Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana.
By the time Euro-peans reached Indiana in the 1600s, our economic future was already set. Cornfields stretched for miles along the river valleys, and colorful vegetables filled gardens tended by Native Americans.
Indiana was destined to be an agricultural state. Climate and topography made it so.
In 1794, after Gen. Anthony Wayne’s army defeated Native Americans at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio, his troops spent days destroying Indian grain fields throughout the Maumee River Valley and toward present-day Fort Wayne.
One soldier told of maize plantations, bean patches, apple-tree stands and potato plots. Wayne himself said he’d never “beheld such immense fields of corn in any part of America, from Canada to Florida.”
Ever since, farming has been the foundation of Indiana’s economy. Nationally Indiana ranks fifth in corn, fifth in soybeans and second in popcorn production. It represents just under 5 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product.
“Agriculture’s Bounty: The Economic Contribution of Agriculture,” published by the Indiana Business Research Center, credits the agricultural sector for 190,000 Hoosier jobs. Of those, 103,000 are directly involved in crop production and processing.
It’s no accident that Indiana is known for these things. The late, great Indiana University geographer, Stephen Sargent Visher, wrote in his 1944 book “Climate of Indiana” that, “During about nine months in the year the temperatures are more favorable than prevail in most of the world.” Long stretches between frosts, reliable rainfall and warm summer days and nights create almost ideal farming conditions.
Scholars trace the genetic origins of corn back 10,000 years to a Central American grass called teosinte. It was the upper Mississippian Oneota peoples who lived along the Wabash River, however, who became “the first fully adapted maize agriculturalists,” according to one study of native activity in the late prehistoric period, 950-1650 A.D.
It is a legacy passed down to modern farmers like Joe Steinkamp of Evansville who farms the Ohio River bottoms.
“The neat thing about our climate is we have a nice, long growing season, which gives us a bigger window to plant our crops,” says Steinkamp, whose land is about evenly divided between corn and soybeans. Unlike most Hoosier farmers who grow corn exclusively for animal feed, Steinkamp’s is a white variety that is processed into Mexican-style dishes and tortilla chips.
Steinkamp’s family will be in attendance at the opening of the Glass Barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Aug. 2. Sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance, the facility is designed to educate Hoosiers about what life is like for farmers and their families. The building features interactive and high-tech exhibits including a video theater where visitors can connect “virtually” with farmers. It will be open throughout the fair’s run from Aug. 2-18, and long-term plans call for its use year-round as an educational center.
“We feel like the barn is an important step. We need to educate the Indiana consumer about what we are doing on the farm,” says Kevin Wilson of Walton, alliance president and himself a corn and soybean farmer.
As the joke goes, “You know you’re in Indiana when ... all you see are corn and soybeans.” There’s more than a grain of truth to it. It’s an important part of our history and our present.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.