Upside Down Under

You can’t grow that in North Dakota…

I was going through some census information trying to find how many farms have existed in North Dakota historically and how many may have been dairy farms.

By Marvin Baker

North Dakota is No. 1 in 11 ag commodity categories, yet Hawaii has more dairy farms than we do.

Anyway, the goal was to find when the number of farms peaked and when the number of dairy farms peaked.

It appears farm numbers peaked in 1935 at 84,606. By 2016, it had dropped to 30,961.

The following statistics are a little bit like comparing apples and oranges because the Census Bureau didn’t record bona fide dairy farms like it does now. The numbers instead were based on how many farms had milk cows.

The last time I checked, North Dakota had 81 dairy farms in 2016. And again, 1935 is when farms with milk cows hit their peak in the state with 72,598.

What that means is that nearly all of the farms in North Dakota had at least some milk cows.

The average farm back then was 320 acres, but today it is just short of 1,200 acres.

A lot of the numbers I found weren’t surprising. The state had more than a million cattle, 700,000 horses and 630,000 people. Wheat, barley and oats were top crops.

What really caught my attention were some of the things that were grown from 1910 to 1935 that, today, supposedly aren’t possible.

For example, in 1932, there were 42 farms in North Dakota growing pears and 23 were growing peaches.

During independent research over the past decade, I’ve been told 100 times that we can’t grow peaches in North Dakota.

However, I do grow peaches in my backyard, and this ag census from 1932 only confirms a hunch I had years ago, and there were almost as many farms growing pears as there were grapes back then.

But it doesn’t stop there. How many farms do you know of that are growing cherries in North Dakota? Turns out in 1932, there were 1,348 commercial farms with cherries and 4,498 farms were growing apples.

So what happened to those trees, and why doesn’t anyone grow them now? Thirteen-hundred farms growing cherries? I don’t know anyone within the state’s boundaries growing cherries, not even at research stations. Do you?

Here’s some additional information that might surprise you, and, again, I’m using that apple and orange comparison but these numbers make it pretty obvious and shouldn’t be up for debate.

Last year there were 65 farmers’ markets in North Dakota, up from 14 in 2005. A farmers’ market can have anywhere from three to 32 vendors.

With an average of about eight vendors per market, that’s a total of 520 farms and gardens growing produce commercially across the state… This is an average.

In 1924, which was the Roaring ‘20s and five years before the stock market crashed, the number of farms growing commercial produce was mind boggling.

To begin with, 960 farms were growing cabbage on 250 acres. There were 706 farms growing sweet corn on 297 acres. Tomatoes were in high demand as they are today. A total of 397 farms grew tomatoes commercially on 94 acres.  There were 404 farms growing watermelons on 279 acres, and there were 69 acres of strawberries on 151 farms.

And when you combine all vegetables including beans, peas, onions, beets, etc., 17,675 farms were growing “harvested vegetables for sale” as it was listed in the 1924 Census of Agriculture.

OK, so we can’t grow peaches, cherries, watermelons or strawberries in North Dakota today, or so we’re told, yet these were statistical ag commodities in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The first question I then have is what kind of varieties were used to produce these crops? Did they have better varieties than we do now, were they just savvy about growing these things or were these farms concentrated in certain areas?

Whatever it was, garden produce was generating tens of thousands of dollars in a 1930s economy.

Sweet potatoes, celery and even peanuts were listed on the ag census as being grown but were too minor to track the data.

Oscar Will had a seed company in Bismarck and the Oscar H. Will Co., put out a catalog every year from 1883 until 1959.

Similar to a Gurneys catalog, it had all kinds of flora, such as the commodities listed above, and all were developed, many by Will himself, to grow in North Dakota’s climate. There will be more about Oscar Will next week.

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