Bonanza farms were very large farms in the United States performing large-scale operations, mostly growing and harvesting wheat. Bonanza farms were made possible by a number of factors including: the efficient new farming machinery of the 1870s, the cheap abundant land available during that time period, the growth of eastern markets in the U.S., and the completion of most major railroads.
Most bonanza farms were owned by companies and run like factories, with professional managers. The first bonanza farms were established in the Red River Valley in Dakota Territory, and Minnesota in the mid-1870s. They were located close to the Northern Pacific Railroad which transported their wheat to market. Investors also organized bonanza farms farther west.
Role of farm technology
Bonanza farmers pioneered the development of farm technology and economics. Steam engines were used for motive power in plowing as much as 41 years before the modern farm tractor made its first appearance. Plows and combine harvesters drawn by steam tractors prowled the landscape in the 1880s and 1890s, well before mechanization of the smaller midwestern farms. The division of labor was applied in bonanza farms generations before family farms adapted to these modern ways. Farm boys from the midwest, working on bonanza farms in the early 20th century, transplanted these ideas to Corn Belt homesteads and built larger farms as the century progressed. (An example is Fred Geier, of Lynn Township, McLeod County, Minnesota and Boon Lake Township, Renville County, Minnesota, who travelled to the Dakotas in the early 20th century and became a progressive farmer and custom thresher and miller at a time when others in the townships were still farming with horses on a very small scale. Other than his role as an inventor of the Geier Hitch, this may well have been his most significant contribution to society). They were also used to grow one type of crop for profit on a large estate.
Dependence on migrant labor and demise of bonanza farms
Migrant labor was a necessary part of bonanza farming. At planting and harvesting times foremen often supervised some 500 to 1000 extra workers on a bonanza farm. When weather and market conditions were good, bonanza farms made large profits; buying seeds, and equipment in bulk meant lower production costs. But in times of drought or low wheat prices, their profits fell. As the Red River Valley developed, the necessity to use Mexican migrant labor or bracero labor distinguished the former area of the Bonanza farms from their local competitors, family farmers. Family farmers, with fewer workers to pay and less money invested in equipment, could better handle boom-and-bust cycles. Thus by the 1890s most bonanza farms had broken up into smaller farms.
The Frederick A. and Sophia Bagg Bonanza Farm is a preserved example of a bonanza farm, located in southeastern corner of North Dakota. The Bagg Bonanza Farm was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
- Nolan, Edward W. (1983). Northern Pacific views: The railroad photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-917298-11-X.
- Lauren McCroskey (September 25, 1990). PDF (32 KB). National Park Service.
- Nolan, Edward W. (1983). Northern Pacific views: The railroad photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-917298-11-X.
- Delia Hagen, Ann Emmons, Janene Caywood, and Geoff Cunfer (September 2002). PDF (260 KiB). National Park Service.
H. Drache, The Day of the Bonanza: A History of Bonanza Farming in the Red River Valley of the North (Lund Press, 1965)