Plains Folk

Hardy Webster Campbell

Hardy Webster Campbell is not reckoned a hero on the Great Plains of North America. During the early years of this century he was the most prominent promoter of dry farming. By “dry farming” I don’t mean just farming in a semiarid land without irrigation. The term came to mean a whole package of beliefs and practices—beliefs and practices that, with benefit of hindsight, later denizens of the plains blamed for the Dust Bowl. Campbell called dry farming “scientific soil culture,” a term he coined to set his system apart from the ideas of other promoters.

Great Plains historian Walter P. Webb said that Campbell was to tillage what William Jennings Bryan was to politics—its apostle. The comparison was not complimentary. Webb was a New-Deal liberal of the mid-twentieth century. He considered both Bryan and Campbell to have been charlatans.

Born in Vermont in 1850, Hardy Webster Campbell homesteaded in Dakota Territory (present Brown County, South Dakota) in 1879. He also acquired land by pre-emption and timber claim, so that he had three quarters to farm. There he began the observations that led to his codification of the Campbell System of farming.

The principles of his system were deep plowing in the fall; sub-surface packing with a packer he designed; light seeding; thorough cultivation before and after seeding; and summer fallowing, with timely tillage (which he called “summer culture”) during the fallow period.

There was a theory behind all this. The idea was to hold water deep in the soil. Packing below, and stirring the surface by tillage, was supposed to stop capillary action, and thus water would not be drawn to the surface and evaporated. Summer fallowing, too, would save the rainfall from one year to be applied to the crop of the next.

Campbell publicized his methods through publications, associations, demonstrations, and lecturing. His best-known books were the four editions of his Soil Culture Manual (first published in 1902). Campbell founded the Western Agricultural Improvement Society in 1895. More important was the Dry Farming Congress, founded in Denver in 1907. It originated as his personal promotional vehicle, but grew beyond his control, with agricultural scientists getting involved and questioning his methods.

Campbell carried on most of his demonstration farming and technical lecturing for western railroads, including the Northern Pacific, the Burlington, the Soo Line, the Elkhorn, the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe, and the Southern Pacific. He also lectured for the Alberta Department of Agriculture in 1906-07.

Early in his career he ran five demonstration farms for the NP across North Dakota. After that he developed lands in Graham County, Kansas, for the Boston capitalist James P. Pomeroy and the UP Railroad. Then he concentrated his efforts on Burlington Railroad lands near Holdrege, Nebraska. His last hurrah as a celebrated prophet of dry farming, in the early 1920s, was a promotional campaign on tillage in eastern Montana for the NP.
Living his later years in obscurity in California, Campbell died there in 1937. The historian who has studied him most closely, Mary Hargreaves, says he was just a promoter whose work had no educational value. Reading his writings, though, I think more kindly of him. Campbell believed in the family farm, thought that his system would ensure the family farm a future on the plains. That most family farms on the plains have passed from the scene is not due to the success or failure of any technique, but rather to larger economic and social forces and to personal choices. Campbell never made much money on his system. I think he was a true believer.

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