Goodwell, Oklahoma, June 4, 1937.
Anyone who has read Steinbeck’s “Grapes” or “Mice” or took an American History class in the middle of the last century has heard of the dust bowl – the “Dirty Thirties” as it used to be called.
The years of the dust bowl, a period of severe drought exacerbated by the failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion resulted in a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies during the 1930s. It was the worst ecological disaster in U. S. History.
,”Farmers had conducted extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade; this had displaced the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds. The rapid mechanization of farm equipment, especially small gasoline tractors, and widespread use of the combine harvester contributed to farmers’ decisions to convert arid grassland (much of which received no more than 10 inches of precipitation per year) to cultivated crop land.
Portions of the great plains had little rain and winds that blew at 50 plus miles per hour for half of the year. The rains however came in cycles not yet understood at the time – perhaps a decade of normal or above normal rains followed by 6 to 10 years of severe drought.
“During the drought of the 1930s, the un-anchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking billows of dust – named “black blizzards” or “black rollers” – traveled cross country, reaching as far as such East Coast cities as New York City and Washington, D.C. On the Plains, they often reduced visibility to 3 feet or less.”
The federal government encouraged settlement and development of the plains for agriculture via the Homestead Act of 1862, offering settlers 160-acre plots; later it was increase to 320 acres, then 640 acres. With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, waves of new migrants and immigrants reached the Great Plains, and they greatly increased the acreage under cultivation, plowing up the grasslands. It was a time of plentiful rain and promoters pushed the idea that the “fain followed the plow” and that the ecology of the area had permanently changed.
Further waves of European settlers arrived in the plains at the beginning of the 20th century. A return of unusually wet weather seemingly confirmed a previously held opinion that the “formerly” semiarid area could support large-scale agriculture. At the same time, technological improvements such as mechanized plowing and mechanized harvesting made it possible to operate larger properties without high labor costs. And the coming of WWI greatly increased farm prices.
When severe drought struck the Great Plains region in the 1930s, it resulted in erosion and loss of topsoil because of farming practices of the time. The drought dried the top soil and over time it was reduced to a powdery consistency. Without the indigenous grasses in place, the high winds that occur on the plains picked up the topsoil and created the massive dust storms that marked the Dust Bowl period.
Caroline Henderson, a college graduate from back east, writes in her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” how there was not a blade of grass; nothing on the bare ground of her dessicated 640 acre farm.
On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday”, 20 of the worst “black blizzards” occurred across the entire sweep of the Great Plains, from Canada south to Texas causing extensive damage. Thousands abandoned the land, packed up their jalopies and hit the roads west. It is estimated that today 1/8th of the population of California is of “Okie” heritage.
There was an exodus of biblical proportions from Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains. Thousands died of “dust lung”. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless, their homes destroyed or foreclosed by banks. It was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains.
Those who stayed behind and held on, like Caroline Henderson, lived in dire poverty. Things were so bad that even those of an independent streak, small farmers who wanted only that the government leave them alone, begged for help.
And It wasn’t until FDR that they got any.
During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933, his administration quickly initiated programs to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted a huge belt of more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing, and other improved farming practices. The Department of Agriculture was born.
The government directly bought millions of pigs and cattle ranchers could no longer afford to keep at above market prices, slaughtered them and made them available to the poor and destitute. The government paid reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65%. Millions of acres of abandoned land was bought up by the government to be converted back to grasslands.
At the end of the drought, the programs which were implemented during these tough times helped to sustain a positive relationship between America’s farmers and the federal government.
Did we learn anything?
Patrick Allitt recounts how fellow historian Donald Worster responded to his return visit to the Dust Bowl in the mid-1970s when he revisited some of the worst afflicted counties:
“Capital-intensive agribusiness had transformed the scene; deep wells into the aquifer, intensive irrigation, the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, and giant harvesters were creating immense crops year after year whether it rained or not. According to the farmers he interviewed, technology had provided the perfect answer to old troubles, such of the bad days would not return. In Worster’s view, by contrast, the scene demonstrated that America’s capitalist high-tech farmers had learned nothing. They were continuing to work in an unsustainable way, devoting far cheaper subsidized energy to growing food than the energy could give back to its ultimate consumers.”
The massive corporate farms of the great plains pump water to irrigate crops from the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water reservoir stretching over eight mid-western states from South Dakota to Texas.
“About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies the aquifer, which yields about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. Since 1950, agricultural irrigation has reduced the saturated volume of the aquifer by an estimated 9%. Depletion is accelerating, with 2% lost between 2001 and 2009 alone. Once depleted, the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall.
The aquifer system supplies drinking water to 82 percent of the 2.3 million people (1990 census) who live within the boundaries of the High Plains study area.”
Some estimates indicate the remaining volume could be depleted as soon as 2028.
A corn crop in Kansas irrigated by pumping water from the aquifer – most of the corn goes to feed cattle.
As irrigation “efficiency” increased corporate farmers chose to plant more intensively, irrigate more land and grow thirstier crops rather than reduce water consumption.
This is not to mention the fact that thousands of miles of oil pipeline is built over the aquifer, not yet including the proposed Keystone Pipeline.
What me worry?
When I was in high school, the Aral Sea was one of the four largest fresh water lakes in the world. Located at the time in the USSR, it was so large that (a) it was called a “sea” and (b) the Tsar had a warship constructed on the lake to patrol it. Now that’s a big lake.
Today it is almost totally gone; dried up in one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters. In the 1960’s the Soviet Union began diverting water from the lake to grow cotton. Parts of the lake, a shadow of it’s former self are still around; it remains to be seen if it will recover or completely disappear – and it took less than 50 years to destroy it.
Boats on the Aral Sea
I was reminded of Lange’s photos from the depression era.
I fully expect water to become the ‘new oil’ sometime not too distant from now.
Best wishes, Pete.
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A great film and photos for people to actually see what happened back then.
A really interesting blog post,thank you for sharing it with us. On average, farmers don’t care the slightest about preserving the environment for the children of their fellow men.
Thanks. Powerful. I enjoyed the PBS series which mixed the personal, political and environmental issues very well. Regards Thom.
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