Agronomy for the steppe: The development of dry farming in the Russian empire

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The aim of this article is to analyze on the basis of archival and printed sources from both Russia and the United States the development of dry farming’ techniques for cultivating grain crops in regions, such as the steppes and the American Great Plains with semi-arid climates, where the average, annual precipitation was around or under 400 mm, which was lower than in other agricultural regions in both countries, and also unreliable, varying sharply from year to year. Both regions also experienced periodic droughts. The article focuses on the steppe region in the southern part of the Russian Empire (today’s southern Ukraine and the south of the Russian Federation) to the west of the Ural River and Ural mountains, covering the period from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Cultivating the soil and keeping fallow fields clear of vegetation (chernyi par) in order to conserve scarce moisture are the main farming techniques examined in the article. It also compares the techniques devised in the steppe regions in the early and mid-nineteenth century with those used later on the Great Plains of the United States, where they were promoted as ‘dry farming’. The article recognizes that farmers in both the Russian Empire and the United States may have devised similar techniques independently as they faced similar challenges, in particular, scarce supplies of moisture, but suggests that the American methods may have had their origins in the experience of farmers on the steppe. In this regard, it is important to note that among the pioneers of such techniques on the steppe were Mennonite farmers who emigrated from the steppes to the United States in the 1870s bringing along their methods.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)378-397
Number of pages20
JournalVestnik Sankt-Peterburgskogo Universiteta, Istoriya
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Agriculture
  • Agronomy
  • Chernozem
  • Dry farming
  • Grain
  • Russian Empire
  • South
  • Steppe

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History

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