The story of the Dust Bowl --- how often should it be retold?

Summary

The Dust Bowl is the worst man-made legendary ecological disaster in American History. "The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust, from heaven it shall come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed" is a Bible version often quoted by Dust Bowl victims.

Could the Dust Bowl happen again? Many experts believe that this is possible if we continue to push the Great Plains beyond the limits that the land can withstand and exhausting its resources. In a way the Dust Bowl was a morality tale about our relationship to the nature and land that sustains us - a lesson we ignored at our peril.

The Dust Bowl - the worst man-made legendary ecological disaster in American history

From the 1840s through the 1880s, millions of people seeking to escape the overcrowding and poor working conditions of the eastern cities, headed west. They were spurred on by the US governments enacting the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave 160 acres of free land to anyone who would turn his new property into a working farm.

In many ways, these pioneer farmers and the generations that followed them succeeded too well. Year after year they planted crop after crop. With each crop a little more soil was stripped from the ground. Early in 1930s, the farmers began to pay the price for their years of overfarming and neglect of soil.

In 1931 the vast American prairie was hit by an enormous drought. Almost no rain fell, and crops died as the dry soil cracked in the sun. Hardest hit of all were the farm families who lived in the southern plain states of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma- the areas so fertile that it had been dubbed the "breadbasket of the world" but became known instead during the 1930s as the " Dust Bowl."

By 1933, the continuing lack of rain had turned much of the topsoil, already weakened by decades of overfarming, into dust. The ever-present prairie winds picked up the dust and lifted it into the air, creating that type of environmental disaster appropriately called a dust storm. For three years, one after another of these storms struck the area, turning the 97 million acre region into a gigantic dust bowl.
As the drought continued, the streams and ponds on the farms dried up and the pastures withered away, leaving cattle, hogs, and other livestock without sufficient water or food. Worst of all, the once rich soil upon which farmers had planted their crops was rapidly disappearing. In 1935, at the height of the drought and dust storms, 35 million acres of farmland were ruined and 850 million tons of topsoil were carried away by the winds.

Looking back, the seeds of the Dust Bowl may have been sowed during the early 1920s. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits. Many bought plows and other farming equipments, and between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed deeply. With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers were unable to earn back production costs and expanded their fields in an effort to earn a profit - and in their haste to do so, many often abandoned good soil conservation practices - they covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare. But plow-based farming in this region cultivated an unexpected yield: the ground cover that held the soil in place was gone; the loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds, leaving the land vulnerable to drought and inhospitable for growing crops. Since 1933, the US government introduced a number of programs, legislations and agencies to address the effects brought by the Dust Bowl. Notably, it took millions of tons of dirt and debris blowing from the Plains all the way into Washington D.C. on May 12, 1934 to move US Congress to pass the Soil Conservation Act and establish the Soil Conversation Service (now the Natural Resources Conversation Service) under the Department of Agriculture.

Could the Dust Bowl happen again? Many experts believe that this is possible if we continue to push the Great Plains beyond the limits that the land can withstand and exhausting its resources. In a way the Dust Bowl was a morality tale about our relationship to the land and nature that sustains us - a lesson we ignored at our peril.

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