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

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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