Abstract: Plant more wheat! World War I and the Sustainability Ideal in U.S. Agriculture

Elizabeth Cafer du Plessis


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, a top concern of American agricultural leaders was how U.S. farmers could meet growing demands for more food—in peacetime and in war—while also restoring, protecting, and even improving soil fertility. Environmental historians have missed the early history of the sustainability ideal in U.S. agriculture because of a narrow focus on the Conservation Movement of the same period that resulted in government management of rivers and forests, as well as the establishment of national parks. This paper examines overlooked agricultural sustainability initiatives, governmental and otherwise, in the Great Plains before and during World War I. The U.S. declaration of war in 1917 meant provisioning extraordinary quantities of foodstuffs to the Allies' massive armies and dislocated civilians, and wheat was Europe's greatest single food demand on the United States. American wheat farmers responded by taking out loans, buying farm machinery, and plowing up wild pasture and grazing lands. An ideological conflict between wartime food demands and long-term conservation goals continued for decades after the war ended. Many of the difficulties of the American farmer, including the 1930s Dust Bowl, were blamed on the "great plow-up" of 1917 and 1918.