Farm to Table Food History in Minnesota

Changes Over Time

While food itself is a constant in Minnesota history, the food we eat and how we get it has changed a lot over time.

For the earliest people, food meant survival. Native nations moved their camps around based on where they could get food at different times of the year. Early white settlers broke land to grow crops sometimes even before they built permanent shelter.

Once their survival needs were met, Minnesota farmers turned their attention to developing a reliable cash crop. They grew more than they needed to eat and sold them at market for profit. These cash crops changed over the years and were different based on where the farms were in the state.

Changes in both technology and society influenced food production in the early 20th century. Machinery changed how food was planted, harvested, and processed. Food companies began turning the raw material grown by farmers into processed food goods. And there was a growing demand for convenience food. All these factors contributed to a changing food landscape in Minnesota.


Seasonal Food Sources

Before white settlement, Native people moved their camps around based on seasonal food sources. At their summer camps, they planted corn, beans, and squash and harvested berries and other food from nature. Then they moved their camps to areas where they could harvest wild rice, hunt deer, trap animals, and back again to the spring and summer planting villages.

In the earliest years of Euro-American settlement, people's diets also consisted primarily of raw food or meals cooked directly from things they hunted, fished, grew, or harvested themselves.

Native American spearing fish from a canoe, Pennington County, Minnesota
Fishermen and fish, Duluth or Grand Marais, Minnesota
Gathering wild rice, Detroit Lake, Minnesota
Indian Sugar Camp
Native American woman cooking in front of a wigwam, Becker County, Minnesota
Making maple syrup at Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, Minnesota

Cash Crops

As Minnesota became more developed, European-American settlers built more permanent farms arranged around orderly rows of crops. They still grew food to eat, but they also wanted to grow something they could sell for profit. Some of the most prominent cash crops grown or raised by Minnesota farmers included wheat, dairy, sugar beets, and livestock.

These crops were sold at local towns or regional markets. Some Minnesota towns specialized and prospered as centers for trade of these cash crops, especially wheat flour and meat stockyards. Stores also began importing food items that were not grown locally.


Mechanization and Diversification

Over time, Minnesota farmers increasingly began to use steam powered farm equipment and tractors to help them plow, plant, and harvest their crops. These machines made farms more efficient, productive, and profitable. They also helped farmers plant and process different types of crops on larger farms.

Food-related industries that processed grain, dairy, and poultry products also benefited from technological improvements in machinery.


Processed Food

Businessmen began to see opportunities to make a profit by processing and selling food products. One of the most influential food-related industry in Minnesota was flour milling, turning Minnesota's wheat into flour sent all around the world. Other food companies developed products like canned vegetables, poultry and dairy products, refined sugar, and packaged meat.

As food companies grew in both supply and demand, they began to experiment with making new types of food. For example, General Mills began making baking mixes and breakfast cereals instead of simply milling wheat flour. These convenience foods grew in popularity in post-war America, when consumers had higher incomes to buy food rather than make it.

Food companies also expanded their market beyond the borders of the state. Customers started to see these brand-name processed foods lining the shelves at their local stores, alongside bulk local goods.


Who does the work?

As fewer people lived on farms and began relocating to take industrial jobs in the towns and cities, food production and consumption also changed. Women still had the bulk of responsibility for preparing food for their families and taking care of food-producing animals like chickens.

Over time, however, it became more common to see women working outside their homes and consequently taking advantage of the new technologies, convenience foods, and changes in society's expectations that came with life in the 20th century.

Three women in the kitchen, Kandiyohi County, Minnesota
Farm woman doing chores in rural, New Prague, Minnesota
Women in store, northern Minnesota

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