Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bonanza Farms

98% of all farms in America are classified as family farms, most of them small things. The other 2% is a big 2%, making up 14% of agribusiness in the country, but... 2%. They do have something in common: in order to remain in operation, when possible, both types of farms try to diversify their crops. They divide their fields into multiple sections, each handling a different crop, so that if the weather doesn't cooperate for one, they're not totally screwed. They rotate the crops from year to year so as not to deplete the nutrients in the soil.

So what would happen if someone with a larger farm- say, one of the factory farms in the 2%- decided to just throw all that in the garbage?

You'd get a bonanza farm.

When the railroads arrived in North Dakota in the 1860's (so as to dodge anything even resembling the South; this was the decade of the Civil War, remember), people suddenly took interest in the fact that North Dakota has quite a bit of flat land, as does neighboring Minnesota. And because North Dakota is... well, North Dakota, and was still wild frontier at the time, land came cheap. But, of course, it first went to the railroad itself, that being the Northern Pacific Railroad. They in turn sold off land in the Red River Valley- that's eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, centered on Fargo-Moorehead- in order to keep themselves afloat. (Didn't work, by the way. They went bust in 1870. And then went bust a couple additional times for good measure.)

A homesteader could only take 160 acres of land, and they had to live on the land for five years to be able to get it. However, if you were buying land from someone who already owned land- a railroad, perhaps- you could gobble up as much as you wanted. And so some entrepreneurs decided to buy in bulk.

These people were not, by and large, farmers. But they could hire people who were. Thousands of people. Migrant workers, probably. What they were after was, of course, money. Lots of money. Hand over fist. And in order to do so, there was to be none of this diversification silliness. After all, 1873 had a bumper crop of wheat! Time is money! Plant the money crop and stuff the farm with it! And so the bonanza farm was born. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would work a gigantic farm devoted to one single crop- again, usually wheat. In the process, they'd be utilizing all the latest developments in large-scale farming, alongside new techniques on wheat milling once it got to market in Minneapolis.

And as long as the weather cooperated and the soil held out, all was well. The bonanza farm would live up to its name. You'd get thousands and thousands of acres of wheat (the record was 63,000 acres, though on average it was more like 3,000-7,000) and obscene amounts of profits. Throughout the 1880's, there existed what was known as the Dakota Boom.

As long as everything held up, that is. Sooner or later, though, something wouldn't. If the weather got you, and your crops failed, you'd take a huge financial bath and there was a good chance you were done. It was like a poker game where you went all-in on every single hand. If the wheat market was down, you were completely screwed. And eventually, the soil just can't take any more wheat production; that took about 25 years to happen. If not for the fact that American midwestern soil is some of the most fertile on the planet, it would have happened much sooner. And once the wheat crops weren't coming in anymore, it was game over. The investors got out, and the farms were busted up into family farms. A couple farms held on past 1900, but those few hardy survivors who somehow made it to the 1920's got stopped dead in their tracks by the Great Depression.

Save for one, sort of. In 2005, the Frederick A. and Sophia Bagg Bonanza Farm in Mooreton, North Dakota was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 9,000 acres at its peak and started in 1915, after the bust came for all but those few survivors, it is no longer an actual bonanza farm; it's dipped to its original size of 15 acres. It's supposed to be representative of all bonanza farms.

Dead, gone and broken up.

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