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

Listed author(s):
  • 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).

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

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Length: 48 pages
Date of creation: Nov 2001
Handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:03-2002
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  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. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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