Local Food History


The Cape Girardeau region is a meeting place of the Ozark Highlands from the west, the River Alluvial Plain of the Bootheel from the south, the Shawnee Hills Plateau of the Little Egypt area of Southern Illinois, and the Mississippi River Hills running through the middle of it.

The Bootheel

This region is extensive in good quality light and/or sandy soils for vegetable production. It is known for both watermelons and southern peas (canned or frozen hydrated black-eye peas). As for the whole of Missouri, the wide swings of temperature in the spring, fall and winter make seasonally lucrative production of early and late season vegetables difficult, and cool season crops rarely do well past May, succumbing to the hot humid summers.

In summer it’s hot and humid, and sometimes the wind blows so hard that the sandy soil cuts right through young crops. Insects and plant diseases are a worry, but water for crop irrigation is abundant.  The growing season is relatively long and the area is centrally located, within 24 hours (by semi-trailer) of 70 percent of the nation’s vegetable markets.  All of which helps explain why a seven-county area of southeastern Missouri-known as the Bootheel is becoming a major vegetable producing area. Some believe that one day it could rival California’s San Joaquin Valley.  “There are 18,900 acres in southeast Missouri now in vegetables, accounting for 62 percent of the total vegetable production acreage in the state,” said Tim Schnakenberg, a University of Missouri extension agronomy specialist based in Charleston, Mo.

“One of our main advantages is our central location to national markets with a good Interstate system going most directions. We also have sandy, well-drained soils and an abundant water supply for irrigation.”  Back in the 1930s, Schnakenberg recalled, watermelon and cantaloupe growers began moving into the Bootheel. Then about a decade ago, potato growers from Wisconsin and North Dakota came to the area.  Within the past five years several major vegetable processors have moved in to contract with corn and soybean farmers to plant acreages of a variety of other crops, such as green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, southern peas, peppers, pumpkins, dry edible beans, cucumbers and Indiana corn. The processors bear familiar names such as Del Monte, Hartung Brothers and H.J. Heinz, and include several large potato growers who sell to Frito-Lay, Eagle Snacks, Backers and other nationwide potato chip processors.

While the area may be considered a gold mine for vegetable growers who know what they’re doing, Schnakenberg points out that their investments in the business are not without risk.  “A grower could easily have $3,500 an acre invested in a crop up to harvest and lose it to a hailstorm,” he said. “But when all goes right, a grower can see a $6,000 to $10,000 gross return on an acre, which makes the conventional agriculture in the area-mostly soybean and corn production-seem like small potatoes.”  Tim Baker, a University of Missouri extension horticulture specialist for the Bootheel, says it’s not unusual for growers to have a quarter-million dollars invested in their crops before harvesting them.  “The big difference is all the investment in labor, plus the transplanting, irrigation, fertilizing, hand-picking, you name it,” Baker said.

Schnakenberg said word of southeast Missouri’s vegetable success is spreading around the world: “Just this summer, we’ve had organized tours by Russians and Egyptians, and I expect others to discover us soon.”  Schnakenberg estimated that Bootheel land values now run $1,000 to $1,200 per acre. That expense, he said is offset by one tremendous advantage that many parts of the country don’t have: a good and abundant water supply. “This is an especially big asset on our sandy soils,” he said. “Growers don’t have to dig deep for wells. The quality of the water is consistent and is continuously replenished by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”  The seven Bootheel counties are Mississippi, Scott, New Madrid, Butler, Pemiscot, Dunkin and Stoddard.  Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1994|

The Missouri Ozarks

This region of Missouri is known for its shallow soils. Special care must be made to find soils that can support economical vegetable production. River valleys, which could offer good locations, are extremely prone to flooding, throughout the year.  As for the whole of Missouri, the wide swings of temperature in the spring, fall and winter make seasonally lucrative production of early and late season vegetables difficult, and cool season crops rarely do well past May, succumbing to the hot humid summers.

The Ozark Highlands’ karst topography precludes most forms of intensive industrial agriculture. While the region has advanced technologically, the Ozarks remain a haven for agrobiodiverse farmers and gardeners. Five years of applied agricultural anthropology research in different locales of the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks reveals three clearly interconnected characteristics integral to traditional subsistence in the region: agroecological knowledge, diversity, and frugality. These values allowed Ozarkers of historical times to survive, and they permit contemporary hill dwellers an alternative to the industrial food system.

There was a time when the Springfield region boasted the largest apple orchard in the Midwest. Springfield was also the tomato canning capital of the world, with farmers throughout the Ozarks providing the tomatoes. Strawberry production in the region was nearly as large.  There was a time when the Ozarks was known for its mule breeding. These mules supplied the United States military with needed livestock. During the 1960s and 1970s, the West Plains area boasted that they were the “Feeder Pig Capital of the World.”  Numerous productive dairy farms eventually led to growth in ag business. Springfield was the hub for Hiland Dairy, Mid-Am (now Dairy Farmers of America), Kraft and others that depended on local dairy production to supply and power the local economy.  For a period, areas of the Ozarks had very productive row crop operations, with some of the most productive corn fields now sitting under the current site of Battlefield Mall and other businesses along Battlefield Road in Springfield.  Then came a time when livestock operations and fescue production dominated agriculture in the Ozarks. Lawrence County is still the 24th highest ranking county in the United States for beef cow inventory. Polk County ranks 39th and Barry County is 47th.  Lawrence County also ranks in the top five counties in the United States for the most beef cows per square mile.

Great Rivers Region

This region of Missouri offers the greatest opportunity to grow vegetables for the burgeoning urban population centers. The variety of soils and topography associated with both the major and minor river valleys is the regions other primary asset. Most vegetables prefer lighter or sandy soils. As for the whole of Missouri, the wide swings of temperature in the spring, fall and winter make seasonally lucrative production of early and late season vegetables difficult, and cool season crops rarely do well past May, succumbing to the hot humid summers.

This region of Missouri offers the proximity to several urban areas and a variety of soils and topography associated with both the major and minor river valleys. The extremes of weather create Missouri’s greatest challenge to fruit and nut crops and the need to carefully select any variety or cultivar. Wide swings of temperature in the spring often creates a problem for many early spring flowering fruit crops; fruit crops must be able to tolerate the hot and humid summers; and extremely cold winter weather is sporadically encountered with little to no snow cover. With the exception of wine grapes, pecans, and black walnuts.