In some ways, Nebraska’s agricultural industry defines the state. Despite once being labeled the “Great American Desert,” Nebraska has become one of the most bountiful farming states in the country. The early days weren’t easy, though. From the tough-as-nails pioneers who tamed the wild land to the tenacious farmers who stuck it out through the Dust Bowl, Nebraska farmers have had to endure some hard times. These historic photos give a look into what life was like for previous generations of Nebraska farmers.
1. This farmer operates a corn binder in a field in Waterloo.
This picture was taken during the harvest in 1941.
2. This type of gang plow was used in the Pine Ridge region.
The plows broke up hard forest ground to ready it for farming. This picture is from 1936.
3. Much of the hard work, like operating this sorghum mill, was done by hand.
These men were part of the rural rehabilitation program that helped impoverished farmers survive during the Depression.
4. This rehabilitation client loads raw materials into a sorghum mill.
He and the other workers operated the mill for farmers in Lancaster County.
5. Hardy sorghum was an important crop in the 1930s.
Interestingly, the crop is now making a comeback with the growing demand for gluten-free products. The milling process today definitely looks different than it did in this picture.
6. A farmer and a tough-looking little girl take a much-deserved break at the sorghum mill.
It's not clear whether the girl actually worked at the mill. But farm families then were a lot like farm families today in that everyone pitched in.
7. Farming implements looked a lot different back then.
This hay rake, pictured here in Lancaster County in 1938, looks a bit unsophisticated compared to modern versions.
8. Workers labor in a sugar beet field.
This photo from 1938, taken in Lincoln County, shows how backbreaking farm work was.
9. Even children labored in the fields.
Also taken in Lincoln County in 1938, this picture shows a young boy who worked in the sugar beet fields alongside adult workers.
10. These workers load topped sugar beet into a pickup using shovels.
From Lincoln County, 1938.
11. Some vintage scenes look a lot like today's farms.
This 1936 scene from a Custer County farm doesn't look too far removed from a modern family farm.
12. A rehabilitation client's son milks a cow on their Custer County farm in 1936.
As long as the family had a cow, they could count on fresh milk, cream, and butter.
13. Farmers attend an auction in Kearney in 1936.
In these difficult times, countless farmers were put out of business and out of their homes by the drought. They watched as their belongings were auctioned off, leaving them with nothing.
14. A grain elevator sits right next to the railroad tracks in North Platte.
Shot by famed photographer Dorothea Lange in 1939, this is a classic display of the Nebraska farming industry.
15. A farmer uses a power rake on alfalfa fields in Dawson County.
Dawson County is the top alfalfa producing center in the world, according to the caption on this 1938 photograph.
16. Pigs and sows relax and root for food in an alfalfa field.
This picture from 1941 comes from the Scottsbluff Farmsteads, an FSA project.
17. These cows are being milked at an FSA co-op in Waterloo.
When this picture was shot in 1941, this herd was one of the top producers marketed through the FSA (Farm Security Administration).
18. Farmers work together to erect a snow fence.
This picture was shot in York County in 1940.
19. Shocks of corn stand tall in the field.
This 1941 picture was taken just outside of Scottsbluff.
20. This cozy farmstead looks like home.
This scene was captured in Sheridan County in 1940.
Farming sure has changed since the early 20th century. Back then, the family farm was the norm, while today fewer and fewer Nebraska farms are owned and operated by families.