- Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands from 1930 to 1936 (in some areas until 1940). The phenomenon was caused by severe drought coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops or other techniques to prevent wind erosion. Deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains had displaced the natural deep-rooted grasses that normally kept the soil in place and trapped moisture even during periods of drought and high winds.
During the drought of the 1930s, without natural anchors to keep the soil in place, it dried, turned to dust, and blew away eastward and southward in large dark clouds. At times the clouds blackened the sky reaching all the way to East Coast cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. Much of the soil ended up deposited in the Atlantic Ocean, carried by prevailing winds, which were in part created by the dry and bare soil conditions. These immense dust storms—given names such as "Black Blizzards" and "Black Rollers"—often reduced visibility to a few feet (around a meter). The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2), centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.
Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes; many of these families (often known as "Okies", since so many came from Oklahoma) migrated to California and other states, where they found economic conditions little better during the Great Depression than those they had left. Owning no land, many became migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages. Author John Steinbeck later wrote The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Of Mice and Men, about such people.
During early European and American exploration of the Great Plains, the region in which the Dust Bowl occurred was thought unsuitable for European-style agriculture; the region was known as the Great American Desert. The lack of surface water and timber made the region less attractive than other areas for pioneer settlement and agriculture. Following the Civil War, settlement was encouraged by the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad, and waves of new immigrants, and cultivation increased. An unusually wet period in the Great Plains mistakenly led settlers and the federal government to believe that "rain follows the plow" (a popular phrase among real estate promoters) and that the climate of the region had changed permanently. The initial agricultural endeavors were primarily cattle ranching with some cultivation; however, a series of harsh winters beginning in 1886, coupled with overgrazing followed by a short drought in 1890, led to an expansion of land under cultivation.
Continued waves of immigration from Europe brought settlers to the plains at the beginning of the 20th century. A return of unusually wet weather confirmed a previously held opinion that the "formerly" semi-arid area could support large-scale agriculture. Technological improvements led to increase of mechanized plowing, which allowed for cultivation on a greater scale. World War I increased agricultural prices, which also encouraged farmers to dramatically increase cultivation. In the Llano Estacado, the area of farmland doubled between 1900 and 1920, and land under cultivation more than tripled between 1925 and 1930. Finally, farmers did not use appropriate practices for the environment, but agricultural methods that allowed erosion. For example, cotton farmers left fields bare over winter months, when winds in the High Plains are highest, and burned the stubble (as a form of weeding prior to planting), both depriving the soil of organic nutrients and increasing exposure to erosion.
The increased exposure to erosion was revealed when a severe drought struck the Great Plains in 1934. The native grasses that once covered the prairie lands for centuries, holding the soil in place and maintaining its moisture, had been eliminated by the intensively increased plowing. The drought conditions caused the topsoil to grow dry and friable, and was carried away by the wind. The dusty soil aggregated in the air, forming immense dust clouds that prevented rainfall. It was not until the government promoted soil conservation programs that the area slowly began to rehabilitate.
The Dust Bowl area lies principally west of the 100th meridian on the High Plains, characterized by plains which vary from rolling in the north to flat in the Llano Estacado. Elevation ranges from 2,500 feet (760 m) in the east to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The area is semi-arid, receiving less than 20 inches (510 mm) of rain annually; this rainfall supports the shortgrass prairie biome originally present in the area. The region is also prone to extended drought, alternating with unusual wetness of equivalent duration. During wet years, the rich soil provides bountiful agricultural output, but crops fail during dry years. Furthermore, the region is subject to winds higher than any region except coastal regions.
Drought and dust storms
The unusually wet period, which encouraged increased settlement and cultivation in the Great Plains, ended in 1930. This was the year in which an extended and severe drought began which caused crops to fail, leaving the plowed fields exposed to wind erosion. The fine soil of the Great Plains was easily eroded and carried east by strong continental winds.
On November 11, 1933, a very strong dust storm stripped topsoil from desiccated South Dakota farmlands in just one of a series of bad dust storms that year. Then, beginning on May 9, 1934, a strong two-day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago where it deposited 12 million pounds of dust. Two days later, the same storm reached cities in the east, such as Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, D.C. That winter (1934–1935), red snow fell on New England.
On April 14, 1935, known as "Black Sunday", twenty of the worst "Black Blizzards" occurred throughout the Dust Bowl, causing extensive damage and turning the day to night; witnesses reported that they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points.
This catastrophe intensified the economic impact of the Great Depression in the region.
Two-thirds of farmers in "Palliser's Triangle", in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, had to rely on government aid. This was due mainly to drought, hail storms, and erratic weather rather than to dust storms as was occurring on the U.S. Great Plains. Many Canadians fled to urban areas such as Toronto.
Dust Bowl conditions fomented an exodus of the displaced from Texas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains to adjacent regions. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless. 356 houses had to be torn down after one storm alone. Many Americans migrated west looking for work. Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma fell ill and died of dust pneumonia or malnutrition.
The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. With their land barren and homes seized in foreclosure, many farm families were forced to leave. Migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, but all were generally referred to as "Okies". The second wave of the Great Migration by African Americans from the South (esp. the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas) to the North was larger, involving more than 5 million people, but it took place over decades, from 1940 to 1970. Also to note the small but influential migration of Mexican-Americans of dust-bowl and poverty stricken areas of Texas (see Tejanos), New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, as they headed westward to other Hispanic communities and farming valleys of California.
Characteristics of migrants
When James N. Gregory examined the Census Bureau statistics as well as other surveys, he discovered some surprising percentages. For example, in 1939 the Bureau of Agricultural Economics surveyed the occupations of about 116,000 families who had arrived in California in the 1930s. It showed that only 43 percent of southwesterners were doing farm work immediately before they migrated. Nearly one-third of all migrants were professional or white collar workers.
U.S. Government response
During President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in 1933, governmental programs designed to conserve soil and restore the ecological balance of the nation were implemented. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes established the Soil Erosion Service in August 1933 under Hugh Hammond Bennett. In 1935 it was transferred and reorganized under the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Soil Conservation Service. More recently it has been renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Additionally, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) was created after more than six million pigs were slaughtered to stabilize prices. The pigs went to waste. The FSRC diverted agricultural commodities to relief organizations. Apples, beans, canned beef, flour and pork products were distributed through local relief channels. Cotton goods were later included, to clothe the needy.
In 1935, the federal government formed a Drought Relief Service (DRS) to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties which were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Animals unfit for human consumption – more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program – were killed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) to be used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. "The government cattle buying program was a God-send to many farmers, as they could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in local markets."
President Roosevelt ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant 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. In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage Dust Bowlers to adopt planting and plowing methods that conserved the soil. The government paid the reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice one of the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65 percent.[dubious ] Nevertheless, the land failed to yield a decent living. In the fall of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the nearly decade long drought ended as regular rainfall finally returned to the region.
Long-term economic impact
In many regions, over 75% of the usable topsoil was blown away in the course of the storms from 1930 to 1940, but there was a high degree of variation in the degree to which the land was degraded. Aside from the short-term economic consequences caused by the mass migration of 2.5 million people out of the plains states, there were severe long-term economic consequences of the Dust Bowl.
There was wide variation in how different counties were affected economically by the prolonged drought. Land values were one way that the economic effects of the Dust Bowl persisted. By 1940, counties that had experienced the most significant levels of erosion were the ones that saw the greatest decline in land values. The per-acre value of farmland declined by 28% in high-erosion counties and 17% in medium-erosion counties, relative to land value changes in low-erosion counties. Even counties that managed to retain the majority of their topsoil saw significant declines in land prices because of negative spillover effects from other dramatically affected areas. Even over the long-term, the full agricultural value of the land often failed to recover. In highly eroded areas, only 14% to 28% of the original agricultural cost of the land was recovered. In 2007 dollars, the decline of land values caused by the Dust Bowl was estimated to be $1.9 billion.
Another way that economic effects persisted was through farmers’ failure to substitute to more efficient crops. The farmers that remained in the region widely failed to realize that they could use their land in alternative fashions given the land’s degraded quality. Because the amount of topsoil had been reduced, it would have been more productive to shift from crops and wheat to animals and hay. Lower quality land is relatively more productive at farming animals than it is producing crops.
Some of the failure to shift to more productive agricultural products may be related to ignorance about the benefits of changing land use. A second explanation is a lack of availability of credit, caused by the high rate of failure of banks in the plains states. Because banks failed in the Dust Bowl region with a higher rate of frequency than in the rest of the country, it was harder for farmers to gain access to the credit they needed to buy capital to shift crop production. Another reason is that profit margins to shift from a previously farmed crop to either animals or hay increased only slightly. Therefore, even if they knew about the benefits of changing land usage, the incentive to switch immediately was relatively small. Even if farmers had switched the more efficient crops, the long-term revenue decline seen on plains farms was dramatic. On average, 50-70% of the initial real revenue declines experienced during the Dust Bowl continued from 1950 to 1990.
A third persistent effect was the increase of the size of plains states farms. The size of farms in the Dust Bowl increased by about 6–10% on average from 1930 to 1940. Data suggest that farmers who remained despite the drought were acquiring the poor quality land that their former neighbors were leaving behind, as larger farms within any given county tended to have higher levels of fallow land.
Despite the large long-term decline in land values and crop revenues, the unemployment rate did not remain high in the affected regions. By 1950, there was no difference in unemployment in the affected counties caused by the droughts in the 1930s. However, this is most likely because a large segment of the population moved away from the region when unemployment rates were high relative to the rest of the country.
Influence on the arts
The crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors. Many were hired by various U.S. federal agencies during the Great Depression. The Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers to document the crisis. This helped the careers of many notable artists, including Dorothea Lange. She captured iconic images of the storms and migrant families, the most famous of which was known as migrant mother, which depicted a gaunt-looking woman, Florence Owens Thompson, holding her three children. This picture captured the horrors of the dust bowl and caused more people to be aware of the crisis of the country. The work of independent artists, such as folk singer Woody Guthrie and American novelist John Steinbeck, also was influenced by the crises of the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
Migrants leaving the Plains states took their music with them. Oklahoma migrants, in particular, were descended from rural Southerners and transplanted country music to California. Today, the "Bakersfield Sound" describes this blend, which developed after the migrants brought country music to the city. Their new music inspired a proliferation of country dance halls as far south as Los Angeles.
- 1936 North American heat wave
- Rain follows the plow
- The Plow That Broke the Plains
- Timeline of environmental events
- Great Plains Shelterbelt
- Natural disaster
- Ogallala Aquifer
- Palliser's Triangle
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- Woody Guthrie, (1963) The (Nearly) Complete Collection of Woody Guthrie Folk Songs, Ludlow Music, New York.
- Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, (1967) Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, Oak Publications, New York.
- C. Vann Woodward, (1967) The Origins of the New South, Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807100196
- Timothy Egan (2006) The Worst Hard Time, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, hardcover. ISBN 0-618-34697-X.
- Katelan Janke, (1935) Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, Scholastic (September 2002). ISBN 0-439-21599-4.
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- NASA Explains "Dust Bowl" Drought
- The Dust Bowl photo collection
- The Dust Bowl (EH.Net Encyclopedia)
- Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, Dodge City, KS
- The Bibliography of Aeolian Research
- Surviving the Dust Bowl, Black Sunday (April 14, 1935)
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940–1941 Library of Congress, American Folklife Center Online collection of archival sound recordings, photographs, and manuscripts
- YouTube Video: "The Great Depression, Displaced Mountaineers in Shenandoah National Park, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.)"
- Farming in the 1930s (Wessels Living History Farm)
- Flash: Out of the Dust (The Modesto Bee)
- Africa Data Dissemination Service, part of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, U.S. Geological Service
- Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture – Dust Bowl
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