The Journal of Economic History


Ecological Frontiers on the Grasslands of Kansas: Changes in Farm Scale and Crop Diversity

Kenneth M. Sylvestera1

a1 Assistant Research Scientist, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 330 Packard Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248; and Research Affiliate, Population Studies Center, University of Michigan. E-mail:


Farms stood at an ecological frontier in the 1930s. With new and better agricultural machinery, more farms than ever before made the leap to thousand acre enterprises. But did they abandon mixed husbandry in the process? This article explores the origins of the modern relationship between scale and diversity using a new sample of Kansas farms. In 25 townships across the state, between 1875 and 1940, the evidence demonstrates that relatively few plains farms were agents of early monoculture. Rather than a process driven by single-crop farming, settlement was shaped by farms that grew more diverse with each generation.


I would like to thank several colleagues involved in the Demography and Environment in Grassland Settlement project. For designing and developing data linkage methods, I am indebted to Susan Hautaniemi Leonard. For working together to develop a diversity index from individual level data, I am grateful to Geoff Cunfer. I also thank Myron Gutmann for his mentorship in this research, and for encouraging me to present these findings at Economic History Association Meeting in 2006. There, the article received valuable comments from Paul Rhode and other participants. I also wish to thank the editors of this JOURNAL, Jeremy Atack and Price Fishback, who patiently guided the article through the review process and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Finally, I gratefully acknowledge financial support from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant HD044889 through the National Institutes of Health.