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Corn grows in a field August 17, 2011 near St. Olaf, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Corn grows in a field August 17, 2011 near St. Olaf, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sioux County, Iowa: Ground zero for U.S. farm boom Add to ...

But they also carried with them an intense enmity between neighbors and outsiders. Such rivalries were so intense that, back in 1872, a fight over where to set up the county seat reportedly prompted farmers and townsfolk in Hull and Orange City to raid the log courthouse in Calliope, Iowa, and steal a safe with all the county property records in it. (The documents were later returned.)

Such clashes continue today.

“I’m hearing a lot of, ‘You were rude to me and by god I’m not going to let you have it.’ Or, ‘That was granddad’s land and I’m going to get it back’,” said Duffy, of Iowa State University.

Such was the case with the Kaster deal. The land he bought a month ago for $20,000 an acre does not look particularly dramatic: a field of tilled black soil where frost sparkles on clumps of dirt the size of bowling balls. But the auction price tag spiked when Kaster, who runs a relatively small dairy, faced off against a rival neighbor, who operates a much larger farm.

Kaster “told me at the break that he was going to get that land, no matter what,” said auctioneer Pete Pollema.

Despite the dangers of extrapolating Sioux County’s land values for outside guidance, and given that the federal ethanol subsidies quietly expired last year, some people still believe there is plenty of life left in the local boom.

That faith prompted town officials in Hull -- home to nearly 2,200 people, eight churches and no stop lights -- to join the land rush: The town’s economic development team bought a nearby 80 acre parcel two years ago for $1-million.

City administrator Les Van Roekel insists the deal was a savvy move. Area crop and dairy farmers clamored to cash-rent the land, after a local cheese plant recently announced plans to double the amount of milk it processes each day.

Recently, local real estate agents and auctioneers pegged its worth at nearly $19,000 an acre, Van Roekel said. Local leaders are shopping for more land, either to buy or trade.

“We’re somewhat in a bubble here,” Van Roekel said. “But I think we’re going to be fine.”

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