by Jon Magee
After the Civil War, when the Army turned its primary attention to exterminating the Plains Indians, wagon trains and railroad crews were already crossing the vast prairies these tribes inhabited. Population pressures and rising land prices back East were compelling people to seek out the new territories. Autonomy and opportunity were there for the taking, or so the story went. New immigrants, younger sons lacking inheritance, and any others shut out of the general prosperity of the eastern states were generally quick to answer the call of the frontier.
The railroad companies were eager to increase the flow of settlers to the West. If more people lived out west, they would need a steady stream of merchandise and commodities from back east, and the transcontinental railroad would carry that freight. However, if trains only carried loads headed westward, the railroad would bear the cost of empty cars heading back east to pick up more freight. For this reason, the railroads invested in elaborate campaigns promoting the farmland of the Great Plains. If commodity crops were grown in these new territories, the rail cars would return to the East filled with grain and fiber. Thousands of flyers and bills proclaimed the virtues of the Plains: Virgin land, of untold fertility! Pennies on the acre, and the banks are lending! By 1900, thousands of potential farmers were heading west. The ‘booster’ mentality of the railroads, their lending partners, and the horde of speculators was contagious. Industrialists saw a paradise of flat land, where single-crop fields of thousands of acres were ideally suited to new equipment like the McCormick reaper—this would be the perfect place to experiment with Tayloristprinciples in food production.
Thus began the bonanza of the Red River Valley. North Dakota and Montana welcomed many homesteader families, as well as some of the largest corporate farms in U.S. history. These experimental farms were as large as fifty or one hundred thousand acres, almost entirely wheat. The most famous and out-spoken proprietor of a mega-farm was Thomas Campbell, whose Montana Farming Corporation (founded in 1918) planted roughly fifty thousand acres of wheat each year.
Even the ‘small’ family farms of this new territory were hundreds of acres on average, several times larger than those of the Midwest and considerably less diversified. The thin soil of the northern prairies were not as rich as those further east, and transportation costs and the connivance of middle-men meant that the returns per acre declined the further a farmer was from the eastern markets. Farmers on the plains were hardly self-sufficient, either, usually growing only cash crops. Later, when extension agents encouraged farmers to ‘diversify,’ this mostly meant raising hogs in addition to the wheat production.
And yet, for a while, it seemed as if all of the hype were true. Prices were bolstered by the first World War, as Europe effectively ceased to produce its own food, and yields were boosted by the virgin prairie’s fertility and by an unusually wet decade. The price of farmland rose 70% nationwide as speculators jumped to take advantage of the boom, and farmers just couldn’t grow enough wheat to satisfy demand.
Unfortunately, the bubble was destined to burst: the armistice was signed in November of 1918, just as Montana and North Dakota returned to the more typical arid climate. The US government recognized the threat that peace posed to the market of agricultural commodities and promised to maintain war-time prices of wheat into 1920. Nonetheless, by July of 1921 the price of wheat had fallen 85% from its peak. From the end of the war up to 1925, farmers abandoned two million acres of land in Montana, and half of the state’s commercial banks failed.
For the nation’s farmers, the ‘Jazz Age’ was anything but grand. Family farms were already losing out before the bust, prey to the middle-men, lenders, and shippers whom they relied on to market their goods and finance their businesses. Even farms in the more stable areas of the Midwest and South suffered from the depression that followed the boom. In 1922 alone, 1.2 million farmers left the countryside. Groups such as the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, and (on the more progressive end of the spectrum) the Non-Partisan League formed to address the plight of the farmer. Despite meager efforts by the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, most of the nation’s farmers had already endured a full decade of hard times before the rest of the nation joined them in their plight in 1929.
The conversation among the nation’s elites, as represented in the press, in lecture halls, and in many a government study, questioned the origins of the rural depression. Many said that farmers were to blame—eugenicists were quick to point out that many farmers were recent immigrants, of ‘poor blood,’ from southern Europe. Many commentators drew attention to the poor living conditions on farms and the poor state of rural schools. Some of these commentators tried to be sympathetic, asking ‘What can we do to improve our farmers?’ In the words of Deborah Fitzgerald,
The debate was framed by those who were in a position to debate—financiers and industrialists whose influence was keenly felt in the government, and the first class of Agricultural Economists and Agricultural Engineers, fresh out of the new land-grant universities. Their opinions would set the stage for the New Deal programs which once and for all enshrined industrial-style farming in national legislation.
Next month I hope to cover a little of what the New Deal wrought on the countryside. Before we get to that point, though, one has to wonder: Why was the fault laid on farmers, who were following the lead of the railroad companies, lenders, and all the other cheerleaders of the new settlement?
For those who would like to read more about this period of farm history, I can recommend several books. The first is a general history of rural America, entitled Born in the Country, by David B. Danbom. The second book, particularly good for its coverage of the period 1900-1930, is Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, by Deborah Fitzgerald. On agriculture and economic development more generally, I highly recommend Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott, which covers the themes of industrializing agriculture here in this country, in the early Soviet Union, and more recently in the ‘developing’ world.
 Frederick Taylor is known for his ideology of “scientific management,” a set of guidelines for optimizing the industrial process. Major elements include an extreme division of labor, small and highly repetitive tasks, de-skilling of workers and elimination of craftsmen, and a primary emphasis on the engineer as the agent of production. Taylorism is closely associated with Fordism (that is, Henry Ford’s mass production ideology).
 New York Times, “Plans Cultivation of 200,000 Acres,” June 5, 1918. Fetched from www.nytimes.com. After a nearly total crop failure in the first year, operations were scaled back considerably.
 Deborah Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory, p. 19.
 Fitzgerald, p. 30.
 Fitzgerald, p. 20.
 Fitzgerald, p. 21.