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 types.”

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 River.

“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 sinus-opening condiment.

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 year.

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 the Midwest.”

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.