Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Good Fences Make Good Farms

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Good Fences Make Good Farms

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Barbed Wire: Property Rights and Agricultural Development" by Richard Hornbeck, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2010.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 19TH century, farmers on the American plains had a problem: If cows and other livestock from neighboring properties trampled their crops, it was the farmers themselves, not the owners of the roaming animals, who were responsible for the damage. The solution was fences, and farmers who lived near woodlands that could supply cheap timber built lots of them. In 1872, the value of America's fencing stock was roughly equal to the value of all livestock in America, the national debt, or the railroads. Annual fencing repair costs were greater than the total tax revenue of all levels of government.

Out on the plains, where timber was scarce, wooden fences were prohibitively expensive. The few farmers who eked out a living there did so by planting mostly hay, which could withstand a bit of trampling. Then, in 1874, Joseph Glidden, a farmer in DeKalb, Illinois, came up with an idea that gave rise to America's breadbasket: barbed wire.

Barbed wire solved the farmers' problem: It kept out roaming livestock, was cheap to produce and easy to put up, and required little maintenance. …

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