by Ashley David
“Have you ever heard of a Bonanza Farm?” the North Dakota Tourism website asks me, and I have to answer, “Sure, I watched re-runs of Bonanza when I was a kid,” which is enough to betray me. I am so very much not from North Dakota, and the tv western I watched as a kid seems to have nothing to do with a North Dakotan notion of bonanza. Neither does my next leap to mining lingo. No, a Bonanza Farm is what resulted in the 19th century when the Northern Pacific Railroad offered its stock holders the opportunity to buy large tracts of land at government prices in order to raise capital to complete the railroad across what would shortly become the state of North Dakota. Next time you’re in North Dakota, you might want to visit one such farm, the tourism site continues, and they offer up Bagg Bonanza Farm near Mooreton. North Dakota not in your immediate travel plans? Then how about Brenda K. Marshall’s story “In Which a Coffin Is a Bed but an Ox Is Not a Coffin.” Marshall’s story kicks off the summer reading issue and is our featured story on the website, but don’t expect mosquitoes and bar-b-q. A chilly, chilly, chilling blizzard is in your future. Plus, two illustrations, the first of which sent me on my Bonanza Farm quest.
A little poking around on the internet revealed a rich vein of details that remind me that, ahem, history is worth remembering. Bonanza farms were huge. The Bagg Farm, for example, was 9,000 acres. Moreover, most of these farms were company-owned, run like factories, and dependent upon migrant labor. Operations were so large that Bonanza Farms helped to pioneer both the technology and the economy that characterize our contemporary food systems in the US. It seems that the current hullabaloo in the US over factory farming has at least some of its roots in the Red River Valley.
A quick search for “facts + factory farming” reveals at the top of the hit list, that I’m not the only one in need of historical perspective. In Defense of Animals locates the advent of factory farming in the 1920s with the discovery that adding Vitamins A and D to feed could make animals grow without sunlight or exercise. (Does fortified breakfast cereal do the same for humans?) As I investigate the top hits, I realize that the confusion is related to a confusion of terms. Factory farming has come to be associated almost exclusively with factory farming of animals. The wheat fields that characterized the Bonanza Farms of North Dakota (and that characterize a big slice of corporate farming today) are not “factory farms” in 20th and 21st century terms. Terms are slippery.
Apparently Jonathan Safran Foer thinks so too. He writes in his 2009 memoir-investigation, Eating Animals, “I frequently found myself confused. Sometimes my disorientation was the result of the slipperiness of terms like suffering, joy, and cruelty. Sometimes it seemed to be a deliberate effect. Language is never fully trustworthy, but when it comes to eating animals, words are as often used to misdirect and camouflage as they are to communicate. Some words, like veal, help us forget what we are actually talking about. Some, like free-range, can mislead those whose consciences seek clarification. Some, like happy, mean the opposite of what they would seem. And some, like natural, mean next to nothing.”
In most dictionaries I checked, bonanza is defined first as an exceptionally large and rich mineral deposit and second as either a great stroke of luck leading to material wealth or something that is very rewarding or profitable. When the first factory farms of North Dakota were christened “bonanza,” I wonder to whose luck and profit they were referring. The railroad that crossed the state? The farming companies that supplied grain to the east coast, transported along the new rails? The folks in urban centers on the east coast dining on North Dakota grain? The family farms and farmers that outlasted the initial Bonanza Farms? The corporate farms today made possible by these early experiments in corporate agriculture? The bounty all around? It’s hard to imagine what is intended, but the promise of the word sells me on something. It may mean next to nothing, but it has a nice ring to it. Like natural.