A century ago, swamps defined the boundaries of farming in Southeast Missouri. But in the early decades of the 1900s, the swamps were drained, greatly expanding the acres of land available for farming in the Bootheel, said Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University.
"It is one of the greatest transformations of the landscape certainly in America, if not in the world," he said.
The Little River Drainage District was formed in 1907. It oversaw a massive earth-moving project between 1909 and 1926 that drained swamps in Southeast Missouri at a cost of $11 million.
A massive system of ditches and levees drained more than 1 million acres, turning cypress forest wetlands into some of the state's most fertile farmland.
Draining the swamps involved construction of about 950 miles of ditches and some 300 miles of levees.
More than 1 million cubic yards of earth were displaced, a larger amount than was moved during construction of the Panama Canal. "Our district is reputed to be the largest levee and drainage district in the nation," said Larry Dowdy, the district's executive vice president.
Draining the swamps was back-breaking work for construction crews with steam-powered stump pullers and dredges. Workers also had to battle mosquitoes and snakes, Nickell said.
Before the swamps were drained, Southeast Missouri was largely covered in timber. "Today it is just the reverse," said Dowdy. "Five percent is timber and 95 percent of the land is cleared."
Dr. Wesley Mueller, chairman of the agriculture department at Southeast Missouri State University, said the region today accounts for 37 percent of the state's agricultural output.
"If it weren't for draining the swamps, it would not be close to that," he said.
There have been other changes, too. Farming has become a high-tech business.
Gone are the days of plowing fields with horses and mules. Computerized equipment now helps farmers do everything from fertilizing fields to keeping track of crop yields.
On most area farms, that progress has occurred in the past 60 years. It wasn't until the late 1940s or early 1950s that tractors became indispensable tools on the family farm, Nickell said.
But there were some early converts to tractor power. The first gasoline-powered tractor in Cape Girardeau County was purchased by railroad builder Louis Houck for $1,500 in 1910 for use on his Bloomfield Road farm.
Today, diesel-powered tractors and combines are standard equipment on farms.
"If you don't run a farm as a business, you are not going to be in business long," Mueller said. "The margins are just not there for error."
Today's fertilizers and herbicides have boosted crop yields. The nation's farmers harvested about 28 bushels an acre of corn in 1904. Today, a farmer can harvest about 142 bushels an acre, Mueller said.
At the turn of the century, farmers made up 38 percent of the U.S. work force. By the year 2000, farmers accounted for only 1.5 percent of the work force, he said.
While farm productivity has increased, the price for products hasn't kept pace with inflation.
The price for corn was 43 cents a bushel in 1904. In 2003, it was $2.42 a bushel on average, Mueller said.
But factoring in inflation, the price for corn in 1904 would be equivalent to more than $8 a bushel today, he said. The price for a bushel of wheat was $1 back then. Today, the equivalent price would be $18 a bushel, far more than what farmers are actually receiving in the marketplace, Mueller said.
Gordonville-area farmer John Lorberg remembers growing up on the family farm in the 1950s.
Well into the century, weeds were a big problem for farmers, he said. "They had no herbicide."
It used to be if you could do nothing else you could go into farming, but today farmers have to be astute businessmen and take advantage of modern technology, he said.
Lorberg grows corn and soybeans on his 600-acre farm. Last year, he and his son installed plastic drainage pipe in his fields. The pipes have improved drainage and also have provided for a spring-fed irrigation system, he said.
Southeast Missouri farms in the 1920s and 1930s depended on the labor provided by sharecroppers. A protest by sharecroppers in Missouri's Bootheel drew reporters from newspapers across the nation in January 1939.
Living in tents made of blankets and enduring frigid temperatures, some 1,200 demonstrators including many black farm workers staged a sit-down strike along U.S. 61 south of Sikeston.
State troopers eventually ran off the demonstrators and Bootheel planters demanded a federal investigation.
The demonstration prompted the federal government to build housing for displaced farm workers. The collection of 600 houses in 10 racially segregated villages was called the Delmo Housing Project.
But in the end, Nickell said, tractors and other mechanized equipment brought an end to sharecropping because machines could do the work once done by farmhands.
335-6611, extension 123