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Throughout the history of the central Great Plains region, there have been cycles and factors that affect the lives of those who live here. These factors have always produced results that we can see later.

dark clouds hang over farmer inspecting corn
There were dark clouds hanging over agriculture during the 1970s and 80s.
From the 1989 NET Television program, Centennial Summer

Some factors are natural — like the cycle of wet years and dry years. This "drought cycle" results in a pattern of good times followed by bad times for the plants, animals and humans living on the Plains. We can see that in the archaeological record where the indications of plains Indian settlements disappears between roughly C.E. 1400 and 1600.

Other factors affecting life on the Plains are man-made — like the cycles of economic activity and the progress of technology. In the 1970s and 80s, a combination of factors resulted in a period when farmers across the Midwest could no longer stay in business, and that produced profound changes in the social landscape of the region.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, agriculture was in crisis.
From the 1990 NET Television program, After the Last Harvest

This period is known as the farm crisis. There were several factors that came together to create the crisis.


  • Technology. One major factor was advancements in the technological of farming. New machines, crops, pesticides and irrigation resulted in greater efficiency — it took fewer farmers to produce the same amount of food in the 1970s. In 1940, one American farmer produced enough food to feed 15 people; by 1960 one farmer could feed 65 people.

  • Expansion through borrowing. To take advantage of the new technology, farmers felt the pressure to grow larger, to farm more ground with more expensive machines and techniques. They bought more land. They bought new machines. They paid more for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and services. Many paid for this new technology by borrowing money from banks. In the early 70s, they were able to grow more, and the prices for their crops were high enough to support the expansion.

  • A good economy. During the mid 1970s, economic factors were good — interest rates were relatively low, so farmers could borrow cheaply. People in foreign countries wanted American food and had the money to pay for it, so foreign markets became important to the farmers. And prices for their land seemed reasonable.

  • Governmental policies. Some critics argue that tax laws and price support programs have favored large factory farms (owned by corporations) over family farms. They say that increasing corporate concentration has squeezed family farmers out of the market.
harvesting in Nebraska in the 1980s
Harvesting in Nebraska in the 1980s.
From the 1989 NET Television program, Centennial Summer

What changed in the late 1970s & 80s.

  • The economy went bad. The economy moves in cycles. In this time period, economic factors starting going down, which forced interest rates up — farmers had to pay more for the loans they needed to operate each year. In addition, people tend to buy less during bad economic times, so the prices paid for farm commodities went down.

  • Foreign markets dried up, driving prices down further. In 1980, Russia invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. protested, and Pres. Jimmy Carter stopped the shipment of farm products to Russia in response to the invasion. That embargo on farm products hurt the farm export market. And then, other countries ran into hard economic times as well. U.S. farmers could not sell as many goods overseas as they had been.

  • Debts piled up. With less demand and lower prices for their products, many American farmers had no way to pay back the banks for the loans they had taken out. Many borrowed even more money, hoping that better crops and prices would rescue them in a year or two. It didn’t happen.
A sad farm family during a strike in the 1980s
A farm family who lost their land attending a strike in the 1980s.
From the 1990 NET Television program, After the Last Harvest


The 1980s was a period when thousands of farm families lost their farms because of low farm prices and overwhelming debt. Farming was in a crisis. For a period of time it was almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the television without facing images of farm auctions and foreclosure sales. Many of the farmers who were able to survive the 1980s have had to find work off the farm to supplement their meager farm incomes. There were specific results.

  • Rural populations declined. Actually, the farm crisis of the 70s and 80s accelerated a process that had been going on for some time. In 1935 the number of farms in the United States reached an all-time high of 6.8 million farms. By the mid-1980s, there were only 2.2 million farms. By 1989, farm residents made up only 1.9 percent of the total U.S. population.

  • Rural communities grew older. Young farmers often need to borrow large sums to get started. They are the first to go out of business when times are tough. Also, as more and more people leave rural areas, there are fewer jobs in towns available to the young. So young people move away to cities where the jobs are. The result is a "graying" of communities in the central Plains. If these trends continue — declining rural populations, migration of young adults to urban areass, and an increasing concentration of the elderly in rural areas — many counties in Nebraska will be hard-pressed to sustain their economy, schools and government services in the future.

In this section, we’ll tell the story of the farm crisis and the beginnings of possible new economic opportunities. The same technology that threatens farming on the Plains may offer new ways to make money and revitalize the area.

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