“Dry Farming –The Hope of the West” was the title of an article which attracted considerable
attention in Nebraska in 1906. The vagaries of rainfall on the Plains had challenged farmers
since the earliest days of settlement–and still do. At the turn of the century methods for
“growing more with less” (rain) were eagerly sought.
The Nebraska State Journal reported, “If the claims which John L. Cowan, the author, makes
for the Campbell system of farming in countries with an annual rainfall of as little as ten inches
can be substantiated, the hope of the west amounts to its salvation.
“Mr. Cowan finds three hundred million acres of unirrigable lands in the United States owned
by the government, which according to commonly accepted ideas are fit only for grazing
purposes. Much more of the same sort is owned by railroads, the state governments, and
individuals. Most of this he considers susceptible of cultivation by ‘dry farming’ methods with a
crop result not less valuable than if the land were irrigated. The theory is that the ten inches or
more of annual rainfall which occurs in these lands can be so conserved as to be available for
use entirely in plant production by a system of tillage which prevents the evaporation or surface
drainage of any of the moisture that falls.
“This is not new to the west. The value of surface cultivation following all rains and the use of
the sub-surface packer are pretty well understood, though, as the author says, the farmers have
been too slow to take advantage of it. The author claims that wheat farmers using the Campbell
system have never reaped less than thirty-five bushels of wheat to the acre, and that failures in
any crop adapted to such treatment have been unknown.
“His picture is rather brighter than western people are likely to think justifiable. He does not
take into account that the years of experiment with the method have been a cycle of wet years.
Caution in expecting too much from such promises is necessary because of the tendency to look
for agricultural miracles.
“Yet it is true, as Mr. Cowan says, that scientific farming in the regions of slight rainfall will
undoubtedly add immensely to the agricultural wealth of the country. It will be done, however,
only by great labor and patience. Any feeling that here is a new Canaan, where something is to
be had for nothing, should be promptly discouraged, as sure to result in ultimate harm.”