53rd Annual Dakota Conference

“Plowing prairie with a tandem disc. More than one million acres of grasslands in the western reaches of the corn belt, including eastern South Dakota, were plowed under between 2006 and 2011 in order to grow more corn. Half the corn was used for ethanol. Not since the 1930s had so much prairie been so quickly destroyed.” Photo and caption by Peter Carrels, from his chapter “A Grassroots Movement for Grass and Roots,” in "Conservation on the Northern Plains: New Perspectives" (CWS, 2017).

Held every April, the Dakota Conference examines issues of contemporary significance to the Northern Plains region in their historical and cultural contexts. Religion and spirituality, geography and identity, the impact of global conflict, Hispanic/Latino influence, and the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation have been examined in recent years.

Register today!

53rd Annual Dakota Conference

farming, ranching and sustainability on the northern plains

The conference will be held August 5-6, 2021, in the CWS Fantle Building on the Augustana University campus.

Conference Theme: The topic for the 2021 conference is “Farming, Ranching and Sustainability on the Northern Plains.”

“Next year will be better” was once the maxim by which many farmers and ranchers lived. Today, “the hardest day is yet to come” seems the more appropriate sentiment. Hard times for farmers and ranchers come with the territory. The Dirty Thirties and the Dust Bowl Days. The Farm Crisis of the 1980s. The spring floods of the past decade.

We couldn’t live without farming and ranching—but at what cost to the nation and the producer? Chapter 12 bankruptcies continue to plague the rural and small-town prairies and plains, increasing by 23% in the Midwest for the year ending June 2020. Divorce, abuse, and suicide haunt many a producer’s home.

Farmers and ranchers comprise 1.3% of the nation’s labor force—higher in the rural states. Nationally, agriculture, food, and related industries contribute 5.2% of GDP—higher in the Midwest and Great Plains. Rural states have an outsize influence on national elections, and rural communities seem particularly susceptible to political conspiracy theories fomented by populists, such as stolen elections. Why? Are these politicians not the flimflam men and snake oil salesmen of old?

Should the tariff wars be fought on the back of ag producers? Should reallocating billions of dollars from other federal programs to ag producers be continued? Are such efforts a long-term solution? Year-round E15 fuel blend vs. waivers for fossil-fuel producers—can the nation afford both? Expanding large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in South Dakota at the expense of county control and quality of life in rural communities—good idea? Reducing groundwater contamination—who pays? Combining the South Dakota departments of agriculture and environment and natural resources—conflict of interest? Reducing ag land taxation so residential and commercial property owners pay more for schools and services—is that the answer? What about organic and sustainable agriculture? Bison ranching? What are the unique challenges of being a Native American farmer or rancher?

Ag producers have often been among the quickest to adapt the latest technology. In doing so, they have unintentionally preordained the demise of their own rural communities: tractors replaced workers, and fewer workers led to economic collapse and the hollowing out of small towns. Yet more than any other industry, except perhaps the fossil-fuel industry, agriculture has benefited from federal government largesse. What has the ag industry learned from its multiple crises that will prepare it for the future?

Paper and session proposals on these and other topics related to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana are welcome. 

Conference Schedule: The conference schedule is now available online. Please direct schedule-related questions to dakotaconference@augie.edu.

Registration: Register online or download a registration form to mail to the Center for Western Studies. 

  • Through July 23, registration is $60 ($55 for CWS members).
  • After July 23, registration is $70 ($60 for CWS members).
  • Two-day registration for presenters is $60, regardless of registration date.
  • Registration is free for full-time undergraduate students of any college or university and for Augustana University faculty and staff, courtesy of the Mellon Fund Committee.


  • Through July 23, Thursday lunch, Thursday dinner, and Friday lunch may be purchased individually ($18) or as a complete meal package ($50). Members receive a $5 discount on the complete meal package.
  • After July 23, please call 605.274.4007 for meal availability.
  • Those with special dietary needs should contact dakotaconference@augie.edu.

Autograph Party: The Northern Plains Autograph Party will be held during Thursday afternoon and Friday morning breaks, in conjunction with the conference. 

Awards: Presenters may submit their papers for cash award consideration in academic, non-academic, student, and women’s history categories by August 14.

The Dakota Conference on the Northern Plains is a humanities-based public affairs program of the Center for Western Studies that explores topics specific to the region in their historical and cultural contexts. The Center’s Boe Forum on Public Affairs considers national and global issues of concern to the people of the Northern Plains. The CWS Public Affairs Series publishes books examining regional issues.

National Endowment for the Humanities Logo

The Dakota Conference is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.