Great Plains Population and Environment Data: Agricultural Data, 1870-1997 [United States] (ICPSR 4254)

Version Date: Jun 22, 2005 View help for published

Principal Investigator(s): View help for Principal Investigator(s)
Myron P. Gutmann, University of Michigan


Version V1

The data in this series of studies were assembled by an interdisciplinary research team led by Myron Gutmann of the University of Michigan between 1995 and 2004, as part of a research project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant Number R01HD033554 to the University of Michigan). The goal of the project was to amass information about approximately 500 counties in 12 states of the Great Plains of the United States, and then to analyze those data in order to understand the relationships between population and environment that existed between the years of about 1870 and 2000. The data distributed here are all data about counties. They fall into four broad categories: about the counties, about agriculture, about demographic and social conditions, and about the environment. The information about counties (name, area, identification code, and whether the project classified the county as part of the Great Plains in a given year) is embedded in each of the other data files, so that there will be three series of data (agriculture, demographic and social conditions, and environment), containing individual data files for each year for which data are available. The United States Census of Agriculture has been conducted since 1850 on a regular schedule that was decennial until 1920, and more frequently thereafter (every five years from 1925 to 1950, then in 1954, 1959, 1964, 1978, and every five years since 1982). The agricultural data included in this collection consist of a single data file for each agricultural census year between 1870 and 1997 that includes selected material compiled as part of the United States Agricultural Census. The county-level agricultural data produced by the United States government as part of the census constitute a consistent series of measures of changing agriculture and land use.

Gutmann, Myron P. Great Plains Population and Environment Data: Agricultural Data, 1870-1997 [United States]. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2005-06-22.

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United States Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD033554)


Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research
1870 -- 1997
1870 -- 1997
  1. A detailed list of census and other documents used to compile these data is provided in the codebook.

The first comprehensive United States Census of Agriculture in 1850 imposed a limit below which no tract of land was to be considered a farm. If the value of produce from small farm lots fell below $100 in value, they were to be excluded from the count of census farms. In 1870, the minimums rose to reflect economic change and to help sort out some of the confusion that emerged in the South with emancipation, including the subdivision of plantations and attendant uncertainties in proprietorship. The preamble to the 1870 census declared that "[n]o farm will be reported of less than three acres, unless five hundred dollars' worth of produce has actually been sold off from it during the year." This same definition was applied in 1880 and 1890.

In the 1900 preamble, census officials explained a return to the original standard of 1850 and offered some cautionary advice. In reviewing the changing definition of census farms they noted that in "no [agricultural] census of the country had one-half of the farms reported products of a value of $500, and the proportion that had sold products of that value was much smaller. The land occupied and the products secured by very many persons devoting their entire time to caring for small dairies, apiaries, florists' establishments, and kindred agricultural establishments were omitted from reports, although those persons were properly included in the occupation tables as dairymen, apiarists, florists, etc." Because of these omissions from tabulated results in 1870, 1880, and 1890, census marshals issued revised instructions to enumerators in 1900 that were far more inclusive. This occupational and self-declared basis for defining farms is further clarified by the explicit inclusion of market-gardens, orchards, nurseries, cranberry marshes, greenhouses and city dairies, provided, [emphasis in the original] the entire time of at least one individual is devoted to their care.

By 1910, size and production minimums returned in a definition that retained language about farms as the agricultural operations of self-described farmers, with the added provision that they again be tracts of farmland at least three acres in size, no matter what the value of their produce, or if they fell below the size minimum, that they employ the continuous services of at least one person or produce at least $250 worth of farm products. This definition was applied again in 1920, 1925, 1930, 1935, 1940, and 1945. However the value of production for farms under three acres was not adjusted for inflation or deflation. The inclusion or exclusion of very small farms in the census during these years relied, in part, on changes in the price of agricultural commodities.

In 1950, farms of three or more acres were included in the census only if the value of their produce from the previous crop year, in 1949, amounted to $150, and similarly operations under three acres in size were included only if they met the minimum of $150 in sales from the previous year.

In 1959, the farm size and product value minimums were adjusted again. The farm size minimum was raised to ten acres, with sales of at least $50, and if farms fell below ten acres, they were required to have estimated sales of at least $250. Farms that fell below either of these product value minimums were included in the census if they could be expected to meet them under normal conditions. The same census definition of census farms was applied in 1964.

The biggest change in process came in 1969 with the switch from face-to-face enumeration to enumeration by mail. Nonsample "short" forms were mailed to every respondent on the Census Bureau's mailing list, a list furnished by the United States Department of Agriculture. By law, everyone on the list was required to respond to the nonsample form. Respondents who reported sales or acreage above specified levels on nonsample forms were then sent correspondence requesting additional sample data. To limit respondent burden, the nonsample form included only questions to be reported at the county level. All county-level data are based on the nonsample form.

The biggest change in definition occurred in 1974 when the acreage criterion was dropped and a farm was defined as a place from which $1,000 in agricultural products was produced and sold, or normally would have been sold. The use of sales as the basic criterion meant that operations that focused on household use or non-commercial distribution were no longer regarded as farms. It is estimated that this change defined 300,000 farms out of existence nationally, an estimate made more precise by the count of farms using both definitions in the 1974 Agricultural Census and the 1980 Population Census (Bruce L. Gardner, American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2002: 51-52). The $1,000 sales criterion persisted until the end of the twentieth century.

Adjustments were made to enumeration by mail in 1978 to improve coverage, including a revised mail list and the adoption of a direct area enumeration sample, including the use of aerial photography, as a data checking method.

In 1982, 3,653,000 nonsample forms were mailed in late December to individuals, businesses and organizations on the mail list. Data collection included a reminder card and five follow-up letters. Further follow-up was conducted by mail and telephone for nonrespondents in 14 states, and adjustments made to the final results. All new farm successors reported by former operators were researched to see if they had been included in the census mailing. Report forms mailed to successor addresses not previously on the mail file improved the coverage of the results.

Since 1987, coverage evaluation reports have accompanied the publication of the agricultural census to provide estimates of the completeness of the enumeration. In 1997, the use of post-census sampling by the USDA increased the count of United States farms from 1.97 to 2.06 million.

All the counties in the 12 Great Plains states of the United States (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming).



Census volumes for pertinent years by the United States Department of Agriculture

Census volumes for pertinent years by the United States Bureau of the Census


2018-02-15 The citation of this study may have changed due to the new version control system that has been implemented. The previous citation was:
  • Gutmann, Myron P. Great Plains Population and Environment Data: Agricultural Data, 1870-1997 [United States]. ICPSR04254-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2005-06-22.


  • The public-use data files in this collection are available for access by the general public. Access does not require affiliation with an ICPSR member institution.