On the eve of the twentieth century, plant explorers from the United States such as Neils E. Hansen traveled to Russian Central Asia in search of new cold-hardy and drought-resistant alfalfa varieties. Hansen’s travels and the work of other alfalfa boosters would help create an alfalfa boom on the American plains, especially in northern regions like South Dakota where Hansen worked. However, the effects of the growth of alfalfa were not limited to the Dakotas; they were also connected to and influenced another boom in the American Southwest. Moreover, in order to plant new acreages in alfalfa, huge amounts of seed were imported from Russian Central Asia, especially from the region of Khiva. This article tells the story of how alfalfa connected these diverse regions, while also analyzing how a complex mix of technologies, expertise, colonialism, and ideas about the environment led to contingent and surprising outcomes in all three regions.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.


1. Niels Hansen, Personal Journal, 1913, Folder 62, Box 5, N. E. Hansen Papers, UA 53.4, South Dakota State University Archives and Special Collections, Hilton M. Briggs Library, Brookings, South Dakota (hereafter referred to as N. E. Hansen Papers).
2. The term “stan” in Persian means “place of,” hence Kazakhstan means “place of the Kazakhs.”
3. There is excellent recent research on the agricultural ties between the United States and Russia and the Soviet Union. On the imperial period see David Moon, The American Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). On the Soviet period and a Central Asian connection, see Maya K. Peterson, Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sea Basin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019); and especially Maya K. Peterson, “US to USSR: American Experts, Irrigation, and Cotton in Soviet Central Asia, 1929-32,” Environmental History 21, no. 3 (July 2016): 442-66.
4. Diana K. Davis, “Imperialism, Orientalism, and the Environment in the Middle East,” in Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Diana K. Davis and Edmund Burke III (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011), 3-4.
5. Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 43.
6. For a useful discussion of technopolitics operating on the periphery of empire, see Michael Christopher Low, “Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State: The Technopolitics of Pilgrimage and Potable Water in the Hijaz,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57, no. 4 (2015): 942-74.
7. For a sampling of the history of the struggle by agricultural modernizers to transform US agriculture, see William L. Bowers, The Country Life Movement in America, 1900-1920 (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1974); Roy V. Scott, The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970); and Claire Strom, Making Catfish Bait out of Government Boys: The Fight against Cattle Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
8. Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).
9. In fact, some believe that the word alfalfa comes from the Arabic word al-fisfisa meaning “fresh fodder.”
10. Jared G. Smith, “Alfalfa or Lucern,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers Bulletin 31 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1895): 19.
11. Samuel Fortier, “Irrigation of Alfalfa,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers Bulletin 373 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1909): 7.
12. Homer L. Kerr, “Introduction of Forage Plants into Ante-Bellum United States,” Agricultural History 38, no. 2 (Apr. 1964): 87-95.
13. Julius Rubin, “The Limits of Agricultural Progress in the Nineteenth-Century South,” Agricultural History 49, no. 2 (Apr. 1975): 362-73.
14. Edward Dallam Melillo, Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 92-97.
15. Howard L. Hyland, “History of U.S. Plant Introduction,” Environmental Review 2, no. 4 (1977): 26-33. Hansen was not alone as a plant explorer in the employ of the Department of Agriculture working in Asia. Frank Meyer was later employed in the same work after Hansen and the USDA appear to have had a falling out. On Meyer, see Isabel Shipley Cunningham, Frank N. Meyer: Plant Hunter in Asia (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984). Hansen was only the first USDA plant collector; there had been many others working for various business, government, and military interests beginning in the Early Republic. See Courtney Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
16. M. D. Rumbaugh, “N. E. Hansen’s Contributions to Alfalfa Breeding in North America,” South Dakota State University Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin Paper 670 (Brookings, SD, 1978): 3.
17. K. H. Asay, “Plant Exploration for New Forage Grasses,” in New Crops, ed. J. Janick and J. E. Simon (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993), 147-54, https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/V2-147.html, accessed June 17, 2021.
18. Williams was the Russian-born son of an American engineer who settled in Russia. Vasilii went on to become an important agronomist in the late tsarist and Soviet periods.
19. Niels Hansen, “Cooperative Tests of Alfalfa from Siberia and European Russia,” Folder 20, Box 1, N. E. Hansen Papers.
20. Niels Hansen, Dictaform, Folder 8, Box 1, N. E. Hansen Papers.
21. Niels Hansen, Address to the State Conservation and Development and Dry Farming Congress, “Hardy Alfalfas for Northern Prairies,” 1911, Folder 1, Box 1, N. E. Hansen Papers.
22. Niels Hansen, Radio Address, “Horticulture Program for South Dakota,” Feb. 1936, Folder 8, Box 3, N. E. Hansen Papers.
23. Niels Hansen, “Notes on Hardy Alfalfas,” 1909, Folder 16, Box 3, David Richards Collection on N. E. Hansen, MA 49, South Dakota State University Archives and Special Collections, Hilton M. Briggs Library, Brookings, South Dakota (hereafter referred to as David Richards Collection).
24. Edgar Brown, “Commercial Turkestan Alfalfa Seed,” Bulletin of the US Department of Agriculture No. 138 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1914): 2-3.
25. Brown, “Commercial Turkestan Alfalfa Seed,” 1.
26. Hansen, “Hardy Alfalfas for Northern Prairies,” N. E. Hansen Papers.
27. Hansen, “Hardy Alfalfas for Northern Prairies.”
28. Hansen was not alone in his beliefs about the similarities of the northern plains and Kazakhstan, though some, like Kate Brown, believed these similarities were not limited to climate alone. See Kate Brown, “Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana Are Nearly the Same Place,” American Historical Review 106, no. 1 (Feb. 2001): 17-48.
29. Hansen, Dictaform.
30. Alfalfa is particularly susceptible to mutations and crossbreeding in the wild, which can make definition of varieties difficult and has long plagued historians and agronomists. See Mauro Ambrosoli, “The Diffusion of Luzerne, Alfalfa (Medicago L.) from Ancient Iran to the Mediterranean Area: A New Chronology from Recent Data” (paper presented at the European Rural History Organization Conference, Leuven, Belgium, Sept. 2017).
31. Hansen, “Notes on Hardy Alfalfas,” David Richards Collection.
32. Samuel Garver, “Report of Forage Crop Investigations Conducted by the Bureau of Plant Industry at Redfield, SD,” 1914, Folder 5, Box 1, N. E. Hansen Papers.
33. Niels Hansen, “Program for Developing the Western Marginal Lands,” 1934, Folder 6, Box 5, David Richards Collection.
34. Hansen, “Hardy Alfalfa’s for Northern Prairies,” N. E. Hansen Papers.
35. Robert W. Drown, “Yellow Flowered Alfalfa,” Progressive Forage, Apr. 9, 2009, http://www.progressiveforage.com/forage-types/alfalfa/0209-fg-yellow-flowered-alfalfa, accessed June 17, 2021.
36. National Plant Germplasm System Report on the Status of Medicago Germplasm in the United States, Oct. 2000, https://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/cgc_reports/alfalfa/alfalfacgc2000.htm, accessed June 17, 2021.
37. On the development of certified seed in the United States, see Deborah Fitzgerald, “Farmers Deskilled: Hybrid Corn and Farmers’ Work,” Technology and Culture 34 (Apr. 1993): 324-43; and Kathy J. Cooke, “Expertise, Book Farming, and Government Agriculture: The Origins of Agricultural Seed Certification in the United States,” Agricultural History 76, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 524-45.
38. Hansen, “Notes on Hardy Alfalfas,” David Richards Collection.
39. Hansen, Dictaform.
40. Rumbaugh, N. E. Hansen’s Contribution to Alfalfa Breeding, 5-6.
41. Hansen, Dictaform. This name appears to be a misunderstanding of the Russian word for yellow, zheltyi.
42. R. A. Oakley and H. L. Westover, “How to Grow Alfalfa,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers Bulletin 1283 (1926): 3.
43. J. M. Westgate, Alfalfa Growing for Seed and Hay (South Bend, IN: Bidsell Manufacturing Co., 1910), 4.
44. Photograph of the “First World Alfalfa Palace” by Carl Rise, 1917, Box P35, Towns Collection, South Dakota State Historical Society, Archives Department, http://sddigitalarchives.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/photos/id/2899, accessed June 17, 2021.
45. Catherine McNicol Stock, Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 17.
46. Herbert S. Schell, “Adjustment Problems in South Dakota,” Agricultural History 14, no. 2 (Apr. 1940): 65-74.
47. Francis D. Cronin and Howard W. Beers, Areas of Intense Drought Distress, 1930-1936 (Washington, DC: Works Progress Administration, 1937), 23.
48. US Department of Commerce, Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940, Agriculture, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1942), 458.
49. For a discussion on the challenges facing agriculture in the plains and Southwest, including their past and future, see the exchange between John Opie, Thomas Orton, and David Danbom in Agricultural History 66, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 279-330.
50. A. Aminov, Èkonomicheskoe razvitie Srednei Azii (Tashkent: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo Uzbekskoi SSR, 1959). While Russia tended not to interfere, there were important exceptions, as noted by Akifumi Shioya, “Povorot and the Khanate of Khiva: A New Canal and the Birth of Ethnic Conflict in the Khorazm Oasis, 1870s-1890s,” Central Asian Survey 33, no. 2 (2014): 232-45.
51. While Russian officials and the khan’s government were involved in attempts at expanding irrigation, they often met with difficulties in the changed protectorate landscape, as can be seen in the unsuccessful New Lawzan Canal project. Shioya, “Povorot and the Khanate of Khiva,” 233.
52. Ian Murray Matley, “Agricultural Development (1865-1963),” in Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance, 3rd ed., ed. Edward Allworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 272.
53. Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” American Historical Review 109, no. 5 (2004): 1405-38.
54. On the economic changes brought by Russian rule in Fergana, see Beatrice Penati, “Notes on the Birth of Russian Turkestan’s Fiscal System: A View from the Fergana Oblast,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53, no. 5 (2010): 739-69.
55. A. I. Shakhnazarov, Sel’skoe khoziaistvo v Turkestanskom krae (St. Petersburg, Russia: Tipografiia V. Iu. Kirshbauma, 1908), 147.
56. Sadykov, Èkonomicheskie sviazi, 166.
57. Sadykov, Èkonomicheskie sviazi, 167.
58. On the complicated reasons for the lack of cash specie and labor as well as other limiting factors of cotton production in Khiva, see John B. Seitz, “Irrigation and Agriculture in the Khanate of Khiva, 1768-1914” (master’s thesis, Indiana University, 2013), 48-59.
59. John Whitman, “Turkestan Cotton in Imperial Russia,” American Slavic and East European Review 15, no. 2 (1956): 191.
60. Julia Obertreis also noted that, within Central Asia, Khivan irrigation was “especially labor-intensive.” Julia Obertreis, Imperial Desert Dreams: Cotton Growing and Irrigation in Central Asia, 1860-1991 (Gottingen, Germany: V & R unipress, 2017), 29.
61. Shir Mohammed Mirab Munis and Muhammed Riza Mirab Agahi, Firdaws al-iqbal-History of Khorezm, trans. Yuri Bregel (Boston, MA: Brill, 1999), 108-9. This event was not only a famine but also a period of warfare and population displacement connected with the invasion and occupation of the southern part of Khiva by the Yomut Turkmens.
62. In addition to Munis, pre-1873 irrigation and settlement projects are described in Ia. Guliamov, Istoriia orosheniia Khorezma s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei (Tashkent: Akademii Nauk Uzbekskoi SSR, 1957).
63. On irrigation communities, see Robert Hunt, “Canal Irrigation and Local Social Organization,” Current Anthropology 17, no. 3 (1976): 79-90.
64. Svat Soucek, A History of Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 204-5.
65. On the effects of steam transport in other colonial contexts, see On Barak, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); and Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
66. Sadykov, Èkonomicheskie sviazi, 165.
67. Shakhnazarov, Sel’skoe khoziastvo v Turkestaskom krae, 138.
68. Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “Otchet o Zaisanskoi kyrgyzkoi sel’skokhoziastvennoi shkole,” fond. 64, opis. 1, dela. 6083a. In fact, Russia, like the United States, saw a large increase in agricultural science infrastructure and scientists at the turn of the century, encouraged in part by the Russian famine of 1891.
69. “Sibirskii burkun v Amerike,” Kustanaiskoe stepnoe khoziaistvo (Kostanay), May 18, 1914.
70. On ways Khiva was connected to the world beyond economic ties, see Paolo Sartori, “Introduction: On Khvarazmian Connectivity: Two or Three Things that I Know about It,” Journal of Persianate Studies 9 (2016): 133-57.
71. Hugo Stumm, The Russian Campaign against Khiva in 1873, trans. F. Henvey and P. Mosa (Calcutta: Foreign Department Press, 1876), 333.
72. Henry Spalding, trans., Khiva and Turkestan (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874), 211.
73. On the problem and high interest rates of credit in Russian Central Asia, see Aminov, Èkonomicheskoe razvitie, 42; and Peter I. Lyaschenko, History of the National Economy of Russia to the 1917 Revolution (New York: MacMillan, 1949), 613-14.
74. Yuri Bregel, “Recent Publications on the Sarts: A Review Article,” Journal of Asian History 44, no. 2 (2008): 196-206.
75. Yuri Bregel, Khorezmskie turkmeny v XIX veke (Moscow: Vostochnoi Literatury, 1961).
76. Seymor Becker, Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva, 1865-1924 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 178-202. The connection between water and ethnic conflicts as intertwined in both periods is made especially clear in Shioya, “Povorot and the Khanate of Khiva,” 239-40.
77. On comparison of Russian and US settlement and policies toward nomadic peoples, see Steven Sabol, The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017).
78. Davis, Imperialism and Orientalism, 4.
79. Fortier, “Irrigation of Alfalfa,” 7.
80. Lois Olson, “Vergil and Conservation,” Agricultural History 18, no. 4 (Oct. 1944): 153-55.
81. For the classic deterministic argument about irrigation leading to consolidation, see Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). For a more nuanced argument specific to the United States, see Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).
82. On the connection between whiteness and settlement, see Jason E. Pierce, Making the White Man’s West: Whiteness and the Creation of the American West (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016); and David A. Chang, The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Courtney Fullilove makes a similar claim about plant exploration and improvement and its connection to white settler colonialism. See Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth, 99-137.
83. Fortier, “Irrigation of Alfalfa,” 3.
84. On settlement and irrigation, see Brian Q. Cannon, “Water and Economic Opportunity: Homesteaders, Speculators, and the U.S. Reclamation Service, 1904-1924,” Agricultural History 76, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 188-207.
85. Fortier, “Irrigation of Alfalfa,” 234.
86. G. W. Kible, “Irrigation of Alfalfa on Mesa Soils,” NMCA&MA AES Press Bulletin 251, Dec. 29, 1914.
87. George Freeman, Alfalfa in the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona College of Agriculture, 1914), 259.
88. Fortier, “Irrigation of Alfalfa,” 8.
89. F. L. Bixby, “The Waste of Irrigation Waters,” State College (NM) College Courier, Feb. 1915.
90. “With the County Workers,” State College (NM) Extension Service News, Aug. 1922.
91. Everett E. Edwards and Horace H. Russel, “Wendelin Grimm and Alfalfa,” Minnesota History 19, no. 1 (Mar. 1938): 21-33.
92. “Grimm Alfalfa,” New Mexico Farm Courier (State College, NM), Jan. 1917.
93. David Danbom, The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1979).
94. “With the County Workers,” State College (NM) Extension Service News, Sept. 1923.
95. While war and revolution disrupted Russian-US agricultural trade and technical exchanges, they quickly returned during the 1920s and 1930s, although it appears US farmers were already well supplied with seed by this point. See Maria Fedorova, “Bigger Than Grain: Soviet-American Agricultural Exchange, 1918-1928” (PhD diss., University of California Santa Barbara, 2019).
96. Matias P. Hernandez, Letters, Folder 3, Box 1, Matias P. Hernandez Papers, Ms. 205, Archives and Special Collections, New Mexico State University Library, Las Cruces, NM (hereafter referred to as the Matias P. Hernandez Papers).
97. Letters between Matias P. Hernandez and the El Paso Dairy Co., Folders 6-7, Box 1, Matias P. Hernandez Papers.
98. On the battle to eradicate bovine tuberculosis, see Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “An Impossible Undertaking: The Eradication of Bovine Tuberculosis in the United States,” Journal of Economic History 64, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 734-72.
99. Letter between Matias P. Hernandez and the El Paso Dairy Co., Folder 7, Box 1, Matias P. Hernandez Papers.
100. Minutes of the Hagerman Alfalfa Growers Association, 1922-1932, Folder 1, Box 1, Mehlhop Family Collection, Ms. 0439, Archives and Special Collections, New Mexico State University Library, Las Cruces, NM.
101. Minutes of the Hagerman Alfalfa Growers Association, 1922-1932.
102. “With the County Workers,” State College (NM) Extension Service News, Sept. 1922.
103. “Use of Fertilizer on the Increase,” New Mexico Extension News, Mar. 1928.
104. Brandon Loomis, “As the River Runs Dry: The Southwest’s Water Crisis,” AZ Central, Feb. 27, 2015, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2015/02/27/southwest-water-crisis-part-one/24011053/, accessed June 17, 2021.
105. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future,” New York Times, Aug. 17, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/us/beyond-coal-imagining-appalachi-as-future.html?_r=0, accessed June 17, 2021.
106. Manuel Vlades, “US Farmers Make Foray into Quinoa as Demand Grows,” Record Searchlight, Oct. 13, 2016, http://archive.redding.com/lifestyle/US-farmers-make-foray-into-quinoa-as-demand-for-grain-grows–396217171.html, accessed June 17, 2021.
107. Alan Bjerga, “The Great Plains Looming Crisis,” Bloomsburg Businessweek, July 2, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-07-02/great-plains-water-crisis-aquifer-s-depletion-threatens-farmland, accessed June 17, 2021.
108. “Saudi Land Purchases in California and Arizona Fuel Debate over Water Rights,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 29, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-saudi-arabia-alfalfa-20160329-story.html, accessed June 17, 2021. On the deeper historical context of this story, see Natalie Koch, “Desert Geopolitics: Arizona, Arabia, and an Arid-Lands Response to the Territorial Trap,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 41, no. 1 (May 2021): 88-105.
109. Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth, 93.