By LARRY M. JONES
During the 1930s an almost endless wave of dust storms slammed the southern plains of the United States causing one of the most severe ecological disasters in our nation’s history. The tragic consequences were physically, financially and emotionally devastating to the farming folks primarily of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, along with many others in adjoining states.
An estimated 100 million acres of farmland were severely damaged, with as much as 75 percent of the topsoil lost to wind erosion. I’ve read that an eighth of California’s population is of “Okie” origin because of those who fled the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck’s classic, “Grapes of Wrath” (1939), tells of this era.
The cause of this epic “natural” disaster has been mostly attributed to greatly increased mechanization of agriculture and improper farming methods that failed to prevent or mitigate the losses from wind erosion. Using huge tractors and steel plows to lay bare thousands of acres of the short-grass plains was a recipe for disaster. A huge influx of settlers seeking free land under the Homestead Act, along with high commodity prices, caused agricultural production to soar in the region.
Government intervention and assistance in the 1930s and ‘40s helped stabilize the hard-hit region. Subsidized planting of wind breaks throughout the Plains, introduction of new farming methods with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and subsidy payments to farmers to entice them to adopt these practices led to a much more stable condition by the 1940s.
Recently, I have been reading about a return of the problems of the Dust Bowl days. More than 60 percent of the United States is currently affected by drought conditions, with much of the traditional Dust Bowl states being gripped by “exceptional” drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, no relief is in sight.