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The Role of Irrigation in the Development of Agriculture in the United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 November 2018

Eric C. Edwards*
Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, North Carolina State University, Nelson Hall 4332, 2801 Founders Drive, Raleigh, NC 27695.
Steven M. Smith*
Assistant Professor, Division of Economics and Business and Affiliate of the Payne Institute for Earth Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, Engineering Hall 323, 1500 Illinois Street, Golden, CO 80401.


We examine the role of irrigation in explaining U.S. agricultural gains post-1940. Specifically, we analyze how productivity and farm values changed in the western United States as a result of technological and policy changes that expanded access to ground and surface water. To statistically identify the effects, we compare counties based on their potential access to irrigation water defined by physical characteristics. We find areas with access to large streams and/or groundwater increase crop production relative to areas with only small streams by $19 billion annually, equivalent to 90 percent of the total annual increase in the western United States after 1940.

© 2018 The Economic History Association. All rights reserved. 

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The authors wish to thank Muyang Ge for her research assistance, as well as Lee Alston, Zeynep Hanson, Edwyna Harris, Bryan Leonard, Gary Libecap, Sara Sutherland, two anonymous reviewers, and editor William Collins for comments on earlier drafts. The research was also improved by participants at Economic History Association Annual Meeting, Boulder, CO, 91st Annual Conference of the Western Economic Association International, Portland, OR, and comments at the Vassar College Economic Seminar Series, the University of Florida, and North Carolina State University. The authors acknowledge the support of Utah Agricultural Experiment Station (USDA NIFA, Hatch project 1004932). All remaining errors are our own.


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