Agriculture has always played an important role in the economy of Michigan, but the nature of its role has changed greatly since the early period of pioneer settlement. The state’s indigenous peoples--its first true farmers--supported themselves through a combination of hunting and gathering and simple agricultural techniques. Their modest plots produced corn, beans, peas, squash, and pumpkins. However, the Indians used only a portion of their holdings for crops and so caused few lasting changes in the countryside.
    Thus, the French explorers in the 17th century found the land virtually untouched. French farming, too, was limited in scale, because from the beginning, the crown’s New World interests centered more on the lucrative lumber and fur trades than on agriculture. One notable exception was in the cultivation of fruit trees, especially pear and apple, and the French developed three new apple varieties in and around Detroit.
    As the fur trade declined and trapping operations moved westward, farming grew more important. Its early development, however, was deterred by a number of factors: the continuing presence of hostile fur traders, the prospect of British rule, and a series of unfavorable land survey reports kept many prospective farmers from coming into the territory. For example, the 1816 Tiffin survey described Michigan as a land of unhealthful swamps and a sandy waste that was wholly unsuitable for agriculture. Such misleading reports were widely circulated and did little to encourage the sale of land.
    In the following decade, however, several key events opened the door for pioneer settlement. The 1825 completion of the Erie Canal opened a new and easy route to the territory via the Great Lakes and Detroit, and by 1833, federal Indian policies had removed most Native Americans to the west of the Mississippi, which paved the way for government land surveys and, thus, for increased agricultural settlement. It was these government surveys that divided the land into sections and townships, designations that are still applied, and greatly influenced the size and location of early farms.
    The southern third of the state was settled first. It was the first portion surveyed and included some of the best farmland in the state. In addition, the Chicago Road, the Monroe Pike, and other transportation arteries provided easy access from principal entry points such as Detroit. A majority of the early pioneers were New Englanders. These settlers found that the small prairies and oak openings of southern Michigan were well adapted for wheat, and wheat and wool eventually became the state’s principal cash agricultural products. People arrived in such numbers that between 1820 and 1834, the population increased tenfold. By the time Michigan was about to become a state, Michigan Territory had become the most popular destination of people moving west.
    The Upper Peninsula’s more limited agricultural potential was not tapped until the mid-1800s. As the area’s fledgling lumbering and mining industries drew more and more people to the region, agriculture was introduced to provide food for the new arrivals. It was found that many crops, particularly hay and potatoes, did well in the rigorous northern climate.
    During the late 1800s, European immigrants began pouring into Michigan, mixing their cultural traditions with those of the state’s previous settlers. Although most immigrants were subsistence farmers, some were highly skilled; and the efforts of these people helped to diversify the crop base of the state. The Germans settled predominantly in southeastern Michigan and in Saginaw and Berrien Counties, areas that proved to have excellent farmland and even today are top agricultural producers. The Danes were another group of skilled farmers, and they specialized in growing potatoes in the area northeast of Muskegon. The Dutch arrived in 1846 and introduced the raising of celery; even today, the area around Grand Rapids remains a Dutch stronghold, and celery and other truck crops are still grown there. Some groups, such as the Finns, were brought to Michigan in the 1870s to work in mines of the Upper Peninsula; their real interest, however, lay in farming, and settling on the eastern edge of the mining district, they worked long and hard to raise money to buy farms.
    Agriculture continued to be the principal source of livelihood for Michigan residents throughout the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution was transforming agriculture from a small, self-sufficient family art to a large, mechanized, scientific industry. The tractor, the telephone, and the automobile revolutionized cultivation, communication, and transportation, and rural isolation was broken. Although farm conditions improved, people left the farms in droves and resettled in the cities. Rural depopulation became so severe during the 1920s that many farmers and growers had to import migrant labor.
    The transformations in the life of the farmer brought changes in crop production as well. Before 1900, the state was the nation’s largest producer of winter wheat, but an increase in the amount of wheat grown in states farther west and competition from the prairie provinces of Canada caused Michigan to drop in rank. The state’s wool production, once of primary importance, now ranks twenty-third in the country. Michigan now leads the nation in the production of cherries and navy beans, and other major agricultural products in the state include dairy products, grains, and livestock.
    The key to Michigan’s agriculture in the 20th century has been specialization that utilizes the state’s great diversity of soil, topography, and climate. Potatoes in selected sandy soils of the north, navy beans in the Saginaw Valley, sugar beets in the thumb area, fruit along the Lake Michigan shore, peppermint and spearmint in the midlands, soybeans in the Monroe area, and vegetables in the muck soils of the south have supplemented much of the general agriculture of an earlier era. Because of increased specialization, however, farmers are now less self-sufficient, and scientific techniques have resulted in fewer and larger farms, bigger yields, and a greater use of fertilizer and mechanization. Michigan State University, a pioneer land-grant college in the country, supports outreach and research programs to develop better farm practices and improve crop varieties.
    Thus, although agriculture is still a leading industry in Michigan, its role is relatively less important than in the past. The following statistics indicate the scope of the change. In 1860, 85% of the population depended upon agriculture for its livelihood; in 1960, only 26% of the people lived in the country, and even fewer actually supported themselves through farming.