Katharine Lee Bates traveled to teach a summer college course in Colorado in 1893 and, in doing so, defined a nation. A poet and a Wellesley College professor, Bates became inspired along the trip to write what would become “America the Beautiful.”
The phrase “purple mountain majesties” references the Rocky Mountains, while the amber waves of grain call out the wheat she saw traveling by train through Kansas on the Fourth of July. Composer Samuel A. Ward set her poem to music in 1910.
Bates could have been traveling through any of the states in the Great Plains Region, which includes Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Wheat is the most lucrative crop for these states in terms of food grown for human consumption. Other major crops grown in the region include soybeans, hay and corn. Corn is a bigger cash crop in Iowa than wheat, but much of it is grown for animal feed or ethanol.
Iowa also is the top producer of hogs and pigs in the U.S. Other states in the region that are top pork producers including Nebraska at No. 6, Missouri at No. 7, Oklahoma at No. 9, Kansas at No. 10 and South Dakota at No. 11. The Great Plains also produces about one-third of the beef in the U.S. As of 2018, Nebraska ranked second in the nation with 6.8 million head of cattle, followed by Kansas at No. 3 with 6.3 million. Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and South Dakota each ranked among the top eight with at least 4 million cattle.
North Dakota ranked No. 2 in the nation in oil production in 2019 while Oklahoma was No. 4 that year in both oil and gas production. The oil and gas industry is a major employer in the region, although most of the jobs are in these two states.
The region features some major tech companies. Collins Aerospace, which makes aviation parts, employed about 8,000 people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, although the company has been shedding jobs due to the pandemic. Microsoft has a satellite campus with more than 1,600 employees in Fargo, North Dakota. Wireless carrier Sprint was headquartered in the Kansas City area before being taken over by T-Mobile in a merger last year, and although T-Mobile cut 500 jobs, it still employs about 7,000 in the Kansas City area.
Nebraska’s unemployment rate this past December was 3%, the same as it was a year earlier before the COVID-19 pandemic. All other Great Plains states had slight increases in their jobless rates during the pandemic, but all were below the national rate of 6.7% in December 2020.
With the exception of Missouri, each of these states ranked in the top 12 this past January for most coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents. North Dakota and South Dakota ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in this metric. ●
Home prices generally have been on a steady rise in the Great Plains states over the past five years. Missouri, for instance, saw typical home prices rise to nearly $178,000 in December 2020, up 32% from the same month five years earlier when homes were selling for about $135,000, according to seasonally adjusted data from Zillow.
Oklahoma was the only state in this region to see home prices fall during the past five years, Zillow reported. Typical home prices in the Sooner State topped $149,000 in December 2017 but dropped nearly $25,000 the following year when interest rates began to tick up and housing prices stalled. Since then, home prices in the state have risen again and reached $140,511 in December 2020.
The Great Plains Region has an older housing stock than much of the nation, with a median age of 39 to 46 years for much of the region, according to 2019 Freddie Mac data. Iowa’s median home age was higher, between 47 and 54 years. The nationwide median age of owner-occupied housing was 37 years old.
Focus: Oil production
North Dakota and Oklahoma are the second- and fourth-largest crude-oil producers in the nation, accounting for more than 15% of all production in the U.S. (Texas is No. 1, producing 41% of all the nation’s oil.) Each of the Great Plains states produce some amount of crude oil, with the exception of Iowa.
The Keystone Pipeline runs through each of these states, with the exception of Iowa, transporting oil from the Canadian tar sands to processing plants in Oklahoma, Texas and Illinois. The Keystone XL, an extension pipeline, would cut across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It has become a major civil-rights issue that threatens water and sacred lands of Native American tribes in the area. The extension also is opposed by environmental and public health activists.
The Trump administration greenlighted development of Keystone XL, but President Joe Biden rescinded construction permits on his first day in office. The issue is likely to be decided in the courts.
What the locals say
“Tight, tight inventory. In my 27 years (in the Kansas City area), I’ve never seen it this tight. If it’s $400,000 and less, 15 offers is not uncommon right now. … I get calls daily from people from California, New York, wherever, who grew up in Kansas City and have lived on these coasts for years, and all of a sudden with the pandemic, now they can work from home. So, we have this huge migration back into the Midwest, and that is part of the reason for the drive-up of pricing and why there are so many buyers.”
Senior loan officer
First State Bank of St. Charles
3 Cities to Watch
There are two cities named Kansas City, one in Missouri and one in Kansas, that border each other. Each is incorporated separately and the metropolitan area has a population of 2.1 million. Major employers include Hallmark with 3,200 employees, health care information-systems company Cerner Corp. (14,000) and weapons-component manufacturer Honeywell FM&T (3,600). The Missouri city is nicknamed the City of Fountains: It has 48 publicly owned fountains and is said to have more fountains than Rome.
The largest city in Nebraska (population 478,000) is an economic hub for the state that touts its pro-business climate, moderate taxes and low cost of living. Major employers include Offutt Air Force Base with more than 5,000 employees, and the Union Pacific Railroad and Mutual of Omaha, which are both headquartered in the city and have more than 2,500 employees apiece. Fintechs PayPal and First Data Corp. also have large presences in the city. The median household income is $60,092.
The Iowa capital is a major insurance and financial hub with $4.8 billion in annual payroll across these industries. Insurance companies Principal and Nationwide, and the home mortgage division of Wells Fargo, are headquartered in the city. Agricultural-machinery giant John Deere has a consumer financial-services arm in the city and 3,500 local workers. The city has a population of 214,000 while the Des Moines metro area has more than 680,000 residents. The median household income is $53,525.
Sources: Des Moines Register; Dice Insights; Encyclopedia Britannica; Freddie Mac; Greater Des Moines Partnership; Greater Omaha Chamber; Investopedia; Kansas City Parks; Kansas City Public Library; Natural Resources Defense Council; NPR; Pork Checkoff; Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association; The Huffington Post; The Kansas City Star; The New York Times; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Energy Information Administration; Wellesley College; Zillow