When you think of crop farming in Meeker County, you envision corn stalks, oats, barley, soybeans and wheat fields. But one thing that may surprise you is quite a few farmers in Meeker County grew tobacco. In fact, in 1931 the Eden Valley area was the largest producer of tobacco in Minnesota. Approximately 550,000 pounds of tobacco was shipped from Eden Valley that year.
Tobacco was first raised in Minnesota, according to the USDA agriculture census, in the 1860s. The results had highs and lows. In 1910, the 173,321 pounds of tobacco harvested in Minnesota generated $20,554, or 12 cents per pound. In 2014 dollars, that would be around $3.08 per pound; however, only 150 acres were harvested. In 1928, more than 1.2 million pounds of tobacco were grown. Two years later, that number had more than doubled to 2.9 million pounds, the largest amount recorded in the state.
Why was this area a popular place to grow tobacco?
The main reason was the quality of the soil. It was rich, clay-filled soil that held moisture greater than sandy soil. Another reason for farmers to grow tobacco was it provided another option for income. A third theory is there is a cultural connection with tobacco in Minnesota and Wisconsin with the German immigrants who settled in the area.
Dan Ruprecht, who farms in northern Meeker County, spoke about his family raising tobacco for about 55 years at a presentation in Litchfield. “It was an important cash crop back in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he said. His grandfather started raising tobacco in 1930, then his father took it on and passed it on to Dan, who said he was in the tobacco business for 21 or 22 years. Their biggest tobacco field was 4-1/2 acres.
Watkins was the home of Mies Tobacco Plant, the only tobacco plant in Minnesota. Mike Mies, of Watkins, starting raising tobacco in 1945 and went into the business of buying and selling tobacco. He purchased the Tom Jones Blacksmith shop, converted this building into the Mies Tobacco Plant and had seasonal work for more than 60 people at times.
Raising and harvesting was not an easy task. Tobacco takes a lot of time and energy to grow. The process started in February or March with caring and germinating the seeds. The tiny seeds were placed in a sock and set in a glass jar. It would take 7 to 10 days in the glass jar to sprout. The young seedlings were nurtured indoor and hand planted in the field when the weather was warm enough. They were then meticulously cultivated and weeded and insects were managed.. When the plants matured, the plants were cut and hauled from the field. The plants take at least two more months to reach maturity. “It took big families with a lot of neighbor kids to get the work done,” Ruprecht said. Dan said they hired about 20 people to harvest the plants and they would get about 2 to 3 acres done per day. From planting to harvesting it would take 21 trips through the rows, which included weeding, watering and trimming. Once harvested, the leaves were hung to dry in a drying barn for several months.
Why did tobacco farming decline? After 1931 the tobacco price took a plunge. During the Depression tobacco dropped to three and four cents a pound, driving many growers away from the crop. Others abandoned the crop during World War II when prices again fell and new machines emerged to make other crops easier to grow. The ultimate dagger was when the government pulled its subsidies to tobacco farmers.