Agriculture in the Ozarks

Agriculture in the Ozarks during the mid-nineteenth century was very different from that of today. In the modern day a majority of farms are limited to grassy untilled pastures. Beef cattle are one of the few remaining ties to mid-nineteenth century farm life with cattle grazing on fescue grass in enclosed pastures during the growing season and subsisting on baled hay in the winter. Ozarks agriculture in the mid-1800s, on the other hand, actively produced self-sustaining crops which fed the settlers and their livestock. Markets for agricultural products were rare and even then mostly marketed within this region until the arrival of the railroads following the American Civil War. Still, most farm families raised diverse crops, most of which are no longer seen today.

Intertwined with the history of Ozarks agriculture in the mid-1800s is the pioneers’ experience. Prospective Ozarks settlers would have several options if they wished to acquire farm land. The poorest families could obtain land as squatters; they transformed the land into a valuable working farm and hoped to purchase the land at a later date. Those settlers with modest means could survey the land and purchase a parcel from a government land office for a sum varying between 12.5 cents and $1.25 an acre. And for those settlers who traveled in the Ozarks with money, they could purchase already improved land for $3-10 per acre, though this was by far the most expensive means of land acquisition.1

Whereas most people think of the Ozarks as rocky highlands, many places in the Ozarks could regularly sustain typical agriculture. The earliest settlers with keen eyes selected only the bottom lands where perpetual springs, creeks, and rivers ran through their land, where the topsoil was deep, where prairie grass was plentiful, and where ample trees would provide plentiful supplies of firewood and autumnal nuts. The narrow bottom lands were the most likely land in the Ozarks region to sustain annual crops.2

After acquiring his land, the new settler camped on the ground until he had cut down a sufficient number of trees, hauled the timber to a site he had selected for his new home, and notched the logs. Then, he invited all the neighbors to a house-raising, and his wife would feed the families who helped with the work.3

Farmers in the mid-1800s rarely constructed fences to mark the limits of their properties. They instead split wood into rails for fencing around their fields to prevent their livestock from accidentally grazing on or destroying the family’s planted crops. Most farmers also constructed livestock pens and roofed shelters, which were important in the winter to protect their livestock at night from predators.4

In general, the earliest Ozarks settlers lived on land where soil was conducive to a variety of plants. Most pioneers traveled to their new homes with wagonloads of seeds from as many types of crops and trees as the family had grown at their previous home. Corn and wheat were the most common cereal crops, and were among the few surplus crops that could be traded with neighbors. Most families created small plots for sowing oats and planting potatoes. Farmers accumulated beehives, which provided pollination for his crops and honey to sweeten the family meals. Beginning with the early 1850s, even the poorest families raised a fraction of an acre of sorghum; when pressed, the sorghum produced a half-barrel of sweetener—enough to last an entire family for a year. Most families produced a small crop of cotton to blend with their wool for clothing. Farm families also set aside small patches of land for squash, beans, watermelons and muskmelons. The clever farmer also planted several varieties of apple and peach trees in an orchard; since different varieties of each fruit tree ripened at different times, farm families often were provided with fresh fruit throughout the summer and fall; if dried or stored in a cold springhouse, surplus apples could be marketed in the spring to neighbors.5

Where nut-bearing trees could be found, farm families harvested walnuts, hickory, and hazel nuts. The oak groves’ acorns were plentiful enough to fatten most slaughter hogs during the autumn and winter.6

Farmers prized their livestock, the most common being horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens. Hogs commonly were raised as meat for the family table. Chickens provided eggs for the family, and occasionally a fried chicken was a favorite Sunday meal whenever the parson visited. Milking the family cows provided not only milk, a favorite beverage, but also cream for butter. Horses and oxen were vital for transportation or plowing fields. Whereas cattle and hogs were consumed, cattle, horses, and mules were livestock in high demand and were some of the few farm products that could travel overland on the hoof to distant markets. Sheep were raised carefully, for their wool was the major source in a family’s clothing and blankets. Ozarks’ livestock, therefore, was very similar to anywhere in the United States.7

Farm families approached feeding their livestock in two ways. During the day, cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep were free to range over the common land to graze at will. At night the farmers within a half-mile of other families occasionally could hear their neighbors calling out for their stray pig, cow, or lamb with a reward being some supplement to the livestock’s diet, such as silage, corn, or bran; swill or table scraps was reserved for the hogs culled for slaughter.8

In essence, with good land, water, and trees, Ozarks families were independent and self-sufficient during the antebellum. But the wartime Ozarks would result in great hardship for farm families. Warring armies impressed supplies from the local farmers whenever their commissary stores were low, resulting in food shortages for most families. Bushwhackers also preyed on the isolation of area settlers, and often ransacked homes, smokehouses, and barns for supplies. As the War progressed, independence on the farm was replaced by refugee life on the move, with families moving to safer and more populated regions, away from the marauding temptations of partisan warriors. The safe, rewarding self sufficiency of the Ozark farmer would not return until years after the War ended.9

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  1. Duane G. Meyer, The Heritage of Missouri, third edition (Springfield, MO: Emden Press, 1998), 237; Leland and Cystal Payton, Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, 30.
  2. Wiley Britton, Pioneer Life in Southwest Missouri, revised and enlarged edition (Kansas City, MO: Smith-Grieves Co., Publishers, 1929), 62.
  3. Britton, Pioneer Life, 150.
  4. Britton, Pioneer Life, 101.
  5. Britton, Pioneer Life, 82, 93, 115.
  6. Brttton, Pioneer Life, 76.
  7. Britton, Pioneer Life, 111, 113-114, 123.
  8. Britton, Pioneer Life, 100, 110, 113.
  9. Milton D. Rafferty, The Ozarks: Land and Life, second edition (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2001), 84, 89, 92.