The Dust Bowl devastated the Great Plains states during the 1930s. What were described as “black blizzards” tore through many of the southern plains states. They darkened the skies for days on end and sent dust as far east as Washington, D.C., and New York City, even coating some ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
It was an ecological disaster rooted in aggressive economic pursuits that has some parallels to modern climate-change concerns. Government policies and land speculators sought to maximize production and profit without concern for environmental consequences.
Farmers plowed millions of acres of land, digging out prairie grass and planting drought-susceptible crops, including corn and wheat. When the drought occurred, soil erosion left 35 million acres of previously cultivated land useless for farming and endangered another 125 million acres. This led to an economic collapse with 2.5 million residents in the region fleeing to other states, mostly to the west.
Federal policies enacted by Congress created an agency now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service to fight soil erosion. Farmers were employed to plant trees between farms as wind breaks across the Great Plains.
Today, farming remains a vital cog in the economies of the Great Plains states, which include Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Iowa ranks as the largest producer of corn in the U.S. with 2.3 billion bushels harvested in 2020. Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Missouri each rank in the top 10 states as well.
The Hawkeye State also ranks No. 2 in the U.S. in soybean production at 494 million bushels in 2020, according to weather and climate analytics website CropProphet. Nebraska, Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota and Kansas each land among the top 10. And Iowa ranks No. 1 in the nation for pork production as well as egg production.
Additionally, the region produces millions of beef cows. Six states in the region are in the top 10 for numbers of cattle. These include Oklahoma at No. 2 with 2.2 million cows; Missouri at No. 3 (2 million); Nebraska at No. 4 (1.9 million); South Dakota at No. 5 (1.8 million); Kansas at No. 6 (1.5 million); and North Dakota at No. 9 (945,000).
North Dakota ranks No. 2 in the nation in oil production behind only Texas. The Peace Garden State produced 431 million barrels of oil in 2020. Oklahoma ranked No. 4 in the nation with 171 million barrels. Kansas also produced 28 million barrels that year while South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri each produced less than 2 million barrels.
Another large industry in the region is the insurance business. Iowa has more than 81 insurance company headquarters, which combine to employ more than 46,000 people. The University of Iowa and Drake University in Des Moines feature highly rated actuarial science programs. Greeting cards manufacturer Hallmark is headquartered in Kansas City and employs more than 2,000 people. ●
Like the rest of the U.S., the Great Plains Region has seen home prices escalate in recent years. Still, housing is more affordable in these states compared to the rest of the country. The typical home value in each Great Plains state is significantly lower than that of the U.S. as a whole, a figure that stood at $320,000 in December 2021, according to Zillow.
In recent years, North Dakota has had the most expensive housing stock in the region, buoyed by jobs from the oil industry. Last year, South Dakota overtook its northern neighbor and the rest of the region for average home values. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, saw a record number of homes sold for more than $1 million in 2021 (42 compared with just 12 in 2018).
To the south, the Kansas City metro area saw average home prices top $500,000 for the first time in 2021. Builders were responding there with more building permits submitted during the year than at any time since the Great Recession. Still, many of the Great Plains states aren’t seeing the same frenzy as the rest of the country. Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma rank in the bottom five states for home-price growth since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two of the most important crops grown in the Great Plains states are soybeans and corn. So, what happens in China — one of the world’s largest importers of these crops — is of major interest to the region.
China imported more than 125 million metric tons of soybeans and corn last year, much of it from this region. China purchases the crops to feed livestock that is consumed by the country’s growing middle class.
Tariffs implemented by the Trump administration caused major turmoil in the region. Now a major policy change in China could rock the Great Plains again. China is for the first time allowing genetically modified crops, including soybean and corn, to be raised in the country. This could mean that China could grow 50% more of these crops and would need to import less in future years.
Soybean and corn farmers could find new trade partners in other Southeast Asian countries — or they might not. Whatever happens will be watched closely by farmers in these states.
What the locals say
“One of our clients went to an open house yesterday afternoon where there was at least 150 people. They said it was just bananas. It was shoulder to shoulder. … We haven’t seen appreciations of 10%, 15%, 25% and 50% in some of these areas like Hawaii and on the coasts. (Lincoln, Nebraska has) always been a steady climber where you see 3% to 5% appreciation. In the last 24 months, that’s accelerated. It’s been closer to 10% and sometimes even higher.”
Lincoln Federal Savings Bank
3 Cities to Watch
From 2010 to 2020, Lincoln became Nebraska’s fastest-growing city as its metro-area population grew by 11.8% to 337,800 residents. The state capital was named after Abraham Lincoln but only due to an underhanded political maneuver. A state lawmaker who didn’t want the capital to be moved from Omaha to Lincoln engineered the name change in the 1860s, hoping unsuccessfully that Confederacy sympathizers would vote against the change of location.
Straddling the border of Iowa and Illinois, the Quad Cities (which include Bettendorf and Davenport on the Iowa side) is the largest metropolitan area (population 400,000) on the upper Mississippi River between St. Louis and Minneapolis. Major employers include agricultural manufacturer John Deere (6,400 employees) and the Rock Island Arsenal (6,000 employees), the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the western hemisphere.
St. Louis has long been nicknamed the “Gateway to the West,” but Springfield could have staked a claim to the title, too. The city in southwest Missouri (population 169,000) was the site of the first recorded Wild West-era shootout. It also was the birthplace of Route 66, the hallowed highway between Chicago and Los Angeles. Major employers include the headquarters for both Bass Pro Shops (3,300 employees) and O’Reilly Auto Parts (2,000).
Sources: Britannica.com, City of Springfield, CropProphet, Department of Numbers, Des Moines Register, Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City, Forbes, Fortune, GlobalSecurity.org, Hastings Tribune, History.com, Iowa Insurance Institute, Iowa PBS, Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, Missouri State University, Quad Cities Chamber, Reuters, Science X, Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, The Kansas City Star; Visual Capitalist, WBUR-FM, Zillow