Dry Farming

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Dry farming was an agricultural method that allowed crops to be cultivated on the prairie, which typically received low levels of rainfall and endured very hot summers and harsh winters. Growers who practiced dry farming cultivated some fields while allowing others to lie fallow, so that a field only supported crops every other year. In the off-year, the soil stored up enough moisture and nutrients for the following growing season. Another method of dry farming called for the soil to be tilled, rather than plowed, to a depth of only three or four inches (eight to ten centimeters).

While there was evidence that American Indians on the Great Plains and in the Southwest practiced dryfarming techniques, settlers of European descent did not adopt the method until late in the nineteenth century, when increasing westward expansion necessitated it. Ample enticement to move westward was provided by the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted settlers up to 160 acres (64 hectares) of frontier land as long as the settler built on it or cultivated it. Population growth in the East, largely the result of increased immigration in the late-1800s, also spurred westward migration during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. By 1900, more than a half million families had settled in the West under the Homestead Act. Determined to settle the prairie lands of the Great Plains (in present day Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota), homesteaders experimented with dry farming; they found that wheat was particularly well-suited to the method. Early in the twentieth century, the Great Plains, which received many of the settlers, became one of the world's leading wheat-producing regions.

The widespread practice of dry farming had a catastrophic effect in the 1930s: the Dust Bowl. By the end of the nineteenth century Great Plains farmers, aided by steel plows, uprooted most of the native prairie grass, which held moisture in the soil. Strong winds and extended droughts had not disturbed the land when the grasses covered it. Because the demand for wheat increased after World War I (19141918), Great Plains farmers responded by planting more than twenty-seven million new acres of wheat. By 1930 there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as there were ten years earlier. In 1934 drought, high winds, and the stripped land combined to create the Dust Bowl in the Plains. The situation prevailed into 1937, at a dear cost to crops and livestock. This combined with the effects of the Great Depression (19291939) to cause great hardships. Though many homesteaders abandoned their lands, other stayed and eventually replanted the Great Plains. The region was spared a recurrence of the Dust Bowl due to conservation efforts, which staved off over-planting and restored some prairie lands to their natural states.

See also: Dust Bowl, Homesteaders, Prairie

Dry Farming

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DRY FARMING refers to agricultural operations without irrigation in a climate with a moisture deficiency, usually places with an annual rainfall of less than 20 inches. It involves raising drought-resistant or drought-evasive crops (that is, crops that mature in late spring or fall) and makes the best use of a limited water supply by maintaining good surface conditions—loosening the soil so that water may enter easily and weeding so that the moisture is better utilized.

In the United States, dry-farming techniques evolved through experiments conducted more or less independently where settlements were established in locations with little precipitation. During the early part of the 1850s, for example, Americans in California began to raise crops such as winter wheat, whose principal growing season coincided with the winter rainfall season. By 1863, settlers in Utah extensively and successfully practiced dry farming techniques. In some interior valleys of the Pacific Northwest, dry farming was reported before 1880. In the Great Plains, with its summer rainfall season, adaptation to dry farming methods accompanied the small-farmer invasion of the late 1880s and later. Experimental work for the Kansas Pacific Railroad had begun near the ninety-eighth meridian by R. S. Elliott between 1870 and 1873.

On the northern Great Plains, H. W. Campbell carried on private experiments that attracted the attention and support of railroad interests, resulting in the formulation of much of his system of dry farming by 1895. The state agricultural experiment stations of the Great Plains inaugurated experimental activities under government auspices soon after their foundation, and the federal Department of Agriculture created the Office of Dry Land Agriculture in 1905. Once inaugurated, development of dry farming was continuous in the Great Plains proper, but the drought cycles of the 1930s intensified experimental work and the invention of machinery for special soil-culture processes both in the Plains and in the transitional subhumid country where it was neglected during wet periods.

The net income result per hour of labor in dry farming is high, but so are the fixed costs (because of special implements required). In addition, the risk of failure is higher than in traditional farming.


Hargreaves, Mary Wilma M. Dry Farming in the Northern Great Plains, 1900–1925. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957.

———. Dry Farming in the Northern Great Plains, 1920–1990: Years of Readjustment. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993.

Wessel, Thomas R., ed. Agriculture in the Great Plains. Washington, D.C.: Agricultural History Society, 1977.

Widtsoe, John A. Dry Farming. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

James C.Malin/c. w.

See alsoAgricultural Machinery ; Agriculture ; Climate ; Irrigation .