Farming: 32 million acres, free!

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“Threshing grain in the Great Judith Basin near Hobson, Montana," 1910. Courtesy of the Hobson Community Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

Boom to Bust

During the boom years of 1909-1919, homesteaders filed claims on twenty-five million acres in Montana. Montana's climate was in a wet cycle from 1909 to 1917, which encouraged homesteaders to flock to Montana for the free land and set to work farming and developing farming methods. Money poured into the state to encourage the development of irrigation projects. Other farmers worked to develop dryland farming techniques. James J. Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad, sponsored dryland farming conferences and exhibitions.

Hardy Webster Campbell promoted subsurface compacting, a method of plowing that firmly packed the loose soil at the bottom of a furrow so it would hold water where the roots developed. Then the top two to three inches were tilled into a loose, dry layer. Researchers at Montana Agricultural College, now Montana State University, advocated against use of this method, but many farmers put it into practice. Homesteaders learned over time how detrimental their farming methods were to the land because their nutrient-rich topsoil blew away in Montana's heavy winds.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, farmers' markets expanded once again. The government pushed farmers to increase production to meet the demands of a nation at war with slogans such as "Food will win the war." Farmers borrowed money to buy land and equipment. When the war ended, many farmers were deep in debt. The wet cycle of Montana's climate ended bringing fires, drought, and locusts. Between 1921 and 1925 at least half of the farmers in Montana lost their farms. Farmers who were successful in keeping and enlarging their holdings improved farming practices through the use of better methods and improved equipment.