Legacies of transfers to the Great Plains from the Russian/Eurasian Steppes

Professor David Moon
Tuesday 8 Jun 2021, 16:00 - 17:00
Spoken Language
This is an online event via Zoom


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David Moon
Professor David Moon

In this Development Research Seminar, Professor David Moon surveys the contemporary legacies in the Great Plains of North America of a series of transfers from the Russian/Eurasian steppes that took place between the 1870s and 1930s.

These two regions have similar environments and environmental histories. Both are semi-arid grasslands where smaller indigenous populations who lived mostly by herding or hunting animals were replaced by larger numbers of migrants.

The newcomers grew crops in the fertile soil, but had to adapt to recurring droughts and high winds. The steppes were ploughed up for crops first, hence there was prior experience when the Great Plains underwent a similar process.

What were the transfers?

  1. Thousands of migrants, mostly ethnic German farmers, moved from the steppes to the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century.
  2. Crops, including varieties of wheat suitable to semi-arid environments, were imported from the steppes by migrants and later by the US Department of Agriculture.
  3. In the 1920s the US Soil Survey adapted a Russian innovation in soil science that was devised in the steppes in the 1870s, and applied it to the soils of the United States. Fertile soils of the Great Plains were classified as 'chernozems', the Russian term used for similar soils of the steppes.
  4. During the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, the US government planted belts of trees across the Great Plains to shelter land from the erosive force of the wind. The technique drew partly on expertise developed in the Russian\Eurasian steppes. The technical director of the US Shelterbelt Project, Raphael Zon, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant.
  5. As well as plants that are 'useful' to humans, weeds were imported by mistake with seeds of crops. The most famous is the Tumbleweed that has become both an icon of the American West and a harmful invasive species.

The paper draws on material in David Moons recent monograph The American Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

A 20-minute presentation of the boo.

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