Across our north pasture, and on into our neighbors’ bordering pastures, abandoned homesteads dot the landscape at regular intervals. Some feature old houses and windmills that are still standing despite years of neglect. Others are nothing more than brick foundations that rise out of the grass like miniature fortresses. Often a rusted piece of antique farm equipment is nestled nearby, waiting patiently for its farmer to reclaim it, or bedsteads with springs still intact, the mattress long since rotted away; all evidence of plans laid and left unfulfilled. A testament to the way farming and ranching has changed, but also to the difficulties of working the land in this place.
Our county was established in 1908, during the second wave of immigration to the Dakotas. By 1909, the area was flooded with hopeful pioneers. They had harnessed their futures to land “West of 20,” where the average annual precipitation amounts to less than twenty inches, or near desert conditions. That first year, however, homesteaders found themselves living in a verdant paradise. Rain was abundant, and consequently, so were crops. At the time it was believed rain would “follow the plow.” For that first year, it appeared to be true.
The year 1910 dealt a blow to this fantasy. Whereas the first year had been unusually wet, many homesteaders lost their investments of time and money when, during the second year, the area failed to receive even its average of fourteen inches of annual precipitation. They learned, as I have, that “average” doesn’t mean much in these parts.
And it didn’t end there. After the first year of drought, according to Paula Nelson in her book, After the West was Won, “the spring of 1911…arrived early and was unusually warm and much too dry. It was the beginning of a growing season that would exceed all others for drought, heat and wind.” Scores of families had no choice but to abandon their homesteads. They had no financial wiggle room to stick it out, having already mortgaged their land for what it was worth. From a population of 11,348 in the 1910 federal census, our county was listed as 7,641 people in the state census conducted just five years later.
My residence on the ranch has mirrored those original homesteaders’ experiences exactly. My first summer here boasted regular intervals of gentle rain, green grasses, waist-high clover and cool breezes scented with prairie roses. In the fall, cattle prices also happened to be at an all-time high, so we sold our calves with a healthy profit margin and didn’t have to buy winter hay. Everyone told me this wasn’t normal, but like those early settlers, I couldn’t quite believe it. Abundance was all I’d ever known in my adopted homeland.
The years since have taught me otherwise, and I’ve learned firsthand if you crave predictability, western South Dakota is not the place to settle. Every time I think I’ve got our climate figured out, the weather gods send a season of weather so unexpected, that I have to admit I’ve got no idea what to plan for next.
Case in point: We had several years of drought, then last year a reprieve with a series of sudden rain storms in the spring that meant we made it through a relatively dry summer with plenty of grass. Meanwhile, this year summer has been gloriously–green grass from start to finish as a result of gentle, cooling rains whenever we needed them. Other than the resulting abundance of mosquitoes, it was the perfect summer weather-wise. It’s even gotten hot enough here at the end to make us look forward to fall. And the cattle market is high again, at least for now.
Thriving in western South Dakota often looks more like just surviving, but this year, we can relax and rejoice a little as rain is once again predicted to fall right when we need it. What will come next? Who knows; however, we can rest assured our “normal” will always be anything but.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!