- May 14, 2020
The Dust Bowl
Inthe twentieth century, the Great Plains of United States of Americawere hit by both a severe human-made environmental disaster and aneconomic depression. The drought started 1933 and lasted through to1940. Dust storms were a common occurrence in the Great Plains, butcertain factors made those in the 1930’s unique. A combination ofeconomic depression and drought was hectic. Financial constraints andmisery blended with the environmental impacts of the drought, dust,crop failure and farm loss. The question remains whether the farmerswere failures were due to the financial crisis or the dust storms.
Accordingto the Economic History Association, the dust bowl was characterizedby a combination of the following
” Extendedsevere drought and extremely high temperatures.
Episodicregional sandstorms and routine localized wind erosion.
Agriculturalfailure, including both cropland and livestock operations.
Thecollapse of the rural economy affecting farmers, rural businesses,and local government.
Anaggressive reform by the federal government.Migration from rural tourban areas and out of the region…” (EHA)
Thelocation of drought and dust storms shifted from place to place.Texas, Oklahoma, parts of Kansas and Colorado are some of the areasthat were substantially hit by the drought.
The1930’s the Great Plains were mainly characterized by agriculturalactivities which include: livestock grazing, cash crop farming, andranching. After the First World War, grain prices, specifically wheatwent up, and this prompted the conversion of millions of acreage ofland once covered by natural vegetation to agricultural uses. Removalof natural vegetation from the ground exposed the topsoil making itsusceptible to wind erosion.
Accordingto PBS.org “the dustbowl Chronicles is the worst human-madeecological disaster in American history.In which the frenzied wheatboom of the “Great Plow-Up” followed by a decade-long droughtduring the 1930’s nearly swept the breadbasket of thenation”(PBS.org)The drought is said to be human-made because itcould be avoided if preventive measures were used. Soil conservationmeasures were not taken into account during this period.
Thefollowing are key factors that contributed to the dust bowl:
Climaticfactors played a significant part in the creation of the dust bowl.People settled in the Great Plains without full information about theweather patterns, especially rainfall patterns.The information theyhad was the propaganda by railway and booster builders. Althoughthere had been the previous drought in the region, those who settledbelieved that there would always be sufficient rainfall to sustaintheir crops.It is because the area was known to experience unusualamounts of precipitation, even after drought episodes. It affectedthe way the new settlers farmed their land. They did not considerany land conservation techniques were used.
PoorLand Management Systems
Poorland tenure systems- this is a major contributing factor. The GreatPlains were majorly used for commercial agricultural purposes. Wheatwas a major cash crop in this era was wheat, in particular with theincreased prices after the First World War. Many farmers engaged inwheat farming to gain profits. The growing of corn year in, year outdepleted the soil nutrients. It led to the disintegration of theground particles to a dust-like consistency, making it vulnerable towind erosion. Crop rotation would have been a preventive measure. Ifthe farmers substituted wheat for legume and other crops, thennutrients would have been added to the soil, keeping the soil inlarger clamps, which is resistant to wind erosion.
Thefarmers also did not plant cover crops. Cover crops help the soilretain moisture protecting soil from wind erosion. Shelter beltingwould also have been a preventive measure against wind erosion slowdown wind. Shelter belting is the planting of trees to act as awindbreaker. According to studymoose.com” Shelter belting is theprocess of planting trees and bushes to slow down and block the windsthat blew across the otherwise flat Great Plains…”(studymoose.com)
Poorfarming methods were also a contributing factor. Farmers usedtraditional farming tools such as the disk plow. The disc plow madework easier for the farmers but exposed the soil leaving itvulnerable to wind erosion. Overgrazing in the ranching regionsdestroyed large grassland areas leaving pastures bare, andsignificant damage occurred.
Droughtswere a common factor in the plains, but those of the 1930’soccurred in a continuous time interval. This cyclical occurrence didnot give farmers time to recover. Each drought episode was severethan the preceding ones, affecting more people, in particular withthe increased population. According to an article in the Balance”there were four waves of drought, one after the other 1930-31, 1934,1936, and 1939-40. But it felt like one long drought. That’sbecause the affected regions could not recover before the next onehit…” (The balance 201)
Winderosion is a preventable cause of any environment-related crisis.Farmers with small farms aimed to maximize utility so they plantedmore crops on their farms. These farmers did not practice Landconservation measures. According to Rachel O’black, “the size ofthe area is directly related to the amount of wind erosion that willoccur on the property. Experts say that the smaller the farm, themore the wind erosion will be on the land. It is because the largerthe farm is likely to finance and benefit from soil erosion control.Small farms, on the other hand, need to cultivate more of their landintensely and they usually do not earn enough money to be able tospend on soil conservation…” (O’black46).
Manypeople blame these farmers and the Homestead Act of 1862 that pavedthe way for their settlement. The Homestead Act issued away thousandsof acres of plots. The farm size released were smaller thanrecommended, and this contributed to the lack of use of soilconservation techniques necessary to prevent the Dust Bowl.
Lackof Government Intervention
Thegovernment can be partly blamed towards the contribution of the DustBowl. The enactment of the Homestead Act of 1862 saw the settlementof many people in the plains. The settlers started farming on theirsmall farms without any farming advice from the government. It is theresponsibility of the government to advise its citizens on properfarming techniques. If the government had intervened and insisted onsoil conservation measures, then wind erosion and drought would havebeen avoided.
Effectsof the Dust Bowl
Widespreadcrop failure- this was hard for the farmers. More than 46 millionacres of crop failed, with some countries losing almost half of theirfood supplies. It forced many of the farmers out of business, foodwas in scarce leaving some countrymen dependent on emergency relief.
Diseasesand death- both people and farm animals died during this period. Farmanimals perished in the field. The dust storms coated the stomach ofcattle in the areas with particles. The dust also irritated the eyesof the animals making them tear. The combination of damage and dustled to blindness. The animals also suffered from thirst andexhaustion. Chicken suffocated in their houses.
Humanbeings suffered from dust pneumonia. Deaths were directly linked todust storms. Children were most vulnerable to diseases. Dust coatedpeople’s throats, and they would even cough the dust-out. Affectedindividuals came up with different home remedies to cope with thisproblem. Inhalation of dust particles increased risks of throat andlung infections. The death toll increased due to the growing numberof infections.
Homelessness–many were left without homes. It was because of different reasons.After the massive crop failure, farmers were left in financialcrisis. They had no money to repay their loans and mortgages. Thosewho bought land with the aid of loans lost their land to foreclosure.Banks also repossessed houses whose owners failed to pay mortgages.Those left homeless were forced to move to other areas and becomerefugees. Starting a new life wasn’t easy. They had to look for newjobs while living in camps and their poverty status forced them tolive in unhealthy conditions. There were limited medical facilities,schools and other necessary institutions in the camps.
Economicimpacts- the financial implications of the dust bowl also wentunnoticed. Crop prices in the area went down, crop failures andoutmigration stagnated development in the towns. It is because mostof the townspeople in the affected area were left seekingopportunities in other regions. Banks and other business premiseswere left unattended. Those left behind were dependent on emergencyrelief. Deflation as a result of the depression also devastated thefarmers.
Dependenceon foreign aid most of the people in the affected areas was left todepend on foreign aid. Crops were destroyed leaving individuals withno food for their daily subsistence. According to the Balance” by1936, 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains received federalemergency relief. In some counties, it was as high as 90%”(Balance, 2012)
TheDust Bowl heightened fear among people-rumors were spread that thefederal government would force people out of the affected areas, yetsome were willing to remain behind and protect their homes.
Itwas not until in 1941 that the dustbowl ended and the plains begun torecover. The region experienced rains which settled the dust andrestored the withered crops. Ironically the same amount of land wasrededicated to farming, crops and farming methods used in the firsthalf of the twentieth centuries were used.
Thegovernment, however, took some measures to assist the survivors thedust bowl. Some of the actions include
Medical facilities were established to supply and meet the risen demand of medical needs.
Loan services were made available and accessible to rehabilitate businesses in the affected areas.
The government provided the necessary supplies, technology, and information that would promote proper land management.
Thegreat disaster ruined lives, and caused massive losses, but after allthat it united the people. Several lessons were learned and variousmeasures taken with the aim of preventing the occurrence of a similardisaster in the future. Some of the steps include the following
Effortstowards soil conservation were made- the Department of Agriculturewas authorized to conduct experiments on different soil erosion andpreservation analysis techniques. Later Soil Erosion Service (SES)was established to promote conservation measures and farmeractivities. The SES scientists and specialists went and demonstratednew farming methods to farmers. Trees were planted to act aswindbreakers, seedlings, seeds, farming equipment was also provided,and proper planting and harvesting techniques outlined. Farmers werediscouraged from the burning of wheat that remains after harvesting.Instead, they were to use the remains as a groundcover. The groundcover helps retain moisture, holding soil particles in place.
Thegovernment resettled farmers living in the dust bowl. area was still vulnerable to erosion. The area was then re-seededinto the grass and other vegetation to reduce wind erosion.New seedsresistant to drought were introduced. The Russian wheatgrass forexample besides being drought resistant is food for cattle.
Croprotation was highly encouraged. Farmers were to plant two differentcrops every three years, instead of the first routine of planting onecrop for two years. Irrigation was also a major factor towards landconservation this meant that there would be less dry land farming.
Enactmentof the Grazing Act- since overgrazing contributed massively to thecreation of Dust Bowl, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was establishedto help in the attempt of reducing adverse effects brought about byovergrazing. The action successfully stopped the deterioration butcould not reverse the damage done. Under this action, large chunksthat were used for grazing were repossessed by the government. Apermit was also to be issued limited the number of cattle that can begrazed in an area. The service in charge of this act was laterintegrated in 1946 to the Bureau of Land Management.
Asmuch as measures are being taken to prevent another dust bowl, someargue that another episode cannot be avoided. An increase intemperatures is alarming since hot air sucks moisture from plants andthe soil. Rise temperatures are not evidence sufficient enough toclaim the occurrence of another Dust Bowl is imminent. An article byJohn Nielsen-Gammon in the New York Times disagrees with thosewarning of another similar scenario. In fact, he likens the odds ofanother dust bowl to a baseball player of steroids he says,” somehave compared these enhanced odds to a baseball player on steroids,whereby hitting a home run or throwing a no-hitter is more likely.But talking about the current drought like it’s the start of thenext Dust Bowl is like talking about a no-hitter in the middle of thesecond inning.”(John, NY. times 2012)
TheDust Bowl lasted approximately for a decade, with small farmers beingentirely blamed. In 1941, the plains received showers of rain. Cropswere restored, and the dust settled. There was little change in landusage. farmers used the same crops and farmingtechniques before government intervention. At first, the farmers wereresistant to the efforts of the government of land rehabilitation.The government had to enact laws to ensure proper usage of land. Duststorms are still experienced in dry years, but they are not asdisastrous. The high plains have not received as much populationattention as they did in the 1930’s. If proper measures were taken,the entire Dust Bowl scenario could be avoided.
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