COLLINSVILLE, Ill. — In a number of measurements,
agriculture in Madison County is a study in contrasts. The county is divided by
soil types, crops grown, topography and population.
“Madison County has some of the better soils in southern
Illinois,” said Brent Rains, a consultant with Crop IM.
But the county has a bit of a dual existence, he added.
“As you move west, you have some pretty good opportunities
with farming. Even weather patterns can be a little different,” said Rains, who
has lived in Collinsville since 2000.
The county is situated in a geological zone marked by
change, said Robert Bellm.
Bellm served for years as a crop systems educator based in
the regional office in Edwardsville. He now manages the University of Illinois
agricultural research center at nearby Brownstown.
“Madison County is in the transition between some of the
darker prairie soils in the north and some of the lighter, timber soils of the
south,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of mixed soils. Then you have the river
bottoms, which are alluvial floodplains.
“Overall, I would call the soils productive. The river
bottoms range from relatively well drained on some of the sandier soils to
poorly drained on the heavier soils down there.
“On the hills, much of the drainage is going to be surface
drainage. They’re not conducive to tile drainage, but there has been a lot of
drainage going in on the northern end of the county over the past five years.
Most of those systems are relatively shallow and narrow because of the soil
The county also is in a demographic transition as urban
sprawl gobbles up farmland. Representing a portion of the so-called Metro East
region, it is part of the St. Louis Metropolitan Area across the Mississippi
“Madison County has always been heavily urbanized, even
industrialized over on the west side along the river,” Bellm said. “There has
been a lot of growth in the county, even in the 20 years I’ve lived there. It’s
centered in the Edwardsville-Collinsville-Troy-Maryville area. It has been
expanding pretty rapidly. That does push into the agricultural area.”
Farmers in the county produced 16.75 million bushels of corn
and 1.62 million bushels of soybeans last year, according to the Illinois
Agricultural Statistics Service. Corn yields averaged 164.4 bushels, with
soybean yields averaging 42.4 bushels.
The county is among the top 10 in the state in wheat
production. Producers harvested 1.62 million bushels last year.
The one crop, however, that sets Madison County apart from
most others is horseradish. Growers in Madison and neighboring St. Clair
counties produce a large percentage of the nation’s pungent roots used as a
The unique convergence of ideal soils for the crop and the
settlement of German immigrants turned the region into what often is billed as
the “Horseradish Capital of the World.” Collinsville is home to the
International Horseradish Festival, which will be held June 6-8 this
Madison County also hosts a number of agribusinesses,
including a flour mill in Alton owned by food processing giant ConAgra Foods.
The plant employs nearly 100 people.
The mill produces 10,000 tons of flour annually. The plant
operates 24 hours a day and during the busy times is open seven days a week,
said ConAgra’s Alan Mersnick.
“We grind soft and hard wheat,” he said. “The hard wheat
comes from about a 200-mile radius, and the hard wheat comes to us from all over
As with other mills, the ConAgra plant has seen a sizeable
jump in processing of whole wheat.
“Whole wheat is really a growing segment of the market,”
Mersnick said. “Whole wheat demand is sharply increasing.”
Another feature is the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in East
Alton, one of the newest such facilities on the Mississippi River. The area is
heavily populated by barges, many of which carry grain for export and inputs
such as fertilizers to farmers.
Located at the facility is the National Great Rivers Museum,
which celebrates the flora and fauna of the region.
Nearby is the Lewis & Clark Illinois Historic Site,
commemorating the site of the final camp of the expedition in 1804 before the
push westward in an attempt to find a water route to the Pacific.