The farming economy in North Dakota has faced a cycle of ups and downs. A 1930s-era picture of sand dunes in front of a North Dakota farm home.
Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU Libraries
By Mikkel Pates
Agriculture in North Dakota isn't what it used to be, but then that's the way it's been since Day One.
David Danbom, a history professor and author at North Dakota State University, sees the 1900s as a succession of technological and economic turning points and cycles, some coinciding or building on each other. The ag economy started strong from 1900 to 1920, followed by a down cycle in the 1920s and bottoming out in 1932. The 1930s marked the start of an era of government involvement in agriculture to diminish the economic risks.
Hiram Drache of Fargo - a retired Concordia College history professor, author of several books on the history of the region's agriculture and a former farm manager - says the "commercial" peak of farms came in 1920 at 77,690.
Drache speaks with disdain about how the federal government created an artificial, "political peak" of 84,606 farms in the state in 1935. The Farm Security Administration (precursor to the Farmers Home Administration and now the Farm Service Agency) came into being. Federal loan programs for the first time put a floor under prices, and acreage reduction programs paid farmers to cut back supplies.
"Dealing with abundance - that's the biggest problem farmers have had," Drache says. "They've always been able to produce more than the market can absorb."
Danbom considers the agricultural revolution the most important thing in the past century - both for the region and the world.
"There was a climax in the '40s after WWII, which involves first mechanization - especially the increasing use of tractors for motor power, and self-propelled combines." Rural electrification, begun in the 1930s, accelerated after the war and was 80 percent done by the mid-1950s.
"The second part of that revolution was what you'd call chemicalization - the introduction of DDT, 2,4-D, and anhydrous ammonia (nitrogen fertilizer) all at about the same time. There was a range of growth hormones and antibiotics for animals, as well.
"The third part would be the development of improved animal breeds," Danbom says
A wheat breeding program begun in North Dakota in the 1910s started paying off in the 1950s with varieties that were rust-resistant, with higher protein, and fast-maturing.
The farm economy was flat in the 1950s and 1960s.
There was the "boom" in the 1970s with world supply-demand peculiarities, the Russian wheat deal and the devaluation of the dollar that made U.S. exports attractive.
"In the 1980s we had the depression that continues now, in some ways, with ups and downs," Danbom says. "It's a depression that in real terms is worse than the 1930s."
Tom Isern, another NDSU history professor, divides the century into three eras.
The "settlement era," lasting through around 1920 was the time "in which we built, and in many respects, overbuilt the civilization of the Great Plains." The concept was dubbed the "too much mistake" by University of North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson.
Isern says the "consolidation era" started at different times in different parts of the state and region, an era from the 1930s and 1950s to the present.
Isern isn't sure what to call the next era.
"Renewal? Supplantation? The existing cultures of the Great Plains are being supplanted by new ones," Isern says. The northern European ancestry is being affected by influxes of capital and labor. If you're not willing to roll with it, you're left on the margins, Isern says. "That's why we're so exercised about corporate hog operations. To some extent it lands payrolls into places like Scranton (N.D.) but it's really a supplantation of the culture."
An accompanying influx of labor which "has only begun to wash as far north as North Dakota" will be Mexican-Hispanic and Asian. "We view a lot of this fairly dimly," Isern says.
Isern believes the agricultural scene is becoming a frontier again. "It's a frontier when capital is flowing there, labor is flowing there because it's entrepreneurial country again," Isern says.
1900s- The wheat monoculture "bonanza farming" carries through about 1917. Railroads advertise farming in North Dakota - "Where Wheat is King." Bonanza farming ends due to tax law changes and inflated land values.
Some 250,000 people settle in North Dakota from 1898 to 1915, many in the Missouri Plateau. The homesteading rate peaks at 2.7 million acres in 1906 and tapers off in the 1920s.
1910s- "Traction plowing" moves from west to east, with steam-powered tractors breaking sod. North Dakota joins Kansas as dominant wheat states, producing a third of the 800-million-bushel annual crop.
In 1912, Congress reduces the homesteading requirement from five years to three for land ownership. Residence is required in seven months of each year. In 1913, the Better Farming Association of Scientific Farming merges with a college-related system of "county agents."
Nationally, the years 1910 to 1914 are used to calculate "parity" - when farm prices are in balance with non-farm prices. In 1914, the Clayton Antitrust Act allows the formation of farmer cooperatives. The Extension Service is created by the Smith-Lever Act.
In 1914, railroader James J. Hill gives away 50 registered Shorthorn breeding cattle in the northern Red River Valley, promoting diversity from wheat. Recipients end up consuming them as beef. In North Dakota, wheat hits 9.4 million acres in 1915, up from 4.3 million in 1898.
Farmers are not happy and feel cheated by Minneapolis millers and bankers. In 1915, the Non-Partisan League is born, creating the Bank of North Dakota, the State Mill and Elevator, and state-supported hail insurance. In 1917, farmers build the Equity Cooperative Packing Plant in West Fargo. Due to mismanagement, it's sold to Armour in 1925.
1920s- In 1920, land prices in North Dakota have climbed to five times the prices in 1900. North Dakota farm numbers reach an early peak at 77,690. In 1921, farm prices crash to one third of their previous levels.
Grain prices rebound in 1924 and 1925, but farm numbers stumble to 75,970 in the state. In 1926, American Crystal Sugar Co. of Denver, Colo., opens its first plant in the Red River Valley at East Grand Forks, Minn.
1930s- In 1930, 44 percent of North Dakota farmers own tractors; innovators drop their horses completely. Minnesota emerges as a major dairy power.
From 1929 to 1938, North Dakota receives less than 20 inches of rain per year. In five of these years, fewer than 15 inches fall, creating crop failures and large-scale erosion known as the Dirty Thirties. In 1931, wheat prices decline to as low as 25 cents a bushel. That July, a North Dakota farm woman writes to the Secretary of Agriculture, "My husband and I are losing everything" even though they work from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
In 1933, North Dakota passes its anti-corporate farm law by initiated measure - a reaction to foreclosures. The federal Agricultural Adjustment Act is established in 1933 and revised in 1938. This sets a floor below farm prices and allows forfeiture of collateral grain to the government. The government imposes "parity" prices to pull the nation out of the Depression. Federal crop insurance is created in 1938.
Union Stockyards opens in West Fargo in 1935, attracting 25,000 people to its grand opening. Low-pressure rubber tires, electric fences, spray-painting for buildings, and hybrid corn in 18-inch rows are novelty technologies.
The Rural Electrification Act is passed in 1936. Farmers in Cass County start signing up in 1937. It will be another 20 years before most of the state is served.
Many farmers buy low-priced land setting them up for "a time of milk and honey" in the war years.
1940s- Excess farm workers go to war or to industrial plants. In 1942, farm machinery is rationed. Crop surpluses disappear by 1943. North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law is successfully defended in the U.S. Supreme Court. Corporations have 10 years to divest of farmland.
In 1942, Congress passes a law that supports wheat and four other commodities at 100 percent of parity during wartime. The subsidy is extended to 90 percent of parity through 1948.
After WWII, many rural roads become graded. Automobiles, telephones and electricity become more common. Fungicides, antibiotics, sprayers, and pipeline milking come into use. Farmers start to use combines and dry grains in the mid-1940s.
In April 1946, Arnold Amundson of Climax, Minn., leads a procession of 140 farmers to the local elevator as a national kickoff for Mercy Wheat, a program by the United Nations to deliver grain to war-starved Poland. Farmers hang on to their grain, so the government offers them a 30-cent-per-bushel bonus to deliver it.
Thousands of farm homes in the region are rebuilt or newly built as soldiers return home in the late 1940s.
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