America was once largely an agrarian nation. Most of the economy was built up around agriculture, and the majority of the population lived in rural areas. By the end of the 20th century, most people wound up living in the cities. Many old family farms went bankrupt and have been bought up by farming conglomerates. 

There’s a new kind of farm dotting the landscape now, however — the server farm. The boom in the Internet has made server farms and big data centers necessary to power Web sites such as TechRepublic.

For example, Microsoft recently announced the opening of a new data center in Quincy, Washington. This facility is over 450,000 square feet in size. Tens of thousands of computers are stored in racks in five 12,000-foot clusters. The site employs about 75 people. I had a hard time finding out exactly what this center cost Microsoft, but it’s building one that’s basically identical in San Antonio, Texas, which will cost about $550 million. 

Microsoft’s digital farm sits on 75 acres in a town that was the center of potato farming in the area. The town’s previous big industries consisted of food processors and packing sheds. The population is about 5,300 people. 

Microsoft isn’t alone in building farms in the upper-northwest and around the globe. Yahoo is building a data center in nearby Wenatchee, Washington. Google is building several new data centers around the country, including one in Oklahoma where it has purchased over 800 acres of land.

Here’s one of the interesting things about all of these new data centers that are going up in rural areas — their energy consumption. For example, Microsoft’s new data center will consume 48 megawatts of power, or enough to power about 40,000 homes. According the US Census Bureau, for 2005 all of Grant County, Washington (which includes Quincy) contained only 30,605 housing units. That means that Microsoft’s new data center will consume about 30% more energy than all of the people in the entire county combined. 

Yahoo’s new data center in Wenatchee will consume 40 megawatts. That’s enough electricity to support about 33,000 homes. The Census Bureau lists Wenatchee as having 11,486 homes in 2000. So that means that Yahoo’s data center will consume nearly three times as much as the entire town. 

As the country moved from a farm-based economy to an industrial one, factories and smokestacks filled former farms. Nowadays, the smokestacks are largely gone, but the modern-day factory has just as much of an environmental impact when you factor in the cost of creating the power necessary to keep these server farms humming. No matter what you believe about global warming and the environment, the impact of large data centers is pretty awesome. The question is whether the economic benefit to these rural areas where the data centers are going is worth the cost.