Farm to Table Food History in Minnesota

Food in Minnesota

Even though Minnesota experiences cold winters and short growing seasons, the people who live here have found ways to grow food to survive and thrive. They developed farming practices to transform the land for food production and take advantage of the natural resources of the area.

"Many pioneers considered Minnesota to be a veritable wilderness garden, and initially they did harvest wild fruits, berries, and nuts, and hunted, trapped, and fished… but these people had come to farm."

– William Lass

Over the years, Minnesotans have grown a wide variety of "raw material" food—from grains to livestock to dairy to fruits and vegetables. These foods reflect both the tastes and expertise of the farmers who grew them, and the conditions in which they were grown, raised, and harvested.

Here are some of the most well-known food products grown or raised in Minnesota:


Wild Rice

Native people have eaten wild rice in the Minnesota area for thousands of years. Ojibwe people first came here following a vision that told them to find a place where the food floats on water. Once they saw wild rice growing in paddies near Lake Superior, they knew they were home.

Wild rice, called manoomin in the Ojibwe language, is a grain similar to wheat or rye. It is harvested by two people in a canoe. After harvesting, the grain is parched (dried or roasted), separated from its outer hull, and tossed into the air. It was an important part of both the Ojibwe and Dakota diet and was supplemented by seasonal food sources like berries, fish, meat, vegetables, and maple sugar.


Family Farms

Large groups of white settlers began moving into what became Minnesota after treaties with local Native nations opened their ancestral homelands to white settlement in 1851. European immigrants and people from other parts of the United States streamed into the new territory with its promise of cheap farmland.

Farming was a family affair with men, women, and children working together to grow their own food. Early Minnesota farmers grew corn, potatoes, wheat, oats, as well as hops, flax, hemp, tobacco, and rice. They also raised animals, planted vegetable gardens, and grew orchard products and fruit.


Hunting and Fishing

Farmers and their families trapped game and hunted and fished to add meat to their diets. But once their farms and settlements were a bit more established, hunting and fishing became a sport and a way for people to enjoy recreation in Minnesota's outdoors.

Luke Smith and Kip Parks hunting, Hancock, Minnesota
Group of hunters, Wrenshall, Minnesota
Duck hunting, northern Minnesota
Fishermen and fish, Duluth or Grand Marais, Minnesota
Fish and four men at Big Stone Lake, Big Stone County, Minnesota
Holm Fishing Party, Roseau, Minnesota

Wheat

In addition to growing food for their families' survival, early farmers wanted to find a crop they could sell for cash. They started planting wheat in the 1850s and produced more than they needed to eat. They sold the wheat grains to local flour mills and brought money home to repeat the process.

Wheat became the state's major cash crop in the 1870s, especially in the southeastern region. But starting in 1878, Minnesota's wheat crops were devastated by grain blight and insect infestations. These led to crop failure and forced farmers to start growing other crops to make a profit—a process called diversification.


Dairy Farming

Many Minnesota farmers turned to dairy farming after wheat became less reliable as a cash crop. In the 1880s, dairy products became the next major food product that made Minnesota famous.

Dairy farmers researched how to make dairying a financially profitable industry in Minnesota. They learned what cow breed made the best milk (the Holstein), what food to feed the cows, how to breed them effectively, and much more. They shared what they learned in dairying journals and also developed dairy co-ops to help them market dairy products.

City Workhouse dairy cows and barn, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Rose dairy farm, Burnside, Minnesota
Anton Moe Dairy, Duluth, Minnesota
Dairy cows in stalls, Duluth, Minnesota
Herd of cattle at Saint Benedict's Monastery Farm, St. Joseph, Minnesota
Corliss Mead Dairy Farm, near Windom, Minnesota

Livestock

Minnesota farmers also raised animals to sell as livestock and poultry. These included beef cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, eggs, and more. With plenty of livestock in Minnesota, certain regions of the state developed markets for livestock trading, butchering, and meat packing.

Tracy & Herzog turkey farm, Big Stone County, Minnesota

Fruit and Vegetables

Farm families also grew fruit and vegetables for their own households as well as to sell at market. It was often the women's work to can produce and make jams and jellies to earn a little extra cash on the side.

Other farms specialized in certain types of fruit and vegetables, including apple orchards. In 1868, Peter Gideon developed the first apple cultivar that could thrive in Minnesota's cold climate. He named it the Wealthy apple after his wife, and countless other horticulturalists have followed his example in making fruits and vegetables grow well on Minnesota farms.

Portrait of Peter Gideon, originator of "Wealthy" apple, Excelsior, Minnesota
Stone marker for location of Peter M. Gideon's first Wealthy Apple tree, Excelsior, Minnesota
Apple trees in bloom, Blue Mounds Township, Minnesota
Apple orchard on Big Stone Lake, Minnesota

Explore more of the exhibit using the page links below.