Plains Folk

Hard Times in the Coteau


Last week it was my privilege to participate in the research day at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, near Streeter, North Dakota. The Central Grasslands Center is a branch station devoted to, well, the central grasslands of North Dakota, which are pretty much defined by the region known as the Missouri Coteau. To lovers and shooters of waterfowl, which two groups overlap a great deal, this is the Prairie Pothole region, the breeding ground of the Central Flyway. To ranchers and other agriculturalists, the Coteau is a distinctive agricultural region, mixed crops and livestock, with emphasis on beef cattle.

I brought out a couple of exhibit panels featuring historic photographs copied from county extension agent reports in the Coteau during the 1930s and 1940s. The first panel was entitled, “Hard Times in the Coteau.”

A key part of this story is the advent of New Deal farm programs, designed to ease the effects of drought and depression on farmers. Farmers welcomed the checks, of course, but there was considerable unease about some of the ways the farm program intruded into farm life.

In the first place, there was the sheer paperwork involved. The agent of Logan County in 1935 actually took some pride in handling the volume of paper required to administer the farm program. He sent out 9,328 individual letters and 20,724 copies of circulars. He had a picture taken of himself among the mountain of mailbags required for one mailing.

The paperwork perhaps seemed worth the effort to the county agents, as it made them more popular than ever before. Nearly 100 percent of farmers signed up for government commodity programs. They like those checks.

They didn’t always like some of the terms attached to the checks, such as the operations of the Drouth Cattle Purchase Program. This program had several purposes, the first of which was to lower livestock inventories so as to raise the price of cattle. In drouth areas such as the northern plains, the government also sought to take cattle off the hands of farmers who had no feed for them.

The problem was, many of the cattle were in poor shape, and there was no market for such meat. So after purchasing a lot of bony cattle, the government would condemn them, hire guys to shoot them, and bury the carcasses in bulldozed pits.

In 1934, the Kidder County agent reports, government agents purchased 20,230 head of cattle. Most of these were shipped out to provide meat for people on relief, but 2,075 were condemned and shot on the farm.

In those days county agents all carried cameras to take photos to illustrate their annual reports. The photos generally were supposed to illustrate good practices and rural progress. In Kidder County in 1934, though, the agent made a point of taking, and pasting into his report, photographs of men shooting cattle, and of the carcasses strewn across the ground. Although generally producers were pleased with the program, the tone of the agent’s report indicates clearly that he was disgusted. Those were hard times in the Coteau, and people had to do hard things.

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