When Oliver Kelley began farming in Minnesota, most farmers were producing for subsistence, growing what was needed to support their families. This often meant produce that could be preserved — like cucumbers, melons, and cabbage — or kept for long periods of time, like root vegetables and squash. Distribution systems were unorganized, and if a farmer was selling food, it was generally only when they had a surplus. Subsistence farming required lots of labor.
By the early 1860s, Minnesota farmers were beginning to switch to commercial agriculture, growing with the intent to sell their products. This approach to farming required substantial cash inputs, and many farmers took out loans. Wheat was the “king” crop to grow and cultivating large amounts for sale required expensive animals and machinery.
Land and new implements were heavily mortgaged. Prices for farm produce were very low, and monopoly railroads charged farmers high prices for transporting their grain to market. There was significant risk involved with commercial agriculture, and not all farmers could successfully make enough money to pay debts or make a profit.