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200 years of farming that helped grow the Show-Me State

It took a truly hardy soul and a vast reservoir of courage to look at the broad expanse of largely untamed frontier of the early 1800s Missouri Territory and say, “That’s where we ought to go.”

Some 12 or 13 Native American tribes already occu­pied the area directly west of the Mississippi River. St. Louis hadn’t been incorporated as a city yet. There were no hospitals, few robust settlements and even fewer doctors. To look upon that land and see a promising future for a family took brawn, vision and guts.

Family-operated frontier farms sprouted wherever there was dirt and water across the territory that would become Missouri. But only 30 would endure to present day, continuously operating under the same family, according to the University of Missouri Extension Century Farm Program and the Missouri Farm Bureau. Those 30 have earned the special designation of “Founding Farms” to coincide with Missouri’s 200th birthday in 2021.

“This matters, because farming is such a difficult pro­fession. To keep a farm running through thick and thin, numerous wars, depressions and recessions, is daunting, to say the least,” said Eric Bohl, MOFB director of public affairs and advocacy. “The families that have survived deserve to be celebrated while we celebrate Missouri’s bicentennial. They were fundamental to the survival of the state and its residents.”

Frontier Life

In 1803, the United States purchased a large swath of land from France—the Louisiana Purchase—stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and including the Missouri Territory. The territory applied for statehood multiple times, but its admit­tance into the Union was mired in the politics orbiting slavery. Missouri finally gained statehood in 1821 with the Missouri Compromise.

“Farming has never been easy,” said Terry Mudd, co-owner Twin Hills Farm, a Founding Farm near Silex, Mo. “Back then, it was more physical, but it was simpler. You didn’t have all the rules and regulations or tractors and technology. Farming was done with teams of horses, instead of tractors with all these gad­gets. If a horse was lame, you got a different horse and went on.”

But, Mudd added, that meant that a lot of the work involved a relatively large amount of physical labor, and the more hands that went into that labor, the faster it got done.

Indeed, the United States, particularly with respect to mecha­nized farming operations, was still in the midst of the Industrial Revolution when Missouri became a state, from manpower and horsepower to machines and engines. Virtually none of that technology was widely available along the frontier. After all, the cotton gin that revolutionized cotton farming was invented only about 25 years prior to Missouri statehood.

Additionally, farms tended to be smaller, Mudd said, often broken into family-operated lots of about 40 acres. “They didn’t farm as much land, and it wasn’t as hectic,” he said. “In a lot of respects, it was easier to manage, even if the physical part of it was harder.”

In those early statehood days, there were no paved roads. The MKT and first transcontinental railroads wouldn’t arrive for another 40 years. There may have been smaller bridges dotting the landscape, but to cross a river often meant fording it or traveling by ferry. It was not easy to get around, and it often took a relatively long time for settlers to get where they wanted to go.

“In the early days, farmers would wait until the river froze to take grain across the river to Hermann,” said Wayne Over­kamp, co-owner of the bicentennial Snethen-Cundiff Farm near Hermann, Mo. “There were no roads or bridges back then. Peo­ple traveled by landmarks. The closest town would have been St. Charles (about 65 miles away), but it would have taken a week to get there. And it would have been a very eventful week!”

“I can’t even imagine them having small children and babies when they settled here,” said Rhonda Overkamp, Wayne’s wife and Snethen-Cundiff Farm general manager. “That’s just beyond my grasp.”

Self-sufficiency played a large part in the survival and success of farmers in Missouri’s early days, the Overkamps added.

“Farmers took their grain to the local gristmill—if there was one—to make their own flour and cornmeal,” Wayne Over­kamp said. “They cooked their sorghum down to make their own molasses. They butchered their livestock, raised chickens for eggs, and planted huge gardens. They didn’t buy much— they took pride in it, because they made it.”

The Move to Modernity

Missouri Founding Farms helped plow the road for the state’s growth and ultimate success, Bohl said. Missouri grew, and grew quickly, after statehood. In 1821, there were only about 100,000 residents, but by the Civil War that number swelled to more than 1,000,000, according to U.S. Census data. Farmers met the challenges to feed Missouri’s burgeoning population head on.

But in overcoming those challenges, some farmers became victims of their own success, Bohl said. As technology in­creased, profit margins decreased, and, at the same time, social mobility pushed people out of farms and into cities. Missouri now has more than 6,000,000 residents (and hungry mouths to feed), according to 2019 U.S. Census population estimates.

“Farmers have tended toward scaling up their operations,” Bohl said. “They get into this spiral of needing a bigger farm to increase profitability, which requires bigger machines or just more of them. Those machines cost money, so they need more land to increase profitability to pay for them. And the process repeats like that.”

At some point, though, farmers reach a margin of diminish­ing returns with respect to their acreage, and they can no longer tend to all of their land. The spirit’s willing, but the logistics are not.

“It used to be that a 40-acre farm gave you a livable wage,” Overkamp said. “I remember even just 60 years ago, my dad and I farmed, and it was home farming. The family farmed together and worked together to get the job done. We took our grain to local markets, and people knew where their food came from. But now we’re a world market.”

Despite the weight on the shoulders of farming families, most—like the Mudds— say they wouldn’t do anything else.

“I love the cattle side of farming. I still get great enjoyment out of driving a tractor and raising a good crop, but Mother Nature’s brutal,” Mudd said. “With the cropping industry, you can spend a lot of money and put it all out there, and weather has a lot to say about it. I feel like I have more control and connection with my livestock. If they’re sick, I can get them well. If they need more feed or vitamins, I can give them those.”

The Past’s Future

It’s a truism that nothing stays the same. Yet the roots of Mis­souri agriculture grow deeply, manifested by the survival of the state’s Founding Farms.

“Farmers who raise these animals and grow these crops are cornerstones of their communities,” Bohl said. “If they don’t stick around, everybody is impacted. Farmers are surviving because they’re moving toward cleaner production, leading innovations in biotechnology and more sustainable growing. That’s essential to the future of farming. But you know, I think Yogi Berra said it best, ‘Predictions are hard, especially about the future.’ And I think that’s especially true when trying to determine the fate of Founding Farms and of farming in general.”

Farmers such as Terry Mudd and Wayne Overkamp carry a more than 200-year-old agricultural legacy. Their hopes con­verge on the central dream that their farms continue with their children and grandchildren.

“We’re proud of our heritage,” Overkamp said. “It means a lot to know our roots. A lot of people don’t even know where they come from. We lived through part of this tradi­tion, and I hope to keep it alive if I can.”

But even their family isn’t immune to the “tyran­ny of time” and modernity. “In my generation, the family was together or got together a lot,” Overkamp said. “We never lived that far apart. One generation later, that just doesn’t happen anymore. Family’s just not as close as it used to be. That’s the part I really hate.”

The Century Farms Program

Anecdotally, most—if not all—farmers want their legacy to continue to their children and their farms to stay in the family, based on the myriad interactions this magazine has experi­enced with farmers through the years. Some programs pave a path toward preservation of the family-farming tradition and memory, such as Missouri’s Century Farms and Founding Farms.

“Even before the declaration of statehood in 1821 and the westward expansion of settlements on our new nation’s frontier, farmers were here tilling the soil, harvesting crops and building communities,” said Marshall Stewart, MU vice chancellor for Extension and engagement. “From those early days to today’s agricultural, ranching and entrepreneurial operations, farm families have been essential to Missouri’s and our nation’s growth.”

Initiated in 1976, the Centennial Farm project recognized farms that have maintained continu­ous family operation for at least 100 years. MU Extension and the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources started the annual Century Farm program to continue celebrating 100-year-plus farms. According to MU Exten­sion, more than 8,000 farms have received the Century Farm designation since the project’s inception.

However, MU Extension’s new Founding Farms designation is not an annual program. Instead, it is a special bicentennial recognition to spotlight those farms that have been in operation since Missouri’s 1821 statehood. For example, if a family farm were founded in 1822, then in 2022 the program would not recognize it as a Founding Farm. 

On the other hand, Katherine Foran, senior strategic communica­tion associate with MU Extension and one of the Founding Farm program’s coordinators, said that it is very possible that the 30 known Missouri bicentennial farms may not represent the total number of those that have continuously operated for more than 200 years. “There may be more,” she said, and she encourages all farmers who believe they operate a Century Farm or Founding Farm to apply for recognition.

To that end, every year the Cen­tury Farm and Founding Farm pro­grams open application windows for families who wish to apply for recognition.

“Originally, my wife, Sharon, read a Century Farm newsletter and said, ‘You know, we ought to see about that,’” Mudd said. “My goal or dream is to keep operating as long as possible. It would suit me if my children and grandchil­dren lived here and kept the farm going. I hope it stays here for another 100 years.”

Tapping his fingers thoughtfully, Mudd added, “You quit using it, you lose it. That’s why I don’t quit.”

For more information about Missouri Founding Farms or the Century Farm program, visit programs/century-farms.

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