Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Paul Sutter

Second Advisor

Thomas Andrews

Third Advisor

Mark Fiege

Fourth Advisor

Phoebe Young

Fifth Advisor

Jill Lindsey-Harrison


I examine the industrialization of agriculture in the irrigated region of Northern Colorado from 1870-1960. Initially, I analyze settlement and land use patterns in the last third of the nineteenth century, showing how settlers developed a sustainable form of mixed farming that incorporated animal husbandry, careful crop rotation, sophisticated irrigation and an orientation toward market farming. Next, I demonstrate how the beet sugar industry came to dominate agriculture in the region during the first half of the twentieth century, as farmers incorporated the new cash crop into their farming, while utilizing the byproducts of the beet sugar industry to feed their livestock. Becoming growers for Great Western Sugar initially held in place and augmented a mode of farming that was generally sustainable for the land and lucrative for farmers, while also transferring control over land use from farmers to a corporation.

My work also shows how the beet sugar industry created a permanent underclass of laborers. Cheap foreign sugar and delayed mechanization alongside corporate and grower demands for comfortable profits motivated the importation of German-Russian, Hispano, and Mexican labor. I show how Great Western and its growers kept contracted laborers on society’s margins and how this impacted housing, social relationships, education, and welfare. While laborers during the 1920s and 1930s chose to work in the beet fields, they resisted their conditions through strikes, unions, and forming a proletarian culture. Their plight and activism attracted the attention of reformists who used labor conditions in the beet sugar industry to argue for agricultural labor reforms.

My research explains the drive for higher crop yields in American agriculture during the twentieth century. I show that, while mechanization offers some answers, the adoption of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers were essential in expanding yields and displacing farm laborers. In addition, I argue that USDA scientists and agricultural colleges provided much of the labor and research necessary to expand productivity, suggesting that understanding the evolution of modern food systems requires close historical scrutiny of the relationship between industry and state-sponsored science.