North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service
The Missouri Coteau region of North Dakota includes portions of 18 counties that lie diagonally
from the southeast to the northwest. The region is a highland of rock, gravel and other soil
deposited in a broad band across the state by a receding glacier some 10,000 years ago. The land
is characterized by rolling, grassy hills and rocky soils. Potholes and lakes are common. While
many acres of the Coteau have been converted to cropland, much of the land is highly erodible,
and therefore best suited to the production of perennial forages.
It is this area that is served by the NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center near
Streeter. The region does not invoke the romantic images of the Badlands of western North
Dakota, nor does it have the reputation for crop production claimed by the Red River Valley to
the east. However, the region’s agricultural production is not to be ignored. The Coteau
produced 27 percent of the state’s spring wheat in 2000, more than 230 million bushels. About
53 percent of the state’s sunflower production, or nearly 926 million pounds, came from the
region. The area also produced more than 45 million bushels of barley -- more than 58 percent of
the state’s total. Nearly 34 percent of North Dakota’s canola, 558 million pounds, were produced
here as well. Corn production in the region was about 26.5 million bushels, about 25 percent of
the state’s total. Soybean production was 10.5 million bushels, about 17 percent of the state’s
Forage and Livestock Production
The region makes an especially strong showing in the state’s forage and livestock production.
Indeed, some consider the Coteau region to be “The Red River Valley” of livestock production.
In 2000, the Missouri Coteau produced nearly half of North Dakota’s hay: about 1.5 million tons
of alfalfa hay (46 percent) and about 873,000 tons of other hay (47 percent). The region has
about 42 percent of the state’s cattle inventory with nearly 838,000 head and about 31 percent of
the state’s sheep inventory at 42,600 head. Many counties in the region ranked in the top ten in
the state for livestock production. McHenry ranked third for total number of cattle and fourth
for the number of beef cattle. Kidder ranked sixth in all cattle production and seventh in beef and
fourth for the number of sheep. Emmons ranked second in dairy cattle, seventh in all cattle and
eighth in beef cattle production. Stutsman ranked eighth in all cattle and third in dairy. McIntosh
ranked fifth in the number of milk cows.
Several of the region’s counties ranked among the top five counties in the state for production of
various commodities. Mountrail County was the state’s top producer of durum wheat, and
Stutsman County produced more sunflowers than any other county. Ward, Williams, Divide and
Burke counties rounded out the top five for durum production. Ward and Williams were ranked
second and fifth for all wheat production. Wells and Foster counties were the fourth and fifth
largest sunflower producers. Dickey County ranked second in corn production. Emmons County
ranked second for sunflower production and third in oats. Wells and McLean counties ranked
third and fourth in canola production. McLean County was also fifth in oats production. Ward
County ranked third for barley production with Stutsman County fourth. Wells County was the
state’s fifth largest dry edible bean producer and Kidder County ranked fourth for oats
Despite these impressive production statistics, rural communities continue to struggle. Census
figures from the North Dakota State Data Center at NDSU show that population peaked in the
region in 1930 at 253,240 people and has declined to 230,145 in the 2000 census. If you take
Burleigh and Ward counties out of those numbers because they are home to Bismarck and Minot,
two of the state’s large population centers, the numbers are even more telling. In 1930, the
region’s historical peak population was 199,874. In 2000, the population was, 101,934, a 49
percent drop and less than the 1910 population of 163,086. Those numbers are sobering, but
according to Tom Isern, professor of history at NDSU, there are signs of hope on the Missouri
Coteau. He cites examples of startup businesses and industries, and musicians and artisans, all of
which draw on the Coteau and its resources for inspiration and raw material, “At the close of the
20th century, our relationship with the Great Plains environment has been transformed from one
of fear and awe to one of delight and awe. The plains are being repopulated by people who like it
here.” Isern refers to the work of rural sociologist Carl Kraenzel who in 1955 recorded his
vision for the future of the Great Plains. His vision centered on a shift from many small towns to
a number of little cities that would serve as social, cultural, medical, educational and economic
centers for the region. Once this reordering took place, Kraenzel predicted confidence in the
future of the communities would be buoyed and once again residents would invest in community
improvements and their futures.
A New Vision for the Coteau and the Great Plains
Parts of Kraenzel’s vision is occurring in areas of the Coteau, Isern says. He cites examples of
local visionaries turning the agricultural basis of the regional economy, the impressive statistics
outlined earlier, to their advantage by founding producer-owned cooperatives that add value to
agricultural products and obtain competitive advantages in marketing. Isern encourages
residents to take hope, to think and to discuss a greater vision for the Coteau and the Great
Plains. He says less reliance on federal programs will encourage greater development of
industries and enterprises that rely on home-grown resources.
“We also need to be open and inclusive of all sorts of people,” Isern says. One group will be
entrepreneurs and managers who will come to the region to operate businesses and industries.
Another will be laborers of diverse cultures. Most of these will be immigrants. “If you expect
to build a sustainable regional economy with industries that process and refine agricultural
products, you are going to have cultural diversity all over the place.”
Finally, Isern calls on residents of the Coteau to think about the broader effects that their actions
and attitudes may have on their communities and their futures. “It has been common for leaders
in eastern, plains-border cities to undercut efforts of people in the balance of the state to improve
their economic basis. Small-town business people often have turned against farmers in
economic trouble,” he says.
“Let’s envision a good life on the plains, invest in the infrastructure of our communities, grow
out of federal dependency, open our arms to anyone who wishes to enter among us and renew
our commitment to ethical good neighborliness,” Isern says.
Special thanks to Doug Hartwig, State Statistician with the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics
Service, for providing the production statistics for this article.