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Dust to dust.

Americans have forgotten all about the great agricultural mistake of the early 20th century, which allowed billions of tons of irreplaceable topsoil to blow away.

At about five in the afternoon, on Sunday, April 14, 1935, Ed Phillips slammed on the brakes of his Model A Ford. Driving east toward his home in the Oklahoma panhandle, he had suddenly noticed a 1,000-foot wall of black dust bearing down on him from the north. By the time the Phillips family had tumbled out of their car, the swirling dirt had surrounded them. They barely made it to a nearby shack, where they spent the next four hours coughing in the dark with 10 other shelter-seekers--whose faces they couldn't see.

The next morning, Robert Geiger, an Associated Press reporter writing for the Washington Evening Star, gave the Dust Bowl its name. Historians have used Geiger's term ever since to conjure up the economic and ecological disaster that occurred on the Great Plains during the Great Depression, and, ever since, they have referred to April 14, 1935 as Black Sunday.

Of course, most history books leave out Black Sunday in their eagerness to analyze Black Thursday--that grim day in October, 1929, when the stock market crashed and the roar of the twenties died away. And those historians who do remember the "black blizzards" of the Dust Bowl tend to write them off as minor natural disasters that just happened to hit in the midst of the Depression. Yet thousands of people in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas died from "dust pneumonia" and heat in the 1930s, and thousands more abandoned failing farms to journey westward, only to get caught up in an even more oppressive economic situation--that of the migrant agricultural laborer, the picker of The Grapes of Wrath.

By 1936, farm losses had reached $25 million a day, and by 1938 about 10 billion tons of topsoil from the heart of the world's breadbasket had blown away on the prairie winds. In Haskell County, Kansas, the average annual wheat harvest from 1932 to 1937 was only seven percent (250,000 bushels) of what it had been in 1931 (3.5 million bushels). While Black Thursday barely touched most American farmers, the drought that came with Black Sunday literally turned their day into night.

The lasting significance of the Dust Bowl, however, lies not so much in the economic devastation that it wrought as in the misguided practices that permitted it to happen. To say that the Dust Bowl was a natural disaster is to miss the most important part of the story. Black Sunday shared with Black Thursday not only common impacts, but also a deep-rooted common cause: the American mythology of the profit motive, of constant progress and economic growth, of inexhaustible resources. "The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses," proclaimed the U.S. Bureau of Soils in 1909--as if to excuse in advance the wave of "sodbusting" that, over the following 20 years, would turn the shortgrass prairie into an interlocking grid of cash-cropped commercial farms. Ironically, that burst of agricultural development, designed to stabilize the land and maximize its yields, actually destroyed what stability the plains ecosystem possessed by ripping through the binding roots of the native grasses, abandoning the soil to the whims of the swirling winds. "We plowed the prairie and never knew what we were doing," says American philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry, "because we did not know what we were undoing."

Superficially, the black blizzards of the thirties were created by those swirling winds and by a severe, extended drought. But high winds have raced across America's flatlands from time immemorial, and severe, extended droughts occur there like clockwork every 20 to 30 years. Nature's predictable, patterned cycle became a "natural disaster" only after the great American pioneers had "broken the land." The ecological explanation of the Dust Bowl is embarrassingly simple: since wheat is much less drought-resistant than blue grama or buffalo grass, crops quickly withered in the heat, the earth cracked, and some of the most nutrient-rich soil in the world joined the tumbleweeds piling up against fences and barn doors. Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, whose research attempts to breed commercial cereals from native prairie grasses, likes to cite a study done by a University of Nebraska graduate student in 1933. The student, comparing a field of winter wheat to a contiguous, never-plowed patch of prairie, found that 8.8 percent of the local rainfall ran off the wheat field, while only 1.2 percent ran off the native plain. When looking back at the lessons of the Dust Bowl, then, it is important to remember that the disaster of the 1930s itself rested upon a deliberate disregard of established ecological truths. Despite knowledge of countless agricultural failures in arid regions all around the world, Americans refused to believe that the prairie lands could not be "improved," since America was destined to fulfill Thomas Jefferson's ideal of a nation of yeomen farmers. Plains boosters like Charles Dana Wilber pushed the pseudoscientific idea that "rain follows the plow," asserting that the very presence of American agriculture would have enough of a fertilizing and humidifying effect to transform even desert-like landscapes into pastoral utopias. It was this institutionalized denial that allowed the United States to make an ecological mistake that, according to George Borgstrom, an expert on global food resources, has been matched by only two others in world history: the deforestation of China's highlands about 5,000 years ago, which caused rampant flooding and silting for centuries afterward, and the overgrazing of the once-fertile valleys surrounding the Mediterranean. Yet to call the Dust Bowl simply a mistake is misleading, since it was created with an almost conscientious efficiency in a matter of only a few decades. Donald Worster, the most eloquent and convincing historian of the Dust Bowl, has suggested that the black blizzards blew across America not because the nation's grand plan had suddenly gone awry, but "because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to." Many Americans were born and bred to the task "of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth."

By the early 20th century, American farmers were caught up in a specialized, market-driven system that encouraged all-out production and made diversified, subsistence farming almost impossible. For years previously, small farmers had put down roots on the windblown landscape, created communities, planted gardens, raised livestock, and alternated wheat with other crops, like legumes, which enriched and bound the soil. But after the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. government, while reluctant to give up the myth of the family farm, was nevertheless clamoring for the mass production of grain, for the sake of the nation's economy.

"Plant more wheat! Wheat will win the war!" ran the government's slogan. After the Turks cut off Europe's supply of Russian wheat, the value of American wheat had shot up. Suddenly, guaranteed high prices allowed cash-croppers not only to expand their farms but also to work them with the latest machines--tractors and combine harvesters. The new technologies, perfectly suited to the flatlands, in turn saved time and reduced field losses, allowing for even more expansion of cultivated acreage. Some entrepreneurs, never before interested in agriculture, took advantage of the financial situation by becoming non-resident "suitcase" farmers, planting and harvesting as much wheat as possible in a couple of annual bursts of activity, making their profits, and then abandoning the land to the wind. Longer-established farmers, too, planted more and more of their cash crop, as they sought to pay off their capital investments in land and machinery while prices remained high. In the second decade of this century, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas expanded their wheatlands by 13.5 million acres. Even when prices plummeted a few years later, plains farmers continued to plant more wheat, now needing a cash crop just to stay solvent.

By the early 1930s, more than 40 percent of the farms on the southern plains were owned by nonresident entrepreneurs and worked by tenants who had neither the will nor the money to invest deeply in the land or the community. And, more importantly, the cash-croppers' monoculture fields now dominated the prairie landscape, stretching out in a pattern whose regular, well-managed appearance masked an ever-increasing vulnerability to disease and insects--and drought. The Dust Bowl forced American agriculturalists to address that vulnerability, and in some ways they've had considerable success, over the last half-century, in stabilizing the soil of the arid southern plains. Ever since the 1930s, when President Roosevelt rounded the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), government agronomists have offered technical assistance to farmers of the Dust Bowl region, and today strip cropping and crop residue management are crucial components of plains agriculture. The region's most important conservation measure arrived only recently, though, with the 1985 Farm Bill (or Food Security Act). Since then, under the bill's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), farmers have taken millions of acres of their most erodible cropland out of production, once again letting the prairie grasses take root.

Unfortunately, though, the basic approach to farming on the southern plains has remained virtually the same: the agriculturalists' governing principle is still all-out production. Even Hugh Bennett, the evangelical first director of the SCS, admitted that the true purpose of "conservation farming" was to seek "an avenue to the greatest food production the world has ever known."

The ravages of the Dust Bowl, then, did little to inhibit the general bloom of agribusiness on the southern plains. And agribusiness is still unsustainable, both ecologically and economically. Farms have just become more specialized, planted almost exclusively with monoculture fields of cash crops. In turn, this biological uniformity has necessitated more frequent applications of powerful insecticides and fungicides, which have caused severe health problems in farmers and farmworkers and poisoned groundwater supplies throughout the region. Moreover, despite the setting aside and stabilizing of some marginal lands, the huge cash-cropped fields remain extremely susceptible to drought and wind. The only thing holding the soil together today is the large-scale operators' irrigation empire--which is drawing down the Ogallala aquifer, the region's vast underground supply of non-renewable stone-age water, at a pace that could exhaust the reserves accessible to southern plains farmers within a few decades. The modern, high-tech practices of prairie-style agribusiness are quietly preparing the land for another Dust Bowl. Plains farmers make their choices, though, in response to a complicated web of governmental and industrial incentives. These days, they are cranking up their farms to maximum production largely in support of the American Export Enhancement Program, which, as agricultural historian John Opie points out, has spent billions "to encourage foreign nations to buy American wheat, and build their need for it, at $25 to $33 a ton less than in the United States." If the United States were suddenly to shift to more sustainable farming practices on the plains, grain yields would decrease noticeably, and export subsidies would become impractical. And if the U.S. government abandoned those subsidies, some of the poorer developing nations would suddenly find themselves unable to buy food. In other words, agricultural reform in this country must be accompanied by serious efforts to help Third World nations develop more self-sufficient agricultural systems--systems that emphasize food crops for domestic consumption over cash crops for export to the industrialized world. We cannot understand the history of Dust Bowl agriculture, then, except in the context of the prevailing assumptions of the global market system--that profits should always be our guide, that higher production is necessarily better. And it is precisely to avoid questioning those assumptions that we continue to characterize the Dust Bowl as a natural disaster. As long as all human suffering is caused by flukes of nature, we never have to take responsibility for it. Meanwhile, on the southern plains, Nature has held true to its climatic cycles. Drought struck again barely a decade after the end of the Dust Bowl, and the "filthy fifties" replaced the "dirty thirties." Wind erosion damaged twice as many acres on the Great Plains between 1954 and 1957 as between 1934 and 1937. Two decades later, in 1972, the Russians made their massive wheat purchase, the price of wheat doubled, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz urged farmers to plant "fence row to fence row," and agriculturalists plowed up millions of acres of land that hadn't been touched since the 1930s. The heat returned in 1974, and the dust once again began to blow, stranding motorists on remote highways, ruining small farmers. Then, a truly severe drought hit in 1988, and for the first time in several decades the United States' annual production of grain fell below its consumption. The somewhat predictable response of grain farmers the next year was to expand their cultivated acreage by 12 percent--a significant portion, especially since the Conservation Reserve Program was supposed to be reducing the nation's cultivated acreage. As President Reagan left office, he signed what was at the time the most costly disaster-relief measure ever, worth $3.9 billion. "This bill isn't as good as rain," he said to the farmers, "but it will tide you over until normal weather |returns~." On a trip through the Kansas prairie in 1879, the great American poet Walt Whitman paused to consider his surroundings. "The Plains," he wrote, "while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America's characteristic landscape." Today, the flatlands look a little different, but they are still America's characteristic landscape. Their expansiveness still feeds the nation's frontier mentality, still reassures us that our natural resources are inexhaustible. The plains are the perfect symbol of America's institutionalized denial of ecological--and economic--reality. The well-groomed croplands, the amber waves of grain flowing across the surface of what once was the Dust Bowl, call forth our enduring faith in "Progress" and the eventual return of "normal weather." Out in America's heartland, we live in the future tense, and accept no blame for the past. Aaron Sachs is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.
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Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Sachs, Aaron
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:2362
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