In the 1930s on the Great Plains and in Nebraska, tremendous forces came together to begin a decline in the number of farms that continues today. In 1934, Nebraska recorded 135,000 farms in the state, the highest number since European farmers began moving onto the plains. By 2001, the state had fewer than 58,000 farmers.
The hard times caused by the drought and depression forced those who were heavily in debt off their land. At the same time, the contradictory force of better technology pushed farmers to buy tractors, buy new hybrid seeds, buy chemicals, buy irrigation systems and buy more land.
To get bigger.
When farms get bigger, there are fewer farmers on the same amount of land. When farms get bigger, the towns that sell them groceries, equipment and other supplies get smaller.
Walter Schmitt (left) has seen what these forces have done to his small hometown of Gresham. “Our main street in Gresham was pretty well filled with buildings at that time,” Walter says. “And there was a business in each building. And at that time, the people that lived in Gresham, most of the people that lived in Gresham, in the morning they’d get up and go downtown into their business in the main street of Gresham. Now, of course, that Gresham main street has dried up.”
LeRoy Hankel (right) says he reads farm magazines advising farmers to get bigger. “I said, ‘Boy, you shouldn’t do that. You’ll ruin our towns and everything.’ I was against it.”
The decrease in the number of farms leaves a lot of farm houses that are often just left behind. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser often visits an “Abandoned Farmhouse” and finds clues to lives left behind in the details that he finds.
The push toward larger farms has continued.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.