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Agriculture in Kansas

Agricultural equipment in Finney County, 1890 to 1900Kansas is known as the "Wheat State" and "Breadbasket of the World." Farming has been a way of life in Kansas, impacting its politics, laws, innovations, culture, social customs, and traditions. The economy relies on many agricultural businesses including those related to storing, transporting, and processing farm products.

Some of the earliest people to live in this area were gardeners. In addition to hunting for game, early people gathered and ate wild plants. The best seeds were saved and planted in soil near their homes, beginning the tradition of farming. Usually the role of women, these people used buffalo bones as tools to plant and harvest crops. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers, were grown and harvest was stored underground in pits. Plantings would often occur in the spring just before families headed west for the hunting season. They would return from hunting in time for harvest.

Settlers from the eastern United States and from European countries brought farming traditions when Kansas was opened to settlement in 1854. These people often brought seeds of the crops they had planted in their homelands. Farmers planted corn for eating and for forage and also experimented with oats, cotton, tobacco, and even grapes in vineyards. These crops did not fare as well in the Kansas climate.

The grasshopper plague of 1874 and subsequent droughts led to the decline of corn in Kansas. Mennonite settlers arriving from Russia were accustomed to growing wheat in a prairie climate. They found success with wheat in Kansas and encouraged other farmers to plant it here thereby helping to create the wheat-state tradition.  As wheat grew in popularity, technology advanced, making it possible to work larger areas in shorter periods of time.

"The harvesting of the extensive areas of wheat," said a Kansas farmer in 1880, "presents a picture of unique and fascinating interest. The pastoral old 'cradling' process is here superseded by an epic; the plentiful reaping-machine . . . leaves the wheat lying behind it in a swath . . .next the self-raker, which drops it in convenient little bunches, ready for binding, then the header, which clips off only the tips and the stems, emptying them into a large uncouth box on an attendant wagon; and finally the self-binder . . . with a single sinister arm tossing the sheaves from it in such a nervous, spiteful feminine style."

Most farmers wanted to grow crops that they could sell. The standard farm size was 160 acres—too large for farms that provided all their needs, but not quite large enough for commercial ventures. With technological advancements from 1850 to 1930, farming began to be big business in Kansas.

Horse-drawn sulky plows appeared and horses and mules powered the threshers that harvested the crops. Kansas farmers were able to work the large, open prairie with these cultivators, binders, and reapers that replaced manual operations. A single farmer could do the work of several men. With three workhorses pulling a one-bottom walking plow, he could break only about two acres in one day. With a two-bottom plow and a four or five horse-drawn sulky, he could plow five to seven acres.

Steam traction engines powered threshing machines in the 1870s and 1880s that enabled farmers to work and harvest larger areas of land.  The internal combustion engines that replaced steam engines in implements during the early 20th century increased efficiency and the number of acres that could be farmed.

As early as 1888 people were proclaiming Kansas the wheat state. "All parts of Kansas grow good corn but in wheat Kansas can beat the world," the Topeka Daily Capital wrote in 1888. During the 20th century Kansas confirmed the predictions and became a leader in the production of wheat. Increased demand during World War I and World War II, hardy wheat varieties, large combines and other implements, large open fields, and rich soil helped secure the state's place in the agriculture industry.

Today Kansas is a leader in wheat, grain sorghum, and beef production, feeding people around the world. Learn more about these farmers in Kansas history.

Angell, Charles, Sr.

Carver, George Washington

Jardine, William

Warkentin, Bernard


Entry: Agriculture in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 1969

Date Modified: February 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.