Advanced Search
MyIDEAS: Login

"Rain Follows the Plow" and Dryfarming Doctrine: The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890-1925


Author Info

  • Gary D. Libecap
  • Zeynep Kocabiyik Hansen


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the North American agricultural frontier moved into semi-arid regions of the Great Plains where farming was vulnerable to drought. Farmers who migrated to the region had to adapt their crops, techniques, and farm sizes to better fit the environment. But there was very incomplete information for making these adjustments, and ultimately they were insufficient: too many small, dry-land wheat farms were founded, only to be abandoned in the midst of drought. Two episodes of homestead settlement and collapse in western Kansas in 1893-94 and in eastern Montana in 1917-21 are examined. We go beyond the existing literature by explicitly detailing the weather information problem facing settlers and showing precisely why widespread homestead failure occurred. We present a Bayesian learning model to indicate how new climate information was incrementally incorporated to revise views of agricultural prospects. Primary data are used to show the lagged response of homesteaders to new drought information and to illustrate the differential impact of drought on small farms. Dryfarming doctrine arose as a solution to the problems faced by farmers in the region. Despite its optimistic claims, it was an imperfect response to drought. Indeed, some dryfarming practices increased the likelihood of homestead failure. "No one need be in doubt about the sharp change in climate that occurs somewhere between the 96th and 100th meridians. It can be felt on the lips and skin, observed in the characteristic plant and animal life, seen in the clarity and/or dustiness of the atmosphere, determined by measurements of rainfall and evaporation, tested by attempts at unaided agriculture. Practically every western traveler in the early years remarked the facts of aridity, though not all used the word 'desert'.." Stegner (1954, 399) "Dame Nature of the West holds out most alluring charms, and those who woo and win her smile reap a reward beyond compare. The one thing most needed is correct and accurate information."Buffin (1909, 16) "That dry-farming is a system of agricultural practice which requires the application of high skill and intelligence is admitted; that it is precarious is denied. The year of drought is ordinarily the year in which the man failed to do properly his share of the work." Widtsoe (1911, 412).

Download Info

If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.
File URL:
Download Restriction: no

Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by ICER - International Centre for Economic Research in its series ICER Working Papers with number 03-2002.

as in new window
Length: 48 pages
Date of creation: Nov 2001
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:03-2002

Contact details of provider:
Postal: Viale Settimio Severo, 63 - 10133 Torino - Italy
Phone: +39 011 6604828
Fax: +39 011 6600082
Web page:
More information through EDIRC

Related research


Other versions of this item:


References listed on IDEAS
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:
as in new window
  1. El-Gamal, Mahmoud A. & Grether, David M., 1995. "Are People Bayesian? Uncovering Behavioral Strategies," Working Papers 919, California Institute of Technology, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
  2. Calomiris, Charles W., 1990. "Is Deposit Insurance Necessary? A Historical Perspective," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 50(02), pages 283-295, June.
  3. Libecap, Gary D., 1981. "Bureaucratic Opposition to the Assignment of Property Rights: Overgrazing on the Western Range," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 41(01), pages 151-158, March.
  4. Conley, Timothy G. & Galenson, David W., 1998. "Nativity and Wealth in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Cities," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(02), pages 468-493, June.
Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.
as in new window

Cited by:
  1. 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.
  2. Scott A. Carson, 2012. "Nineteenth Century Biological Conditions on the High Central Plains," CESifo Working Paper Series 3807, CESifo Group Munich.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Zeynep K. Hansen & Gary D. Libecap & Scott E. Lowe, 2011. "Climate Variability and Water Infrastructure: Historical Experience in the Western United States," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, pages 253-280 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Zeynep K. Hansen & Gary D. Libecap & Scott E. Lowe, 2009. "Climate Variability and Water Infrastructure: Historical Experience in the Western United States," NBER Working Papers 15558, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.


This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.


Access and download statistics


When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:03-2002. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Alessandra Calosso).

If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.