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On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment

Author(s):Cunfer, Geoff
Reviewer(s):Gregg, Matthew T.

Published by EH.NET (April 2006)

Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. xii + 292 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 1-58544-401-4.

Reviewed by Matthew T. Gregg, Gabelli School of Business, Roger Williams University.

How have farmers in the Great Plains from the early settlement period (roughly 1870) to the present interacted with the natural world? Considering all the economic upheaval and environmental crises that have occurred over this time, can one feasibly characterize their agricultural practices as sustainable? If Great Plains agriculture can in fact be considered sustainable, has land use varied substantially over these 130 years? These evocative questions are tackled by Geoff Cunfer, associate professor at the Center for Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University, in On the Great Plains. Though it may seem inconceivable to characterize the history of Great Plains land use as stable, Cunfer uncovers a persistent theme in his research: Great Plains farmers surprisingly found an optimal mix between agricultural uses (in particular, plowing vs. pasture) quickly and maintained this mix within the limits of the natural environment for a surprisingly long period of time. Only occasionally, in particular during the mid 1930s, did farmers push the boundaries of this regional environment; however, they quickly returned to a “steady-state” land-use equilibrium. Cunfer forms this thesis through the adoption of primary sources such as personal diaries and newspaper articles, but the bulk of his analysis relies on decennial county-level census data from 1870-2000 for the area spanning from North Dakota to the northern tip of Texas.

In terms of the historical literature on Great Plains agriculture, Cunfer provides a middle ground between the progressive and the declensionist approaches. Webb (1931) asserted the popular Turnerian claim that the physical endowments of the Great Plains forced farmers to adapt, which eventually led to the formation of a distinct and puissant regional culture. This view has been challenged by social historians like Worster (1979) whose declensionist narrative described Great Plains agriculture as an ecological failure with profit maximization as the leading culprit of over-cultivation. As discussed in the Introduction, Cunfer suggests a more suitable historical narrative should assimilate Malin’s (1944, 1946, 1961, 1984) work on Kansas agriculture which stressed farmers’ general ability to adapt and create innovative solutions to resource scarcity over time. In particular, Cunfer blends together these two extreme approaches and summarizes Great Plains agricultural history in three components: (1) the rapid build-up of farm settlements from 1870-1920, which substantially altered the surrounding environment; (2) relative land-use stability from 1920 to 2000; and (3) the occasional transition in agricultural techniques which resulted in a quick shift away from this land-use equilibrium.

One of Cunfer’s innovations to this literature is the use of publicly-available county-level census data for roughly 450 counties contained in ten states (MT, ND, SD, NE, WY, CO, KS, MN, OK, and TX) from 1870 to 2000. From these data, Cunfer finds some interesting statistical trends. For example, over 70 percent of this total area has never been plowed, as the peak occurred in 1978 when only 28 percent of available land was used for crops. In fact, this equilibrium (20 to 25 percent of the total area for cropland) between pasture and plowing was remarkable stable from 1925-1997 (see Table 2.2, p. 26). How was this possible? Despite the economic incentives built into federal government schemes such as the Homestead Act and farm subsidies, Cunfer concludes that environmental variables, in particular rainfall and to a weaker extent temperature and soil quality, were the driving force behind land-use decisions.

Along similar lines, Cunfer incorporates personal diaries from farmers in Rooks County, Kansas and Floyd County, Texas with a large-scale analysis of all 450 Great Plains counties to prove that crop diversity has changed little over the last one hundred years. By segmenting these farm data into acreage devoted to food, fiber, feed, forage, and pasture, Cunfer creates a crop diversity index with 1 representing the most diverse county to show that a crop diversity equilibrium (between 0.8 and 0.9) was reached in 1920s and persisted to the present. This stability in crop mixes was also consistent within this large region as the eastern boundary always maintained a higher degree of crop diversity than the sandier western counties. Given the diminishing farm population and increased governmental assistance programs, the lack of any regional trend towards monoculture is a surprising result. Perhaps more surprising is that no crop ever reached 5 percent of the total acreage in any county at any time (p. 111).

Besides crop diversity and land use, Cunfer addresses other land-use issues such as grazing, the substitution of tractors for horses, the Dust Bowl, and environmental problems like water scarcity and soil erosion. In short, Cunfer finds that water chiefly influenced the distribution of cattle across the grassland. Cunfer also finds that while initial tractor adoption was slow, tractor adoption became rapid after World War I and its adoption only marginally altered crop mixes across all these counties. However, unlike other land-use measures, the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer and the resulting soil erosion does not fit in neatly with his stability thesis. However, Cunfer provides the classic optimistic assertion over the water scarcity problem: “Farmers will eventually use up their underground water supply and will then be pulled back within natural limits imposed by climate” (p. 200).

Yet, of these remaining chapters, economic historians will probably be most interested in Cunfer’s discussion of the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl still remains an important environmental crisis and it is often a rallying point for federal government conservation programs. Cunfer adds to this literature by applying GIS maps to the entire Great Plains and interpreting comparative sand, rainfall, and temperature differential data to conclude that “human land-use choices were less prominent in creating dust storms than was the weather” (p. 163).[1] The localized portion of the Great Plains where dust storms were magnified contained substantially more sandy soil, only a small percentage of land devoted for crops, and the greatest degree of rainfall deficits from past trends. This non-exploitative argument contradicts the conventional wisdom which maintains that a massive plow-up followed the trail of increasing wheat prices and low cost of farming.[2]

With any narrative that makes such sweeping conclusions, it is easy to find issue with certain points. Given Cunfer’s surprising results regarding land-use stability, one may question if county-level data are the best way to analyze land-use trends in Great Plains agriculture. It is commonly known that farm subsidies disproportionately benefit large farms and given the recent increase in regional poverty, an analysis that incorporates farm-level data may lead to a more behavioristic approach to changes in Great Plains agriculture. For example, Hansen and Libecap (2004) provide an alternative explanation for the Dust Bowl which is based on the inability of the great number of small-scaled farmers to coordinate and invest in soil erosion controls. Unfortunately, this conclusion can not be directly tested using Cunfer’s approach. Also, by looking at trends in county-level land use, this may in fact be a “back of the envelope” approach of assessing the sustainability of Great Plains agriculture. Land use was stable because the supply of fertile land was inelastic, yet is this evidence of sustainable farming practices? Maybe analyzing changes in farm sizes or better yet, changes in total factor productivity (a statistical measure not estimated by the author) at the farm-level can provide more direct evidence on the types of agricultural practices that are more sustainable.

Without the rigor of most cliometric analyses, economic historians may not be initially convinced of these conclusions; however, Cunfer does raise many important issues especially given the current emphasis on sustainability. This narrative is well-written and each topic is supported with statistical analyses and collaborative primary source documents. Certainly, for an overview of the history of land use in the Great Plains, this book is well-suited for both economic and social historians.

Notes: 1. This general result is consistent with recent work by NASA scientists (see Schubert et al. (2004)) who stimulated the impact of radical changes in sea surface temperatures on rainfall and wind levels on specific regions of the Great Plains. 2. This view is contained in Egan’s (2005) popular new book on the social history of the Dust Bowl.


Timothy Egan (2005). The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Zeynep K. Hansen and Gary D. Libecap (2004). “Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Journal of Political Economy 112: 665-94.

James C. Malin (1944). Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas: A Study in Adaptation to Subhumid Geographical Environment. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

James C. Malin (1946). “Dust Storms, 1850-1900,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 14: 129-44, 265-96, 391-413.

James C. Malin (1946). Essays on Historiography. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers.

James C. Malin (1984). History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, edited by Robert P. Swieranga. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Siegried D. Schubert, Max J. Suarez, Philip J. Pegion, Randal D. Koster, and Julio T. Bacmeister, (2004) “On the Cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl,” Science 303: 1855-59.

Walter Prescott Webb (1933). The Great Plains. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

Donald Worster (1979). Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matthew Gregg researches all aspects of the Cherokee Indian economy during the nineteenth century. He is currently writing an article titled “The Economic Costs and Consequences of Cherokee Removal” (joint with David Wishart). Recent publications of this research include “Market-Orientation and Cherokee Multi-Factor Productivity” in Essays in Economic and Business History. He teaches several courses in applied microeconomics, such as U.S. economic history and environmental economics.

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII