Farming has always been an integral part of southwest Wisconsin. Wheat was one of the area’s earliest cash crops, and from 1840 through 1880, Wisconsin was known as America’s Breadbasket. But wheat was hard on the soil and susceptible to insects, and competition quickly arose from neighboring states. Wisconsin farmers soon discovered that feed crops were better suited to the state’s soil and climate. In the mid 19th century, farmers who moved here from the East brought with them dairying skills. German and Scandinavian immigrants quickly adopted these practices, adding their skills in making European-style cheeses. The University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture encouraged dairy farming in the southern part of the state, and by 1915, Wisconsin was the leading dairy state in the nation.
The farmers who moved here from the eastern part of the country also introduced tobacco farming around 1830. The Norwegian immigrants took to this crop, too. Although labor intensive, it was very profitable. Intensive tobacco farming took place in Coon Valley and Westby. In the 1880s, Martin Bekkedal came to Vernon County from Norway and managed to become the largest tobacco wholesaler in the region by the turn of the century. The tobacco warehouse he built in Viroqua in 1906 was one of the largest and most modern in Wisconsin.
Farming is changing in Wisconsin. The number of dairy farms has declined from 170,000 in 1930 to 13,700 in 2009. Changing lifestyles, job opportunities, and economics have taken their toll. Overall tobacco production has plummeted to the point where it is barely measurable. But other types of farming are thriving.
Where tobacco farms once flourished, vineyards now stand. Vernon County alone boasts 32 vineyards and 68 acres of grapes. The farmers who plant these vineyards and create bold regional wines with cold-climate grapes are renewing the countryside and the rural landscape.
Wisconsin is a top-ranked state in organic agriculture, second only to California in the number of organic farms within the state. Wisconsin leads the nation in organic dairy products and is also a leading grazing dairy state. Wisconsin also leads the US in certified organic livestock, with over 30% of the nation’s organic milk cows and over 20% of its organic laying chickens. Vernon County is home to Organic Valley, the farmer-owned cooperative that pioneered organic food production for the sake of family farms. Growing from just seven farmers in 1988, Organic Valley is now 1,652 farms strong.
Southwest Wisconsin also has an appetite for locally-grown foods. Here you will find an abundance of farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and food cooperatives with healthy, local offerings.