Section 15: Farm Depression, 1930s

A depression is a period of time when the economy is very poor. During a depression, prices fall; it is difficult for businesses to make a profit; many people are out of work; and a lot of people cannot afford to buy things that they want or need.

During the 1930s, the United States suffered a depression that was so severe that it is sometimes referred to as the “Great Depression.” Unfortunately for people in North Dakota, a major drought also struck during that decade. This lack of rainfall added to the difficulties caused by the poor economy.

Figure 51. The drought and low farm prices of the 1930s

Figure 51.  Drought and low farm prices of the 1930s caused a farm depression and hardship across North Dakota. (Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, 2057-08-02)

Figure 52. During the 1930s, farm foreclosures

Figure 52.  During the 1930s, farm debt forced many farm families to leave North Dakota. (Library of Congress)

The years 1934 and 1936 were especially dry. Crops and grasses did not grow. Hungry cows lost weight. Thousands of cattle had to be sold. Some died of starvation. Scorching winds picked up particles of soil and created “snowdrifts” made of dirt.

The black clouds that appeared in the sky were not made up of rain, but rather of millions and millions of grasshoppers that swarmed over the land. These greedy creatures consumed (ate) and destroyed any bit of vegetation (plant life) that lay in their path.

Year North Dakota Population Number of ND Farms
1890 190,983 27,611
1900 319,146 45,338
1910 577,056 74,400
1920 646,872 77,690
1930 680,845 77,795
1933 674,000 86,000
1940 641,935 73,692
1950 619,636 65,401
1960 632,446 53,710
1970 617,792 45,647
1980 652,717 38,787
1990 638,800 33,623
2000 642,200 31,500
2010 672,591 31,500

Figure 53. North Dakota Population and Farm Numbers, 1890–2010. North Dakota’s population peaked in 1930. The number of farms in North Dakota peaked in 1933 and has steadily declined since. (SHSND-ND-Studies)

Even though 1934 and 1936 were the driest years of the decade, precipitation also remained below normal from 1937 through 1939. The dry conditions caused crop failures, and farmers did not have very much grain to sell. Because of the economic depression, the prices that farmers received for wheat and other grains were very low. The drought plus the depression caused many hardships for North Dakota farm families.

Most farmers had obtained a mortgage from a bank in order to purchase farmland. A mortgage (MOR-gaj) is a document, which states that a bank will lend money in order to buy property; and if the borrower cannot pay back the loan, the bank will take over the property. This is called foreclosure (for-KLOH-zher).

Thousands of North Dakota farm families lost their farms through foreclosure. During the 1930s, over 121,000 people moved out of the state. By 1940, the population of North Dakota was about 642,000.