Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 301–315 | Cite as

Exploring agent-level calculations of risk and returns in relation to observed land-use changes in the US Great Plains, 1870–1940

  • Kenneth M. SylvesterEmail author
  • Daniel G. Brown
  • Susan H. Leonard
  • Emily Merchant
  • Meghan Hutchins
Original Article


Land-use change in the US Great Plains since agricultural settlement in the second half of the nineteenth century has been well documented. While aggregate historical trends are easily tracked, the decision making of individual farmers is difficult to reconstruct. We use an agent-based model to tell the history of the settlement of the west by simulating farm-level agricultural decision making based on historical data about prices, yields, farming costs, and environmental conditions. The empirical setting for the model is the period between 1875 and 1940 in two townships in Kansas, one in the shortgrass region and the other in the mixed grass region. Annual historical data on yields and prices determine profitability of various land uses and thereby inform decision making, in conjunction with the farmer’s previous experience and randomly assigned levels of risk aversion. Results illustrating the level of agreement between model output and a unique and detailed set of household-level records of historical land use and farm size suggest that economic behavior and natural endowments account for land change processes to some degree, but are incomplete. Discrepancies are examined to identify missing processes through model experiments, in which we adjust input and output prices, crop yields, agent memory, and risk aversion. These analyses demonstrate that how agent-based modeling can be a useful laboratory for thinking about social and economic behavior in the past.


Agent-based model Settlement Land-use Behavior Simulation Risk aversion Great Plains 

Supplementary material

10113_2014_628_MOESM1_ESM.docx (22 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 22 kb)
10113_2014_628_MOESM2_ESM.xlsx (20 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (XLSX 21 kb)


  1. Clark C (1990) The roots of rural capitalism: western Massachusetts, 1780–1860. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  2. Clarke SH (1994) Regulation and the revolution in United States farm productivity. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Danbom DB (1979) The resisted revolution: urban America and the industrialization of agriculture, 1900–1930. Iowa State University Press, AmesGoogle Scholar
  4. Danbom DB (2006) Born in the country: a history of rural America. Johns Hopkins University Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  5. Danhof CH (1941) Farm-making costs and the ‘safety valve’: 1850–1860. J Polit Econ 49(3):317–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dennison TK (2011) The institutional framework of Russian serfdom. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Donahue B (2004) The Great Meadow: farmers and the land in colonial Concord. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  8. Duflo E, Kremer M, Robinson J (2011) Nudging farmers to use fertilizer: theory and experimental evidence from Kenya. Am Econ Rev 101(6):2350–2390CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Egan T (2006) The worst hard time: the untold story of those who survived the Great American dust bowl. Houghton Mifflin, BostonGoogle Scholar
  10. Ellis F (2000) Rural livelihoods and diversity in developing countries. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  11. Entwistle B (2007) Putting people into place. Demography 44(4):687–703CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Epstein JM (2006) Generative social science: studies in agent-based computational modeling. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  13. Filatova T, Parker D, van der Veen A (2009) Agent-based urban land markets: agent’s pricing behavior, land prices and urban land use change. J Artif Soc Soc Simul 12(1):3Google Scholar
  14. Fitzgerald DK (2003) Every farm a factory: the industrial ideal in American agriculture. Yale University Press, New HavenCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Flora SD (1948) Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture. Climate of Kansas. State Printer, Topeka.
  16. Geertz C (1983) Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Goodsell WD, Jenkins I (1961) Cost and returns on commercial farms, long-term study, 1930–57, US Dept Agriculture, Econ Res Service, Bulletin No. 297, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  18. Grimm V, Revilla E, Berger U, Jeltsch F, Mooij WM, Railsback SF, Thulke HH, Weiner J, Wiegand T, DeAngelis DL (2005) Pattern-oriented modeling of agent-based complex systems: lessons from ecology. Science 310(5750):987–991CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grimm V, Berger U, DeAngelis DL, Polhill JG, Giske J, Railsback SF (2010) The ODD protocol: a review and first update. Ecol Model 221(23):2760–2768CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Haines MR, and ICPSR (2010) Historical, demographic, economic, and social data: the United States, 1790–2002 [Computer file]. ICPSR [distributor], Ann Arbor. doi: 10.3886/ICPSR02896.v3
  21. Hartman MD, Merchant ER, Parton WJ, Gutmann MP, Lutz SM, Williams SA (2011) Impact of historical land-use changes on greenhouse gas exchange in the U.S. Great Plains, 1883–2003. Ecol Appl 21:1105–1119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Harwood J (2012) Europe’s green revolution and others since: the rise and fall of peasant-friendly plant breeding. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  23. Henretta JA, Kammen MG, Katz SN (1991) The transformation of early American history: society, authority, and ideology. AA Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Holechek JL (1988) An approach for setting the stocking rate. Rangelands 10(1):10–14Google Scholar
  25. Holmes GK (1912) Wages of farm labor. US Dept of Agriculture. Bureau of Statistics, Bulletin 99. Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  26. Lamoreaux NR (2003) Rethinking the transition to capitalism in the early American Northeast. J Am Hist 90(3):437–461CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leonard SH, Deane GD, Gutmann MP (2011) Household and farm transitions in environmental context. Popul Environ 32(4):287–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Little D (1989) Understanding peasant China: case studies in the philosophy of social science. Yale University Press, New HeavenGoogle Scholar
  29. Magliocca NR, Safirova E, McConnell V, Walls M (2011) An economic agent-based model of coupled housing and land markets (CHALMS). Comput Environ Urban Syst 35(3):183–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Magliocca NR, Brown DG, Ellis EC (2014) Cross-site comparison of land-use decision-making and its consequences across land systems with a generalized agent-based model. PLoS One 9(1):e86179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McNeal TA (1922) When Kansas was young. The MacMillian Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  32. Netting RM (1993) Smallholders, householders: farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  33. Olmstead AL, Rhode PW (2008) Creating abundance: biological innovation and American agricultural development. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  34. Parker DC, Filatova T (2008) A conceptual design for a bilateral agent-based land market with heterogeneous economic agents. Comput Environ Urban Syst 32:454–463CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Parker WN, DeCanio SJ, Trojanowski JM (2000) Adjustments to resource depletion: the case of American agriculture—Kansas, 1874–1936. ICPSR07594-v1. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], Ann Arbor. doi: 10.3886/ICPSR07594.v1
  36. Parker DC, Manson SM, Janssen MA, Hoffman MJ, Deadman P (2003) Multi-agent systems for the simulation of land-use and land-cover change: a review. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 93(2):314–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Popkin SL (1979) The rational peasant: the political economy of rural society in Vietnam. U Cal Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  38. Pressley TJ, Scofield WH (2001) Farm real estate values in the United States, 1850–1959 [Computer file]. ICPSR [distributor], Ann Arbor. doi: 10.3886/ICPSR00009
  39. Rothenberg WB (1992) From market-places to a market economy: the transformation of rural Massachusetts, 1750–1850. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  40. Schultz TW (1964) Transforming traditional agriculture. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  41. Scott JC (1976) The moral economy of the peasant: rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  42. Soil Survey Staff, NRCS, US Dept Agriculture (2004) Soil Survey Geographic Database (Ford County, KS Nemaha County, KS).
  43. Steinberg T (2002) Down to Earth: nature’s role in American history. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  44. Sylvester KM, Cunfer G (2009) An unremembered diversity: mixed husbandry and the American grasslands. Agric Hist 83(3):352–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sylvester KM, Rupley ESA (2012) Revising the dust bowl: high above the Kansas grasslands. Environ Hist 17(3):603–633CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sylvester KM, Leonard SH, Gutmann MP, Cunfer G (2006) Demography and environment in grassland settlement: using linked longitudinal and cross-sectional data to explore household and agricultural systems. Hist Comput 14(1):31–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Towne M, Rasmussen W (1960) Farm Gross Product and Gross Investment in the Nineteenth Century, Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century. In: The Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, National Bureau of Economic Research. Princeton University Press, Princeton. pp 255–316.
  48. US Bureau of the Census (1975a) Historical statistics of the United States colonial times to 1970. Series K17-81, Farm Population, Farms, Land in Farms and Value of Farm Property and Farm Products, by State: 1850–1969. US Dept Commerce, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  49. US Bureau of the Census (1975b) Historical statistics of the United States colonial times to 1970. Series E117-134, Beef Prices 1867–1908. US Dept Commerce, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  50. US Dept Agriculture (1892) Division of Statistics. Wages of Farm Labor in the United States, Misc. series no. 4Google Scholar
  51. US Dept Agriculture (1930) Wages of Farm Labor in the United States, Misc. Series No. 4. Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), Washington DC.
  52. US Dept Agriculture (1932) Farm Labor and Wages, July 12, 1932, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  53. US Dept Agriculture (1933) Farm Labor and Wages, July 12, 1933, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  54. US Dept Agriculture (1934) Farm Labor and Wages, June 11, 1934, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  55. US Dept Agriculture (1935) Farm Labor and Wages, July 15, 1935, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  56. US Dept Agriculture (1936) Farm Labor and Wages, July 15, 1936, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  57. US Dept Agriculture (1937) Farm Labor and Wages, July 15, 1937, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  58. US Dept Agriculture (1938) Farm Labor and Wages, July 15, 1938, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  59. US Dept Agriculture (1939) Farm Labor and Wages, July 14, 1939, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  60. US Dept Agriculture (1940) Farm Labor and Wages, July 12, 1940, with Comparisons. BAE, Washington DC.
  61. US Dept Agriculture (1945) Farm Labor Report. November 13, 1945. BAE, Washington DC.
  62. US Dept Agriculture (2005) All Beef Cattle Price, per CWT, 1909–2005. Washington DC.
  63. US Dept Agriculture (2011) Economics of food, farming, natural resources and rural America. Economic Research Service, Washington DC. http://www.ers.usda/data/wheat;
  64. United States, Federal Decennial Census, Agricuture (1880) Manuscript schedules for Wheatland Township, Ford County and Washington Township, Nemaha County, KansasGoogle Scholar
  65. Wheeler DL (1991) The Blizzard of 1886 and its effect on the range cattle industry in the Sourther Plains. Southwest Hist Q 94(3):415–434.
  66. Worster D (1979) Dust bowl: the southern plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  67. Worster D (2001) A river running west: the life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth M. Sylvester
    • 1
    Email author
  • Daniel G. Brown
    • 2
  • Susan H. Leonard
    • 1
  • Emily Merchant
    • 1
  • Meghan Hutchins
    • 2
  1. 1.Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, Institute for Social ResearchUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.School of Natural Resources and EnvironmentUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

Personalised recommendations