From Buffalo Commons to bountiful Bakken

The Poppers got it wrong. For those of you who have forgotten (or never knew), the Poppers were a husband and wife team of academics from the East Coast (we Plains people refer to these types as coasters) who wrote a book that said it was a mista...

Ralph Kingsbury
Ralph Kingsbury

The Poppers got it wrong.

For those of you who have forgotten (or never knew), the Poppers were a husband and wife team of academics from the East Coast (we Plains people refer to these types as coasters) who wrote a book that said it was a mistake to settle the prairie. All the people leaving the prairie proved them right, they said.

The prairie would return to the Buffalo Commons, they said.

More recently, another East Coaster came out here to take pictures of every abandoned farm home he could find. He, too, said it was a mistake to settle in the Plains.

A business that organizes itself as a nonprofit for tax reasons published his pictures and comments in its expensive magazine. The editors did so it with their mouths full of food -- food from the Plains, food that cost them a smaller share of their income than happens with citizens of any other country in the world.


But again, these authors got it wrong. The prairie never was being abandoned. It simply was changing, changing in a way that required only a basic understanding of economics. That is, the authors had to understand the role of technology in a changing agriculture.

The biggest technological change was the huge increase in horsepower. When horsepower triples, you need only a fraction of the operators. And the country looks different with fewer farmers, even though just as much land still is involved.

It's true there were a few programs such as CRP that reduced the farmed acreage, but that was because of a failed agricultural policy that moved cattle from America to places such as Australia.

The abandoned farmsteads of the Plains are the equivalent of the abandoned factories in the Midwest and the Atlantic states. We shoved the old tractors and combines back in the trees. The old farmsteads just stood out there exposed to the world.

It happened so quick that it was shocking. In fact, it was so shocking that even many of those who were living the transition every day began to agree with the coasters. All of a sudden, half our neighbors were gone or at least working in town. The school closed, the elevator closed, the grocery store and the hardware store closed. The town was dark every night.

Worst of all, the church closed. Life as we knew it had ended.

But Grand Forks grew. It added jobs. So did the other three of the Big Four cities in North Dakota. They took our township and small-town populations to staff the new jobs.

For a while, even the Graftons, the Cavaliers and the Langdons of North Dakota grew. But then they, too, slowly began to give up the ghost. They began getting smaller.


Every town formed an economic development company. There were some successes; Grafton, for example, got a Marvin Windows plant. That brought nearly 500 jobs that wouldn't be there otherwise.

True, Grafton still has not increased its population. But even so, don't try to get on state Highway 17 or U.S. Highway 81 from any direction approaching Grafton 15 to 20 minutes before the start of a shift. The traffic coming in from those nearby towns and farmsteads is so heavy that you cannot get on the road.

And while Mom and Dad stayed home or went to work in town, the kids went to one of the Big Four or to the Twin Cities or to Denver. Where will the next generation of workers come from?

Even before the oil boom, economic development was successful in parts of North Dakota. We can tell that because the total population and number of jobs in North Dakota increased -- not by much, but enough to prove the Poppers wrong.

People just moved to the jobs. We have always done that in North Dakota.

And then, the oil boom came. This may be the largest pool of oil ever discovered in North America. People can't move here fast enough.

This is fun. Now, instead of the coasters who can't tell wheat from canola, we are getting journalists who are writing how great things are in North Dakota. They are writing about all the people moving here. They are writing about the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and the great building boom.

Have you heard much from the Poppers or the photographer lately? Didn't think so. Neither have I.


Reach Kingsbury at 738-4810 or .

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