War, they had no intention of becoming pioneers in the sense that colonial pioneers were,” she said. “They were already invested in the markets—they were never going to be just self-sufficient, living on the land, producing their own meat and fiber products and living quietly on 160 acres.”

Most early settlers here may have had family garden plots and chickens running about, “but their main activity was production in the market,” she says. “They were always looking to reduce costs of labor and increase profit margin.”

That honest embrace of capitalism and its promise was twinned, she said, with an innovative spirit born of necessity: Farming methods that worked in the Old World rarely paid off in Kansas. And Kansas itself, covering 82,000 square miles (nearly 115,000 before what is now eastern Colorado was calv-
ed off in 1861) was so sprawling that “farming in Kansas” had different meanings, depending on whether you were in Pittsburg or Phillipsburg, given the marked differences in annual rainfall.

So innovation ruled the day on Kansas farms and cattle operations, Lynn-Sherow said.

“Kansas quickly accepted the McCormick reaper to replace mule-drawn combines, then steam combines, refrigerated railroad cars—if you wanted to try something new, Kansas was the place to try it,” she said. “The state passed the entire country in adapting from horses to power tractors. Not
until 1935 were there more tractors in the United States than farm animals plowing, but Kansas was way ahead
of that.”

The key to Kansas’ early success, she suggested, was that it largely operated as an experiment in federal policy: “Look at all the legislation that went into effect in 1863—the federal government invested in agriculture to a degree we have never seen the feds invest in any industry,” she said. “The Homestead Act, giving away land. The Morrill Land-Grant Act, leading to K-State. Creation of the USDA, the Pacific Railroad Act, all within nine months of Abe Lincoln’s presidency.”

The agenda for Kansas was clear. “The expectation was that this land would be used for crops and animals, not national parks,” Lynn-Sherow said. And, to this day, the state has the lowest percentage of land set aside for public use, and no national park acreage. “This,” Lynn-Sherow says, “was completely intentional.”

One thing the federal government couldn’t address, though, was climate. Eastern Kansas gets nearly twice the annual rainfall as western. That made the going tough west of central Kansas, until after World War II. Innovators tinkering with automobile engines devised systems that could reach into the Ogallala aquifer and draw from that prehistoric ocean.

Center-pivot irrigation there led to the growth of corn, an important feedstock. At almost the same time, the Kansas City Stockyards were ravaged by the 1951 flood. The two events conspired to make western Kansas an ideal place for cattle production—grazing, feedlot operations, slaughterhouses and packing plants. Kansas City ceded its reputation as cow town to Garden City, and western Kansas exploded with agricultural output.

“When we developed or discovered water and created irrigation in western Kansas, it totally revamped the state of Kansas,” says KFB’s Baccus. “We went from desolate dryland farming that was very imprecise, very unpredictable, to being to control the water those crops needed. The major impact that had on the western third of the state was phenomenal. It developed the feedlot industry, created a whole new industry there. That was probably the major thing, more than any Kansas-Nebraska Act, that impacted Kansas agriculture.”

Kansas City: Then and Now

Throughout almost all of the 19 decades since the Missouri Compromise, Kansas City has benefited as a center for agricultural commerce. But, like farming itself, those constituent elements have witnessed radical change.

David Boutros, of the State Historical Society of Misouri, cites as evidence of that change the loss of longstanding icons like the stockyards and the Board of Trade. But Bob Petersen, executive director of the Agribusiness Council of Kansas City (who also wears a hat of CEO for the American Royal), sees in that same change the seeds for new kinds of growth as the region retains and builds on its unique position in American agriculture.

“Agriculture has grown and changed and become more sophisticated, economically efficient and advanced, and that velocity seems to only accelerate over time,” Petersen said. “We look at some of the past physical aspects of what we were doing, and the stockyards is a classic element—at one time in this historic home in the bottoms, the pens would handle 175,000 livestock of different sizes, shape and colors, and across the (Kansas) river, five major packing plans had more than 25,000 people working there.”

And that was just with animal ag, he says; similar displacements have occurred on the grain side. So yes, a lot has changed. But look what’s in its place today, Petersen says. “As a practical matter, all that commerce still takes place. We don’t see it or smell it, it’s more geographically decentralized, but Kansas City today is home to the fourth-largest beef processor in country and the fourth-largest wheat processor in the country.” So while you can’t see the open-outcry trading on the Board of Exchange floor, hard red winter wheat is still being traded—it’s just done more efficiently, from a base in Chicago, via computer.

“As you look around at what makes up Kansas City agribusiness,” Petersen said, “I’m almost taking for granted the animal-health corridor, which is thriving, and clearly it’s here because of the history of the livestock industry. I would argue today that Kansas City remains as much a national ag crossroads as any city in the country, with major, major agribusinesses operating here.”

Baccus, at the Kansas Farm Bureau, notes that Kansas City will feel the impact of sweeping changes to come as farmland values and output drop in western Kansas because of declining water levels in the Ogallala.

“That will have a fairly major impact on the GDP of the state,” and, by extension, on agribusiness in Kansas City. “The value of ag will drop significantly as we see irrigation wells drop off. It’s predicable. Any hydrologist can look you in eye, and at current rates, tell you there’s 12 years of water left in one spot, or around Goodland, places with 200 years at current pumping rates.”

Losing the value of irrigated agriculture will have an impact on surrounding communities that have seen populations decline for more than half a century, he noted. “And that’s going to make that struggle that much more difficult. I fear we’ll see more empty Main Streets.”

Some farmers have already made successful transitions to dryland techniques and less water-intensive crops, and that trend will increase. It will have to. But innovation has marked the rise of ag in the two-state region, and those interviewed for this story believe it will solve this riddle, too.

Why? Because the opportunities re-main almost limitless in a world that will add 2 billion new mouths to feed over the next 35 years. And not just more customers, but a surging global middle class demanding more protein in its diet—Kansas beef, Missouri hogs, Midwest poultry. And the feedstocks that
produce them.

“We are just now learning to apply data to farming” through advances in precision agriculture, in ways that will elevate both efficiency and yield, said MFB’s Hurst. Current farm technology allows for adjustment of fertilizers or herbicides on a square-yardage basis—even by the square foot—across vast expanses of fields. “All of this is a huge opportunity,” for the region, Blake Hurst said.

“We’ve got great infrastructure, a river that’s still extremely important from Kansas City to St. Louis, and then to the Mississippi, moving things to the Gulf, so I think we’re in a great position to compete globally,” Hurst said.

One of the lessons that came out of World War II, Hurst said, was that American agriculture could thrive, even with the loss of rural residents to the cities. “Through the Depression, people stayed down on the farm because they could eat there. With the war, people moved off and never came back. We were masking our increase in productivity because the economy didn’t allow them to leave the farm. Once they got the chance, we saw how much better we’d gotten at raising crops. I think that will continue.”