Good Life

OLLI Column | Course examines lessons from Dust Bowl

Imagine plagues of grasshoppers and hordes of jack rabbits devouring everything in sight, a drought that lasted 10 years with soaring temperatures, and billowing black clouds of dust that killed animals and people — 10,000 feet high, 200 miles wide and traveling 60 mph.

This might sound like something from the Old Testament, but it really happened during the “Dust Bowl” in the United States in the 1930s.

The Dust Bowl occurred in the area of the Southern Great Plains, centered roughly around the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. It was caused by several destructive factors, both natural and manmade.

With its infrequent rain, few trees and constant wind, the Great Plains is not an easy place to farm. The virgin sod the settlers plowed was made up of buffalo grass with a 5-foot-deep root system that could conserve water during long periods of the cyclical drought that were common to the area. No one kept records at the time or remembered that the early settlers of the late 1800s lost their cattle and left the area because of a severe drought.

So when the new settlers moved in around 1907 and started having record crop yields, they thought the weather had changed for the better. They cut down the few trees that stood, invented a new plow that cut deeper into the ground faster, and planted even more wheat. They shot the coyotes that were bothering their chickens.

The farmers were making a lot of money and kept increasing production. After the market crashed in 1929, prices for wheat went down. The government pleaded with the farmers to reduce their price per bushel, but instead, the farmers increased production with the thinking that if the price was low, they should produce more to make up for it. They didn’t realize there were no buyers for their wheat and they were heading for poverty.

The first dust storm hit in January 1932. A cloud of dust blotted out the sun for two days so that the middle of the day looked like midnight. The winds picked up the dry soil from fields and blew it across the land and into each tiny crack of every building. Families would wake up in the morning to find a white circle on their pillow from where their heads had lain. Mothers would spend hours each day shoveling dust off every surface of the houses.

It’s difficult to imagine people living in these conditions for 10 years, always hoping that next year would be better. But eventually things did get better — the drought ended, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted programs to help people earn a living, farmers were persuaded to update their farming methods and a whole new migration of Americans made their way to California and the West Coast.

But questions remain — how well do we manage our land and water resources today?