The Catastrophic Dust Storms of the 1930s, in Retrospect
By Karin Deneke — More than eight decades ago, a serious transformation took place on the grasslands of the Midwest, commonly known as the Great Plains. Thousands of acres of the Short Grass Prairie, once virgin land, fell under cultivation. It did not happen overnight. The Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln during the Civil War, had resulted in a massive expansion of the United State’s western territories, drawing waves of European settlers to claim up to 160 acres of federal land for homesteading.
The rich soil was capable of producing big crops during wet seasons, but was also subject to severe wind erosion. Through the years, more land was put into production due to agricultural mechanization. Eventually, farming practices such as deep plowing, and continuous tillage destroyed the protective root system of the native grasses—roots that in the past maintained moisture and served as anchors for this fragile environment.
At that time, dry-land farming was the norm on the prairie. It worked well east of the Mississippi where annual rainfall was—and is—much higher. Repeated periods of reduced precipitation, followed by soil and wind erosion, became early warning signs. Little was known at that time about the environmental conditions of the Great Plains and how to implement conservation practices. Our fertile soils had an important impact on the development and prosperity of our nation.
In early years, land was considered a limitless resource. Settlers cleared forests to create farmland and moved on when their soil lost its productivity. The westward migration during the 1800s led to serious abuse of our fragile Short Grass Prairie. A disaster of great proportions was unavoidable—when a series of droughts plagued the crop and grazing lands of the High Plains regions, the result was what we know as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. More than 100-million acres of arid farmland became unfit for agricultural production, displacing tens of thousands of homesteader. Prevailing winds had stripped the topsoil from their land, rendering their farms useless. The panhandle of Texas and that of Oklahoma were the most seriously hit regions of the Dust Bowl, with the adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas not far behind.
More than 80 years later, when passing through the countryside of these disaster-stricken areas, travelers can not help but notice the many dilapidated homesteads once occupied by hopeful settlers. One can sense tales of backbreaking work, disappointment and finally broken dreams when observing missing window panes, open doorways, collapsing roofs, and crumbling walls of one abandoned farmstead after another. Those sad reminders of the Dust Bowl are ironically somewhat preserved by the arid climate, which over years contributed to crop failures and displacement during one of the darkest periods in our Nation’s history. It is impossible not to show some emotion—whether it is sadness toward the suffering of these dust storm victims—or anger as to why it was allowed to happening in the first place.
After all, considering what we know now, it may have been avoided. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s epic novel, brings to life the story of Oklahoma share croppers ordered off their land during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Migration days. The desperately poor family sought greener pastures in the State of California. It is a classic well worth reading. Those were the terribly lean days prior to government assistance programs.
Reportedly two-fifths of all farmers during the Great Depression worked on land they did not own. On the average, sharecroppers like those in Steinbeck’s novel were provided with a substandard dwelling, a small barn and 20 acres of crop ground. The landlord also furnished a mule, seed and fertilizer. A wage of $10 per month was paid to the family. In return the landowner demanded half of their annual crops, and 8 percent interest on their debts, debts that often grew larger by the year.
As farm implements became more mechanized and sophisticated, larger tracts of land on the Great Plains were put into production. The mule and the hand-plow became obsolete. Subsequently, tenant farmers were evicted from the small patches of land they had worked for decades. Mechanization had its drawbacks. Yields dropped when over-farming and fall plowing caused erosion of the fragile prairie soils. Reduced rainfall added to the dilemma.
As the dust began to blow on the Southern and Midwestern Plains, farm income fell. Many landowners had taken on large debts to purchase additional acres and updated equipment and were unable to meet their obligations to the banks. As a result many banks failed. The farming boom had turned into a calamity.
The Collapse Into Dust
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, contrary to what many people may think, was not a single event, and the early signs of soil erosion had surfaced much earlier. The infamous droughts came in three large waves. The first in 1934, followed by the second in 1936, and the third wave lasted from 1939 through 1940.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was sworn into office in January 1933, he faced a huge crisis. The Nation was still suffering from the Stock Market Crash of 1929, more than 13 million Americans were unemployed, half of the country’s banks had failed, and drought threatened the farmland of the Great Plains. No group was harder hit than the farmers—as 20 percent of all American families lived on farms.
Roosevelt, during the first 100 days in office, established the Soil Erosion Service to address the ongoing soil erosion issues. The agency’s mission was to introduce conservation practices to farmers and ranchers and to encourage soil stewardship. The Soil Erosion Service was reorganized in 1935, and under the Department of Agriculture, and was renamed the Soil Conservation Service. Almost 60 years later, in 1994, the agency underwent another name change; we now know it as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
During the spring of 1933, FDR introduced The Emergency Bank Act, followed by the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act. The latter allowed qualifying farmers facing foreclosure, to remain on the land and continue crop production. It was a necessary move to keep the Nation fed. In May of 1934, a two-day dust storm ravaged cropland and cattle ranges in the corn belt. Strong winds lifted huge clouds of top soil high into the air—turning day into night—displacing soil as far as New York City and Washington D.C. Ships in the waters of the Atlantic, reported observing enormous dust clouds off shore.
This event triggered the worst drought conditions the nation had known. Affected was more than 70 percent of the country, encompassing 27 states. Thirty-five million acres of land had been destroyed, and 100 million planted acres had lost most of their topsoil. Another 125 million acres were rapidly deteriorating, and that included grazing lands. The loss of livestock pasture, moved FDR to introduce the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, regulating livestock grazing on Public Lands. The same year the President withdrew all Public Lands from settlement.
Over the decades under the Homestead Act of 1862, westward expansion had resulted in a whopping 1.6 million claims on government land. Adult citizens, or the head of a family unit, paid a small registration fee, and were required to live on the land productively and continuously for a period of five years, prior to gaining title to their property. There was however, an exception. If a settler was willing and able to pay $1.25 per acre, title could be conveyed after six months.
Many of these settlers fell victim to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The economic downfall lasted an entire decade. Recovery became evident in late 1939, when World War II was on the horizon and industry went into high gear.
Coincidentally, at that time, drought conditions eased as rains returned. FDR, the only U.S. President elected to four terms, passed away on April 12, 1945. Under the guidance of the Soil Conservation Service, farmers and ranchers began applying conservation practices to their land. Crop rotation, strip farming, terracing and contour plowing became tools for better land and water resource management. Farmers received assistance from the government for implementing these methods.
In 1937, the first Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) was organized in North Carolina. By 1945, all 48 contiguous states had enacted Soil Conservation District laws. Today you can find SWCDs in almost every county of every state, more than 3,000 in all.
When traveling the byways of our great country, roadside signs at most county lines remind us these districts are hard a work. These offices are co-located with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to assist landowners with the technical aspects of managing their soil and water resources. A great tool available from the conservation offices is Soil Survey information. Once published in paperback for each district and containing soils maps for each township, it is now available in digital form.
The Survey assists not only farmers and ranchers, but also provides data for developers, for pond, road and building site selection. In the 1970s no-till farming/minimum tillage was introduced. It eliminated plowing, and allowed drilling corn, soybeans, and or small grain directly into the deteriorated crop residue from the previous harvest. Protected by this residue, fields were much less vulnerable to soil and wind erosion.
The old-school farmers in the beginning were resistant to this new way of planting. It meant investing in a different piece of equipment. In order to give landowners a chance to try no-till, many SWCDs purchased planters and made them available for rent. By 1997, 37 percent of all cropland was being managed with minimum tillage. The numbers have gone up since.
What an advantage it would have been, if we would have applied soil saving conservation practices on the prairies of the Great Plains a century ago.