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Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s

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  • Zeynep K. Hansen
  • Gary D. Libecap

Abstract

We provide a new and more complete analysis of the origins of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, one of the most severe environmental crises in North America in the 20th Century. Severe drought and wind erosion hit the Great Plains in 1930 and lasted through 1940. There were similar droughts in the 1950s and 1970s, but no comparable level of wind erosion. We explain why. The prevalence of small farms in the 1930s limited private solutions for controlling the downwind externalities associated with wind erosion. Drifting sand from unprotected fields damaged neighboring farms. Small farmers cultivated more of their land and were less likely to invest in erosion control than were larger farmers. Soil Conservation Districts, established by government after 1937, helped coordinate erosion control. This unitized' solution for collective action is similar to that used in other natural resource/environmental settings.

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File URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/383102
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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal Journal of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 112 (2004)
Issue (Month): 3 (June)
Pages: 665-694

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jpolec:v:112:y:2004:i:3:p:665-694

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  1. Kislev, Yoav & Peterson, Willis, 1982. "Prices, Technology, and Farm Size," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 90(3), pages 578-95, June.
  2. Norris, Patricia E. & Batie, Sandra S., 1987. "Virginia Farmers' Soil Conservation Decisions: An Application Of Tobit Analysis," Southern Journal of Agricultural Economics, Southern Agricultural Economics Association, vol. 19(01), July.
  3. Libecap, Gary D & Smith, James L, 1999. "The Self-Enforcing Provisions of Oil and Gas Unit Operating Agreements: Theory and Evidence," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 15(2), pages 526-48, July.
  4. Allen, Douglas W & Lueck, Dean, 1998. "The Nature of the Farm," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 41(2), pages 343-86, October.
  5. Wiggins, Steven N & Libecap, Gary D, 1985. "Oil Field Unitization: Contractual Failure in the Presence of Imperfect Information," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(3), pages 368-85, June.
  6. Feder, Gershon, 1985. "The relation between farm size and farm productivity : The role of family labor, supervision and credit constraints," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(2-3), pages 297-313, August.
  7. Coxhead, Ian, 2000. "Consequences of a Food Security Strategy for Economic Welfare, Income Distribution and Land Degradation: The Philippine Case," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 111-128, January.
  8. Hansen, Zeynep K. & Libecap, Gary D., 2004. "The allocation of property rights to land: US land policy and farm failure in the northern great plains," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 41(2), pages 103-129, April.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Price V. Fishback & Werner Troesken & Trevor Kollmann & Michael Haines & Paul W. Rhode & Melissa Thomasson, 2011. "Information and the Impact of Climate and Weather on Mortality Rates During the Great Depression," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, pages 131-167 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Lee J. Alston & Edwyna Harris & Bernardo Mueller, 2009. "De Facto and De Jure Property Rights: Land Settlement and Land Conflict on the Australian, Brazilian and U.S. Frontiers," CEPR Discussion Papers 607, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Research School of Economics, Australian National University.
  3. Price V. Fishback & John Joseph Wallis, 2012. "What Was New About the New Deal?," NBER Working Papers 18271, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Rodney Ramcharan, 2010. "Inequality and Redistribution: Evidence from U.S. Counties and States, 1890-1930," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(4), pages 729-744, November.
  5. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”," ICER Working Papers 33-2010, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  6. Costello, Christopher & Polasky, Stephen, 2008. "Optimal harvesting of stochastic spatial resources," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 56(1), pages 1-18, July.
  7. Brooks, Leah & Strange, William C., 2011. "The micro-empirics of collective action: The case of business improvement districts," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(11), pages 1358-1372.
  8. Fishback, Price V. & Horrace, William C. & Kantor, Shawn, 2006. "The impact of New Deal expenditures on mobility during the Great Depression," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 43(2), pages 179-222, April.
  9. John Landon-Lane & Hugh Rockoff & Richard H. Steckel, 2009. "Droughts, Floods and Financial Distress in the United States," NBER Working Papers 15596, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Kantor, Shawn & Fishback, Price V. & Wallis, John Joseph, 2013. "Did the New Deal solidify the 1932 Democratic realignment?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(4), pages 620-633.
  11. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”," NBER Working Papers 16324, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Fleck, Robert K., 2013. "Why did the electorate swing between parties during the Great Depression?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(4), pages 599-619.

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