Rainfall Follows the Plow

Apr 19, 2018

When I was going to college, we had things figured out in Great Plains history. We knew that the climate (as opposed to weather, which was changeable) was constant. It set the baseline for history and life.

Well, not so fast. Now climatic change is considered evident, change of two kinds. There is the big picture of warming, whatever its cause, and there is the local change due to land use. It turns out that agricultural practice--the crops we raise, how we manage water--has definite effect on our immediate environment.

How we used to laugh at those gullible farmers of the nineteenth century who went out onto the prairies deluded by their belief that “rain follows the plow”! Now the joke is on us.

Besides which, I am no longer convinced that pioneer farmers were so gullible after all. I have been searching sources, and the evidence of farmer belief in rain following the plow is pretty weak. It is certain that some scientists tried to convince people if they went out and broke the prairie, its climate would become better, more humid. These guys were  mainly associated with the University of Nebraska and were influenced by their consulting relationships with railroads, which had land to sell.

What I have done, however, is search the newspapers of the plains to see if this nineteenth-century theory of climate change was under discussion. In the period up to 1910, I have been able to locate only ten references to the phrases “rain follows the plow” and “rainfall follows the plow.” Some of these, too, are refutations of the idea. And none comes from any state north of Nebraska.

But here’s the real stinger in the research. Nearly all the references either quote entirely, or clearly refer to, a single poem written by Mr.s A. D. T. Whitney. Entitled “The Way of the Rain,” it was originally printed in the general-interest magazine, The Independent, and from there was reprinted across the country. I quote some key stanzas.

I heard an old farmer talk one day,

Telling his listeners how

In the wide, new country far away

The rainfall follows the plow.

And so, wherever the plowshares run,

The clouds run overhead;

And the soul that works, and lets in the sun,

With water is always fed.

I wonder if that old farmer knew

The half of his simple word,

Or guessed the message that, heavenly true,

Within it was hidden and heard?

There are two things to understand about this poem. First, it was written by a genteel lady from Boston. Whitney married a rich, older man and then had a successful literary career writing poetry for women in similar circumstances.

Second, the poem is not even about climate. It is about religion. The author knows nothing about farming, or the prairies. She just wants us to believe that if we do like the prairie farmers, go out there and plow, God will take care of us. She assures us in the end, “it is always God’s dear way / That the rainfall follows the plow.”
~Tom Isern