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Saturday, January 2, 2021

60 Years of Memories: Agriculture In Butler


60 Years of Memories of Butler

by James Ring


Over the years, Butler has gradually embraced industrial diversification, attracting plants like the F.M. Thorp manufacturing building, the Russell Stover warehouse, Mr. Longarm facility and Ward Paper Box. But, as time passes, the town has watched industry come and go; the fortunes of business rise and fall.


Bates County has always been based on agriculture. Like it or not, Agribusiness is what keeps us going, year and year out. People have to eat, crops have to be planted and harvested, commodities have to be stored and moved. The ag cycle is eternal, and dependable. 


Thus, although we’ve seen changes, we’re still an agriculture community. The Bates County Fair, and its predecessors like the old Butler Fair and the Street Fairs held right on the Square’s bricks, prove this. Nationwide, only 2% of the population grows the foodstuffs to support the other 98%. It’s a little larger percentage locally.


Dairy farming is one of the most changed segments of our county’s agriculture. Sixty years ago, lots and lots of our family farms had milk cows. Power milkers sucked the juice out of them twice a day, supplemented by hand-stripping the last squirts. The precious fluid was dumped into 10-gallon cans and the filled near-hundred-pound containers would be lugged aboard milk trucks who traveled their route, hauling the owner-marked cans into Butler to the processing plants. Smaller farms sold cream to buying stations around the county.


The big Chapman milk plant, on the corner of Ft. Scott and Mechanic streets, took a lot of the Grade C milk, and there was another plant on Mill Street (now the City vehicle shop). Eventually, Grade A standards took over, requiring more expensive tanks and milking parlors; Dave and Ruth Ann Grizzell were the Surge milking equipment dealers on North Main street. The biggest dairy was the Steel and King partnership on West 52.


Consolidation and mandates brought an end to small-scale dairying, as happened with pork production; six decades back, most farmers kept a few hogs, farrowing several litters of pigs per year, selling them as feeder pigs if they didn’t feed them out themselves. The labor and land-use priorities put an end to pasture-raised pigs; now our bacon comes from hogs raised in confinement barns.


Field crops in my youth were diversified. Milo was raised for chicken feed, wheat and oats were planted for human and livestock consumption, alfalfa made great hay, and rye and barley might be seen as well. Corn would be harvested with a corn picker to preserve the cob, the ears ground whole to make meal-based feed. If your farm didn’t own a feed grinder, a truck-mounted mobile mill would come by to grind your feed. 


When I was a boy, the Missouri state average corn yield was 32 bushels per acre. We had heard of 100-bushel corn somewhere, but hadn’t seen it. And then farms got bigger as neighbors bought out neighbors; raising a family on 320 acres was no longer possible. A couple of thousand acres is now the norm, with huge picker-sheller combines swallowing up 200-bushel per acre cornfields, planted “as thick as the fair on a dog’s back” as my father put it.


Soybeans became the favored crop, useful for many purposes. With their nitrogen-fixing root system, bean plants could be rotated with corn plants in alternate years to improve soil quality. With land as a fixed or declining resource, the value of farm ground made maximum-effort cropping a necessity; windrows have been bulldozed out, fences are no longer seen except to contain livestock, hillsides are farmed and native prairie plots are nearly extinct. 


The support network has changed as well. Implement dealerships like Massey Ferguson, International Harvester, Ford, Oliver and Case are no more, combined into Deere, New Holland and Case-IH conglomerates. 


Still and all, we remain an agricultural community. We’re fortunate to live in an area where the terrain and rainfall support multi-use farming potential. After 60 years, we’re still farmers, or linked to them.