The Homesteaders – Solutions to their Farming Problems

Problems - Recap
Ploughing the Land  Growing Crops  Lack of Water  Fire  Crops getting Trampled  Plagues of Insects  Size of the Landholding  Machinery  Extremes of Weather

To begin with the homesteaders had to do almost everything by hand. The work was physically hard and never ending. The homesteaders were too poor to afford the machinery that could help them farm. Even if they could afford new machinery, there was little technology in the 1860s and 1870s that could work on the Plains. Broken machines and implements were also a problem at first. Replacement parts were expensive and difficult to obtain from often distant towns or suppliers in the East.

To cut through the soil of the Plains the homesteaders needed a much stronger plough. In 1830 an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere had made a steel plough for one of his neighbours, in order to solve the same problem the homesteaders faced.

This ‘Sodbuster’ plough was soon adopted by the homesteaders and provided them with the means to plough their land. Steel is a much stronger metal than iron, so the plough did not break.

The homesteaders needed a way to trap the rainfall in the soil before it was lost. They used a method known as ‘Dry Farming’. Every time it rained or snowed, the homesteaders ploughed their land.

Dry Farming
This left a thin layer of soil on top of the newly fallen rain which was trapped underneath. The water was then available for use when the new crop was planted in the spring.

In 1874 Daniel Halliday perfected wind pump technology suitable for the Plains. A well was dug with a high powered drill to reach the water. This could be anything from 30 to 120 feet. A windmill was then built above the well to pump a constant supply of water for the homesteader. Although too expensive at first, the price fell to $25 by 1890.

His windmill had four wooden blades that pivoted and would self adjust according to wind speed. It had a tail which caused it to turn into the wind.

Wind Mills on the Plains

Better Crops and Methods
The homesteaders needed to recognise that they could not grow crops that were unsuited to the climate of the Plains. They needed crops that could cope with the extremes of temperature and the lack of rainfall. In 1874, Mennonites from Russia started to move onto the Plains. They brought their crops such as Turkey Red Wheat with them.

"Kansas will be to America what the country of the Black Sea . . . is now to Europe -- her wheat field." --Topeka Commonwealth, October 15, 1874

Mennonites, like the Amish and Hutterites, are a hardworking, God-fearing Christian community.

Russian-German farmers helped turn Kansas into the nation's breadbasket. Unlike most other farmers new to Kansas, they were experienced at prairiestyle agriculture. Mennonites often are credited with introducing Turkey red wheat to Kansas. This hardy winter variety flourished on the Plains.

This wheat grew in the harsh conditions of Russia, a very similar climate to that of the Plains. Although the hard Turkey Red Wheat could not be ground by American mills at first, by the 1880s mills were built that could cope with it. The homesteaders at last had a crop that would grow successfully in the climate of the Plains.

In 1874 Joseph Glidden invented Barbed Wire. This was a cheap and simple method for the homesteaders to fence their land.

Barbed wire allowed homesteaders to overcome the shortage of trees on the Plains. They were able to clearly mark the boundary of their claim, and to keep stray cattle and buffalo off.

Barbed wire did cause conflict with the ranch owners however as it often cut off precious water supplies from their cows.

This well known photograph was staged by photographer Solomon D. Butcher to illustrate the tensions between farmers and ranchers created by the appearance of homesteads on the range. It is unlikely, however, that these pantomime desperadoes were likely to do much damage with their wooden wire cutters, a detail lost on many historians over the years who published this photograph as the real McCoy.

Fire Prevention

The only solution to the problem of fires was to be careful. Some homesteaders tried to stop fires from spreading by leaving gaps in their crops. However the shortage of land made this a measure that was impossible for most to contemplate. Even if a break was left, the high winds of the Plains spread the fire quickly, even across gaps. Until the development of major towns with a road network and an infrastructure including a fire service in the 20th century, this remained a major problem.

There was no solution to the problems of grasshoppers and other insects until the early years of the 1900s. After 1900, chemical companies started to mass produce effective pesticides to kill the flies that lived on the Plains. Homesteaders could pick the insect larvae off their crops, but this was ineffective against a plague swarm. Until these were available however, the homesteaders lived in fear of a plague of grasshoppers, as they knew the effect it would have and knew they were powerless to protect their crops.

DDT was not developed as a pesticide until the 1930s Health risks led to it being banned in the 1970s

Increasing Landholding Size
The government eventually recognised the problem. In 1873 it passed the Timber Culture Act. This gave homesteaders another 160 acres of land. To get this extra land the homesteaders had to plant 40 acres of trees. In 1877 the homesteaders were offered more land in the Desert Land Act. This allowed them to claim 640 acres of marginal land where it was available. They had to irrigate it and after three years could buy it for $1 an acre. So by 1877 homesteaders could own up to 960 acres of land. This was enough for most to survive on the Plains.

You can’t beat the weather!

Dust Storm on the Texas Plains, 1935

Until they could grow trees of a significant size, the homesteaders had no defence against the weather on the Plains. The storms just had to be ridden out in the sod house, hoping that the crops would not be destroyed.

The homesteaders were initially fooled by a series of unusually wet and mild years in the 1860s on the Plains. Many claimed that the climate had been changed by their presence. However the extreme weather returned in the 1870s and remained a problem from then on.

The Coming of the Railroad
The railroads spread across the Plains during the 1870s and 1880s. They acted as cheap and fast transport from the Eastern states to the Plains. This enabled suppliers of tools, spare parts and machinery to send their goods to the homesteaders for relatively low prices. The spread of towns encouraged by the railroads allowed the homesteaders to get hold of the parts and machines they wanted.

1830s Reaper

Hand-held Scythes

New machines such as reapers, binders and threshers made farming the Plains much easier. Homesteaders could farm more land and harvest more crops. The price of this new machinery was relatively low and affordable for the homesteaders.

1850s Reaper-Mower

1930s HarvesterThresher 1880s HarvesterBinder

1860s Self-Rake Reaper

1920s Tractor-Binder

1.Ploughing the Land 2.Growing Crops 3.Lack of Water 4.Fire 5.Crops getting Trampled 6.Plagues of Insects 7.Size of the Landholding 8.Machinery 9.Extremes of Weather
1. Deere’s Steel Plough ‘Sodbuster’ 2. Turkey Red Wheat 3. Dry Farming & Wind Pumps 4. Being careful 5. Barbed wire fences 6. No solution 7. Government Acts, Railroads 8. Mechanised tools 9. No Solution