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North Dakota and agriculture: agriculture and North Dakota—words that are almost synonymous to many people, including its own residents.  It is the land itself that has been a major factor in the development of the state and its culture.  The farmers who turned the first sod were looking to replicate the farms of eastern states or Europe, but the land forced them to adjust.  And adjust they have, adopting farming methods uniquely suited to the northern Great Plains.  It is through the eyes of the publications documenting this fundamental change in dealing with the land on its terms that this change can be understood and appreciated.

Climate, soil, and geography, native animal life

North Dakota is a state where trees are few and grass is short.  On the extreme east is a narrow strip of land following the Red River of the North.  The deep rich black soils of the Red River Valley  were the first cultivated in the modern age;  in fact, most of what is now North Dakota was untouched by the plow until the 1870s except for this region.  The central portion of the state is dominated by the drift prairie, a region of gently rolling prairie and thousands of wetlands.  And, to the west, is the higher dryer grassland area of the  Missouri Plateau.  The major rivers are the Red River flowing north to Canada, and the Missouri River on the western side of the state and flowing south to St. Louis.  Temperature of the state varies drastically from frigid winters to hot summers:  in 1936 temperature varied from a winter low of -60  F to a summer high of  +121 F!  North Dakota has a lot of sun, a lot of wind, and long winters with (usually) only moderate snowfall, but snow sometimes hurled into blizzards of fierce velocity.  Before settlement, the state was mostly grassland prairie where huge herds of bison roamed, and elk, antelope, deer, and beavers abounded, as did prairie dogs, jack rabbits, and waterfowl. 

Early History

North Dakota  was home to the Chippewa, Sioux, Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa Indian tribes.  Although most of the tribes were nomadic hunters, the Mandan were agricultural, tilling the soil along the Missouri River and growing corn, squash, pumpkin, sunflower and even tobacco.  Not only did the Mandan understand and utilize the great agricultural potential of the state, but they understood how to live with the varied and sometimes harsh environment, living in large communal earthen lodges which afforded  protection from cold of winter and heat of the summer.  It was with this agrarian tribe that the Lewis and Clark party stayed during the winter of  1804/05.

Fur Trade

Fur traders from Canada began to trade with the native tribes prior to 1750.  Fur trading posts were established in the extreme north east corner of the state by Alexander Henry, followed by Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company and others.  Henry probably became the first white agriculturist of the state: he was known as an avid gardener, and grew crops of potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbages and corn.  Later in the 1800s, traders journeyed up the Missouri to the south western portion of the state to trade with the Arikara and Mandan tribes.  After the journey of Lewis and Clark, the fur trade business increased rapidly, and numerous forts were built for its protection.  At the time, the state did not attract settlements of farmers; however, these forts originally built to protect the fur trade later served to protect the frontier farmers.

Early Settlers

As did the first fur trappers, the first settlers to the area came from Canada.  Scottish tenant farmers displaced by the change to a sheep economy in Scotland, immigrated to Canada via Hudson’s Bay in the early 1800’s.  With little food or equipment, they found their way down the Red River to Henry’s fur trading post; there they could hunt buffalo and managed to survive.  Knowledge of Henry’s successful vegetable crops led them to stay and plant, and encourage other Scottish settlers to come.  They sent a delegation to Wisconsin in 1820 to purchase wheat seed,  purchased and drove to the state a herd of cattle, and developed a thriving agricultural outpost of the frontier.  Early histories of this era include  Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State, written in 1856 by Alexander Ross.  Further significant development and expansion of agriculture did not occur in the state until  the coming  of the railroads.

Transportation and Railroads

The fur trade relied on cumbersome and seasonal water transportation:  ox carts traversed from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Red River, connecting with steamboats plying the river north to Winnipeg.  Steamboats also navigated the Missouri River, transporting furs on the western side of the state south to St. Louis.  The steamboat era came to an end with the coming of the railroad.  The Northern Pacific crossed the Red River into Dakota Territory at the site of present-day Fargo in 1871 and completed tracks across the state by 1881.  In 1880, what became known as the Great Northern Rail Road crossed into North Dakota further north at Grand Forks, and soon railroad tracks extended north, connecting Fargo and Grand Forks to Winnipeg, Canada.  River towns died, while railroad towns sprang up.

The railroads led the way to mass settlement of the state, and the evolution of agriculture depended on their coming.  Railroad companies aimed to build across the country to the Pacific coast, and they were granted massive tracts of land along the track right of ways by the government to finance the enterprise;  the rail companies could sell these lands, or use them to exchange stock for land.  It became vital for the railroads to attract land buyers, and they became active in enticing settlers to the region.

Milling, grain trade and grain trading and milling centers

In the 1870s, a new milling process was developed by Minneapolis millers which enabled a superior flour to be made from spring wheat;  prior to the new process, spring wheat, the variety suitable to the Dakotas,  was thought to be inferior, and garnered low prices on the grain trade.  Suddenly, spring wheat became highly valued and sought after.  With a milling industry and grain market center in Minneapolis, and with the railroads built, wanting business and needing settlers to buy their land,  and with plenty of fertile land free or cheap, the stage was set for emergence of the area as a wheat mecca.

Bonanza Farms

Railroads would exchange their stock for land; and some wealthy eastern stockholders recognized the opportunity and exchanged their stock for vast acreages.  A new system of frontier agriculture developed, the bonanza farm.  Unique in its time, bonanza farms were very large scale operations (most over 1200 acres) with some over 64,000 in size. It was not unusual for a bonanza farm to plow a section of 640 acres as one field, one mile on each side!  The absentee owners hired professionals to operate the farms--managers, bookkeepers, superintendents, cooks, and  foremen;  large numbers of migrant workers were relied upon during busy times, a small staff throughout the year;  the latest developments in equipment and the newest technology were utilized; and they grew one crop—WHEAT.  Bonanza farms became a sensation,  and served to demonstrate opportunities offered in Dakota.  Ideally suited to the flat land and deep rock-free fertile soil, machine manufacturers used these farms to test new developments:  the gang plow, large combines, various drills, and large steam tractors, for example.  Wheat became king, a dependence difficult to change even after the era of bonanza farms was over.  Among of the materials published about this time was The Checkered Years , the memoirs of Mary Dodge Woodward who resided on a bonanza farm just west of Fargo.

The bonanza farm boom was short lived,  lasting only from 1879 to 1886 during times of cheap land, a great climate, and a great grain market.  It ended during a period  of drought, low grain prices, and plagues of grasshoppers.   Also, more people were immigrating into the state due to railroad and land company advertisements and the notoriety of the bonanza farms themselves.  The new settlers were willing to buy quarter sections of land, and the bonanza owners sold rather than continue farming in a depressed economy.



The railroads facilitated the slaughter of the bison until all of the once great herds had been eliminated.  The grassland, especially in the western side of the state, was suitable for cattle, and it was not long before cattle ranching took the place of the bison.  The first trail herds came into the state in the 1870s;  by the mid-1880s the cattle industry was booming.  Ranching attracted some of the state’s more colorful characters,  including Theodore Roosevelt, who ranched for a time in the badlands area of the west, and Marquis de Mores, an entrepreneurial cattle rancher from France whose innovations included an on-site packing plant and refrigerated train cars to ship processed meat.  At first Texas style free range year-round grazing was practiced.  During mild winters the system prospered;  however, during the  severe winter of  1886/87 most of the great ranches were ruined, most losing 80-90% of their herds. The industry survived, but developed a different style of ranching:  year-round grazing was changed to a system of summer-fall grazing, supplemented  by feeding during winter and spring. 

Luring settlers

Methods of luring settlers to North Dakota were devised by railroads, the territorial government, land speculators and land offices, and continued until the depression era of the 1930s.  Publications, newspaper articles, and flyers painted glowing pictures of the area.  The Dakotas were portrayed as a virtual farming utopia.  Titles of these flamboyant publications reflect their tone: “Red River the Eden of the Northwest”; “Land of Fine Horses, Fine Cattle, Fine Sheep, Good Health, Good People, and the Best Bread in the World”;   “Land of Golden Grain”;  or “North Dakota; Land of Peace, Prosperity, and Plenty, where the Farmer makes the Laws.” Resources in Dakota, published in 1887 by the Territorial government, detailed available public lands, how to obtain them, what supplies were necessary to purchase, costs of doing business, county information, and a wealth of other advice –it was a veritable handbook for the Dakota settler.  A later publication,  North Dakota Magazine, was published by the state government to encourage immigration to the state: it proclaimed on one of its covers a “battle cry for 1909 --100,000 new settlers.”  From 1878-1890, the population increased from 16,000 to 191,000; and settlers continued to stream into the state until the 1930s.  Probably half were emigrants, especially from Norway, Canada, Russia, Sweden, England and Ireland.  There was also significant internal migration from nearby states as well as the East Coast.

Homesteaders’ life

Settlers could gain land cheaply by purchase from railroad companies or by homestead claim or purchase of public land according to provisions of Homestead Act and other public land settlement acts.  Settlers coped with the challenging climate by building sod houses (or log cabins along the rivers where wood was in supply), dugouts, and tar paper shacks.  Homestead life was a frontier agriculture existence: subsistence farming, entailing hard work by men and women.  Most newcomers needed to adjust their way of life and method of farming  to survive the Dakota setting--those who could not,  soon departed, selling out to new waves of newcomers.  North Dakota became a rural state with small towns and farms, populated sparsely and with no large cities.  As with the bonanza farms, settlers relied on wheat, continuing the precarious dependence on monoculture and the dangers inherent in it.

Farmers’ political movements

As time went on,  the railroads began to charge rates the North Dakota farmers believed excessive.  Also, the grain merchants in Minneapolis began to grade North Dakota wheat low—low enough that the North Dakota farmers cried foul.  North Dakota farmers were not shy about fighting for their livelihood, and farm unrest erupted;  unrest developed into political agitation, and political agitation developed into political activity.  Political action organizations were formed, first the Dakota Farmers Alliance, and later in 1920s the powerful Non-Partisan League.  The League advocated state ownership of  grain elevators, mills, and packing plants, state-controlled  grain inspection, and state hail insurance;  it stood against big business, grain buyers, and banks, as all were considered agents of “eastern interests.”  League candidates controlled the state legislature by 1918.  Bills were passed to reform  grain grading and trading, develop a state highway commission, approve  women suffrage, establish a North Dakota owned-mill, establish state hail insurance and workmen’s compensation, and to guarantee bank deposits.  Although  anti-League interests controlled again by 1920, many of its actions have legacies today:  North Dakota still has a state owned-mill, and a state-owned bank.  Other farm organizations organized in 20s and 30s: the North Dakota Wheat Growers formed to create a wheat monopoly of North Dakota wheat (an attempt which failed); later the North Dakota Farmers Union  formed and succeeded in giving its members a break (although not a monopoly) at the marketplace.  The reports, newsletters and other documents published by these and other political organizations and growers associations are a wealth of source material for North Dakota agricultural history.

Education, Research  and Extension

Agricultural evolution of the state would have been completely different without the North Dakota Agricultural College (the state’s land-grant institution),  the North Dakota Experiment Station, both established in Fargo in 1890,  and the Extension Service established in 1914.   Early on, research centered on development of new seeds, new farming methods, plant disease and weed control.  Multiple efforts of getting this information out  to farmers were undertaken: publications, farmers institutes, demonstration farms, and packaged libraries  (including cultural materials such as amateur plays and discussion material). The Bulletin published by the Experiment Station included some of the most important research to the state: from crop and livestock disease, to baking qualities of durum wheat, to equitable grading of wheat, to paint quality exposés.  Important publications geared to the farmer included:  the North Dakota Farmer and Sanitary Home, begun in 1899, continuing for eighteen years and  providing agricultural news and articles by college staff; the monthly The Extension begun in 1908, with practical  articles for farmers; and the journal called North Dakota Farmers’ Institute Annual, comprising the research and new farming methods presented in the farmers institutes. 

These information and research services slowly shifted crop patterns in the early 1900s: the percentage of hard red spring wheat dropped, and oats, durum wheat, barley, flax, sugar beet, forage crops, and potatoes increased.  The livestock business evolved and began to include more dairying.  By 1920, due in large part to the College, Extension and the Experiment Stations, agriculture was no longer a homogeneous wheat culture.

Dust bowl and depression

The severe drought of the 30s, with the resulting grasshopper plague and economic depression, affected North Dakota farmers severely.  The Non-Partisan League was re-organized, again gained strength, and won political power and the governorship, implementing another number of progressive actions. 

The drought depleted the grazing land, causing ranchers to drastically reduce the size of their herds.  Crops were decimated by drought, diseases, and insect infestations.  A wheat allotment plan organized by the state Extension Service, assistance provided by the Federal Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other government assistance programs helped to see North Dakota people and agriculture through.  An estimated  45% people of the state were receiving some form of Federal grants, relief, or public works administration assistance.  With the ending of the drought, and with the advent of World War II and the resulting extra market for meat and crops, the ranching and farming industries recovered and prospered until the end of the World War II.

Evolution of agriculture in the state from roots until now

Although the age-old problems of cold weather, blizzards, floods, drought and pestilence remain, the agriculture of the state is still evolving, and in many ways has come full circle to pre-settlement days. No longer a monoculture of wheat, current crops include corn and sunflower cultivated before the arrival of white traders.  The livestock industry is re-discovering bison with their supreme suitability to harsh plains conditions; bison ranching, processing and marketing are becoming an important agricultural industry in the state as an alternative to cattle. Long distrustful of outside control, growers are forming new cooperatives and associations to process, market, and promote their own livestock and crops.  Farm size is once again increasing as it once was during  the bonanza farm era; and farms are increasing managed as large-scale businesses rather than family operations.   As the state continues to adapt to new economies, new technologies, and new opportunities, its historical literature serves as an important resource to document these changes in its agriculture and rural life.


Kathie Richardson
NDSU Library
Fargo, ND 58105

Last updated: 30.04.2008

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