On the Great Plains
Agriculture and Environment
Agricultural History - Environmental History - Western History
6 x 9, 304 pp.
8 b&w photos., 144 maps., 49 tables.
Pub Date: 01/25/2005
Environmental History Series
  cloth
Price:        $55.00 s

978-1-58544-400-7
  paper
Price:        $28.00

978-1-58544-401-4
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2005 Theodore Saloutos Book Award, presented by the Agricultural History Society

On the Great Plains

Agriculture and Environment

By Geoff Cunfer

Depending on who is telling it, the history of Euro-American farmers on the Great Plains has been a story of either agricultural triumph or ecological failure—an optimistic tale of taming nature for human purposes or a dire account of disrupting nature and suffering the environmental consequences. In both stories, human beings dominate the narrative, whether as subduers or as destroyers of the natural processes that define this grassland ecosystem.

In On the Great Plains, author Geoff Cunfer poses an alternative scenario: that people were not the masters of nature on the Great Plains. Land use in America’s vast interior prairies has stayed remarkably stable throughout the twentieth century, changing little as droughts came and went, as farmers shifted from horses to tractors, and as federal subsidies and fluctuating crop prices transformed the economics of farming. An equilibrium between natural and human forces emerged as farmers plowed and planted the same amount of cropland during most of this period, maintaining two thirds of the Great Plains in unplowed, native vegetation. Even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a “temporary disruption in a stable system” that may be considered sustainable.

To support his theory, Cunfer looks at the entire Great Plains (450 counties in ten states), tapping historical agricultural census data paired with GIS mapping to illuminate land use on the Great Plains over 130 years. Coupled with several community and family case studies, this database allows Cunfer to track plowing and grazing practices, crop choices, technological advances, nutrient systems, and weather, soil, and drought conditions to reassess the interaction between farmers and nature in the Great Plains agricultural landscape.

Combining the readability of evocative local history with the explanatory power of systematic regional analysis, On the Great Plains makes a compelling argument for those interested in western, environmental, and agricultural history, grassland management, and the geography and demography of the Great Plains.

Geoff Cunfer is an associate professor at the Center for Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University. He is a former research associate at the University of Texas Population Research Center, where he worked on an interdisciplinary project exploring the interaction between population and the environment on the Great Plains.

What Readers Are Saying:

“. . . will make an important contribution to environmental studies of the Great Plains, and more generally it should make a splash among environmental historians of the United States.”--Elliott West, University of Arkansas, and author, The Contested Plains

“. . . will make an important contribution to environmental studies of the Great Plains, and more generally it should make a splash among environmental historians of the United States.” --Elliott West, University of Arkansas, and author, The Contested Plains

“Environmental histories of the Great Plains often have a glaze of ideology. Geoff Cunfer’s account has the texture and grain of what actually happened, and it¹s a damn good read, too.” --Alfred W. Crosby, professor emeritus, University of Texas at Austin

“Geoff Cunfer has written an important book about the interaction between humans and nature in the Great Plains between 1870 and the end of the twentieth century. It will be useful to those involved in environmental and ecological science, agriculture and agricultural history, as well as economic history and economic development.” --Great Plains Research, Vol. 15 No. 2

“…well-written and each topic is supported with statistical analyses and collaborative primary source documents.” --EH.net

“…is an excellent addition to the field of Great Plains environmental history…refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable to read.” --South Dakota History

“…occupies a new important place in environmental historiography…All environmental historians will find this work on their bookshelves as a reference tool.” --Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“…Cunfer’s skillful use of new agricultural data and extremely readable prose will force environmental historians, agricultural historians, and historians of the American West to rethink once again the role played by non-human nature in the history of the Great Plains.” --Western Historical Quarterly

“Anyone interested in the history of the Great Plains, agriculture, and the environment should read this book. It is factually detailed at the county level, but clearly and directly written. This book is a major scholarly achievement. It will make a difference.” --Canadian Journal of History

“This is an impressive book, the kind that comes along only once every decade or two. It tackles a wide range of big issues, approaches those issues in innovative and original ways, and makes counter-intuitive arguments and suggestions that challenge widely held assumptions. There is something here to provoke or inspire almost everyone. More suggestive than definitive, as is almost inevitable in a book of this scope, On the Great Plains should be a gold mine of doctoral dissertation ideas. Almost every chapter begs for a book-length treatment of its own.” --Agricultural History

“It deserves to be near the top of a short list of essential works on the Great Plains and has important implications for readers interested in other areas of Environmental and agricultural history as well.” --Agricultural History

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