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

  • Zeynep K. Hansen
  • Gary D. Libecap

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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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 10055.

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Date of creation: Nov 2003
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Hansen, Zeynep K. and Gary D. Libecap. "Small Farms, Externalities, And The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s," Journal of Political Economy, 2004, v112(3,Jun), 665-694.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10055
Note: DAE
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  1. Roy I. Kimmel, 1940. "Unit Reorganization Program for the Southern Great Plains," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 22(1), pages 264-269.
  2. Roland R. Renne, 1935. "Significance of the Ownership Pattern to Land Use Planning," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 17(3), pages 423-432.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Michael R. Rahm & Wallace E. Huffman, 1984. "The Adoption of Reduced Tillage: The Role of Human Capital and Other Variables," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 66(4), pages 405-413.
  6. 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.
  7. E. A. Starch, 1939. "Type of Farming Modifications Needed in the Great Plains," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 21(1), pages 114-120.
  8. 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.
  9. Gary D. Libecap & James L. Smith, 1999. "The Self-Enforcing Provisions of Oil and Gas Unit Operating Agreements: Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 7142, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. P. H. Stephens, 1937. "Why the Dust Bowl?," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 19(3), pages 750-757.
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