Are Big Farms or Small Farms Better? The Case of the Bonanza Farms

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, September 17, 1913:  

September 16 – 17 – 18 – 19:  Nothing much of importance happened during these days. I have to help Pa some and get put at rolling for one thing. Of course I had my mishaps even to going off of the roller. That work is all done by this time.

The Book of Wheat (1908) by Peter Tracy Dondlinger

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

This was the second of four days where Grandma wrote a single diary entry. Yesterday I described how Grandma rolled the fields in preparation for planting winter wheat. Since Grandma didn’t write anything specific for this date, I’m going to share something I learned when I was doing research for this series of posts that surprised me.

Did you know that there were some huge, highly-mechanized, wheat farms in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

There were 91 large “Bonanza Farms” ranging in size from 3,000 to more than 30,000 acres in North Dakota and Minnesota.

In 1864 the US government gave a group of investors millions of acres of land to finance the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad from Minnesota to the west coast. During the Panic of 1873, the investors got into financial difficulty and needed to raise funds to complete building the railroad so they let stockholders buy large tracts of land in the Red River Valley at low rates.


The farms had professional managers and migrant labor did much of the work. (During the winter months many of the farm laborers worked in logging camps in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.)

By the early 1900s wheat prices were low, labor costs were rising, and the Bonanza Farms weren’t very profitable.

There also was a lot of concern that the Bonanza Farms weren’t good stewards of the land. For example, the opening paragraph in a bulletin published by the US Government in 1908 said:

Experience has shown that when excessively large companies farm great tracts of land the tendency is to exploit the land for the greatest immediate profit at the expense of the permanent value of the soil. Proper soil-cultural methods are not observed: rotations for the preservation of soil fertility are neglected; the main crop, wheat, is grown continuously, and the seed is allowed to degenerate through careless methods. Undoubtedly there are exceptions to this rule. It is not the writer’s wish to intimate that rational dry farming is impossible when carried on by large companies, but the general rule has been as stated here. It is evident that the homesteader, having in mind the value of his home and the welfare of his posterity, is more likely to perpetuate and increase the value of his land.

Dry-land Grains (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Circular No. 12, 1908)

These concerns led, in part, to changes in tax codes that discriminated against Bonanza Farms which made them even less profitable.

At the same time more people wanted to farm in the upper Midwest and the land was becoming more valuable, so many of the Bonanza Farms were divided into smaller plots and sold to family farmers.

Here’s links to several sites that have additional information about Bonanza Farms:

Bonanza Farming (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains)

The Bonanza Farms of North Dakota (Teaching with Historic Places, National Park Service)

The Bagg Bonanza Farm


20 thoughts on “Are Big Farms or Small Farms Better? The Case of the Bonanza Farms

  1. I agree with whisperingleavesblog—your background investigation is more than 50% of the reason I love this blog 🙂 Look how low we’ve (US Govt) sunk–from this report assessing the land stewardship to today’s govt.-sanction of Montsanto to destroy our natural food sources with their pesticides and GMOs.

  2. It sounds as if we have come full circle to exploitation of our land resources. You do wonderful research, and I am happy to see that your list of followers is growing. What will you do when the diary ends?

    1. You’ve hit upon something that I’ve recently been thinking about. When I first started posting the diary entries more than 2 1/2 years ago, I wondered if I’d do it for more more than a few months. Now this blog has become part of my daily routine and I think that I’ll miss it when the diary ends in a little over a year (on Dec. 31, 1914 / 2014) and sometimes wonder what I’ll do next.

  3. The same kind of treatment by Big Agra Farms can be said today. Corporations have taken over thousands of what were once our family farms and they are not good stewards of the lands. The Big Agra Companies are only interested in turning a profit and therefore deplete the natural soil for generations to come. Is it any wonder our food no longer taste the way it did when it was put upon our plates 50 years ago?

    1. There are so many really complex policy issues out there.

      And, I agree that food is less favorable than it once was. An, irrelevant aside–I’m in search of the “stringy” mozzarella cheese that I remember from my childhood.

  4. That’s interesting that large corporate farming was taking place that early in the Midwest. Where my Great Grandparents were farming. Land wasn’t even broke until 1904 and farming remained pretty small in their area for some time.

  5. Full cycle of exploitation… sad but that’s quite true for every country. Btw, how can the diary end in a little over a year when you only started 2 and a half ago? It’s a hundred years!

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