Agriculture Reference
In-Depth Information
worked out of the stations and were hired in monthly increments and paid a daily wage.
Accountants, blacksmiths, mechanics, and hands involved in grain cleaning and storage
worked at the farm's headquarters. The labor force varied greatly in size over the seasons,
with harvest crews typically twice the size of seeding crews. For instance, in 1877 (for 4,000
acres of wheat) Cass-Cheney had a seeding crew of fifty and a harvest crew of one hundred.
The bonanza farms' combination of modern technology, specialized labor, and profes-
sional management practices seemed unstoppable. For example, Bigelow (1880) wrote:
“Against the unlimited use of this combination of capital, machinery, and cheap labor the
individual farmer, either singly or in communities, cannot successfully contend, and must
go under. It is a combination of the most powerful social and economic forces known to
man, and all efforts for competition must and will fail so long as the three remain united”
(43). Bonanzas, however, began to disappear as early as 1890, and by 1910 they were vir-
tually extinct. There is substantial evidence that the crucial factors in the breakup were the
monitoring costs and related inefficiencies associated with large labor forces spread out
over great distances. On the Cass-Cheney farm, for example, Oliver Dalrymple managed a
harvest crew of 1,000 men and 30 threshing machines spread over 30,000 acres of wheat
(roughly 7 miles square if contiguous). Our reading indicates that Dalrymple took great
pains to mitigate his moral hazard problems. Managers, superintendents, and foremen were
paid by commission. Grain from every field was weighed and recorded so that responsibility
could be assigned to foremen and superintendents. Labor was performed in crews one task
at a time (such as plowing or seeding) to make supervision easier for the foremen; and rigid
rules governed the daily routines of the field hands at work and in the bunkhouse.
The dissolution of the bonanza farms is consistent with the predictions of the model:
In highly seasonal crops like wheat, the family farm is predicted to be the organizational
structure that maximizes the value of the farm. Recognizing their labor problems early on,
many bonanzas began leasing their lands in small units to homesteaders who wanted to
expand operations. Later the bonanzas sold their lands in small parcels, typically quarter
(160 acres) and half (320 acres) sections, to family farmers. The bonanza era provides a
market test of the viability of industrial farming of a highly seasonal crop. 27 Indeed, in 1900
the agricultural economist John Lee Coulter saw the future, writing: “The great estates of
the region are doomed to disintegration. The great wheat ranch cannot compete with the
small diversified farm.” 28
Wheat Organization and Changes in Harvest Technology. The history of wheat har-
vesting provides another test of our model. As we discussed in chapter 8, the geographical
and climatological contiguousness of the Great Plains has allowed the development of a
thriving custom harvesting industry for wheat. In this section we focus on farmer harvesting
and discuss how a major technological change influenced farm organization.
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