Smaller is Better | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Smaller is Better

Aug 1, 2019

North Dakota was the land of bonanza farms. They were first established in the Red River Valley after John Wesley Powell’s study of the Great Plains in the 1870s. He felt that a larger scale of irrigation would result in more land coming under cultivation. In his opinion, the family-owned farms of the Homestead Act were unable to cultivate the land in the way needed to get the most out of it. Soon after his analysis, the bonanza farms began to spring up.

The term “bonanza” was a Spanish term that meant “good weather.” It was also used to indicate a source of great and sudden wealth. Bonanza farms were powered by the financial backing of large investors and new technologies like reapers, steel plows, and steam tractors. The flat land of North Dakota seemed ideal for powered farm equipment.

Many bonanza farms did indeed produce great wealth for backers. These farms grew to encompass thousands of acres. In 1874 General George Cass and Benjamin Cheney, both officials with the Northern Pacific Railroad, purchased 13,440 acres west of Fargo. James J. Hill’s farm in Minnesota sprawled over 45,000 acres.

But not all of the big farms fared well. The financial panic of 1873 and the droughts of the 1880s hit farms hard.  On this date in 1912, the Ward County Independent suggested that bigger was not necessarily better. The paper said that “smaller and better tilled farms should be the slogan of the northwest in the years to come.” According to the paper, there was absolutely no reason why every farmer couldn’t raise the best crop ever in 1912. The paper argued that many fields were in poor condition because farmers had tried to do too much.

Small family farmers felt it was necessary to keep up with the big bonanza farms. They planted fields that should have been left fallow. They sometimes rented neighbors’ fields that were not under cultivation. As a result, the newspaper noted that many fields of flax were overgrown with weeds. This was not because the farmer was lazy. He simply couldn’t handle the extra work. He was out the cost of the seed and the work it took to plant it.

Today, North Dakota farms average about 1,600 acres. The state is the country’s leading producer of many products including edible beans, durum wheat, and canola.


Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher



Ward County Independent. “Smaller and Better.” Minot ND. 1 August 1912. Page 2. “Bonanza Farms.”  Accessed 26 June 2019.

MNopedia. “Bonanza Farms.”  Accessed 26 June 2019. “Average Farm Size.”  Accessed 26 June 2019.

Bismarck Tribune. “Farm Size Down but Size Up.”  Accessed 26 June 2019.