Coming to Terms with the Dust Bowl

I’ve finished reading a real gem of an old 1940s farming book, Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm.  Bromfield questions why farmers so readily squandered their farm’s wealth through bad farming practices.  Erosion and “burning out” the soil (taking organic content and minerals out of the soil via selling crops and never adding nutrients back in) are hot on his mind.  He writes about the Deep South, as it once had mineral-rich soil that was turned into dust by cotton.  He mentions our Corn Belt states, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, as “rich states commonly believed to possess inexhaustible fertility” as depleted, emptied of fertility in three generations.  And then, he got me.  He described Oklahoma, my home state, as “eroded and depleted in one generation.”     

One generation!  For sure he was talking about the Dust Bowl. 

Growing up, I always heard people speak of the Dust Bowl in awe.  Grownups used phrases like “pictures cannot describe…” and “you wouldn’t believe…”   I learned early on that until Merle Haggard sang his “Okie from Muskogee” song with pride, it wasn’t nice to be called an Okie, especially by a Californian.     

But my big take-away was that the Dust Bowl was an act of God.  For most of my life, I believed a horrendous drought like no other caused it.  Humans were innocent victims of a double beat-down by the Great Depression and the choking dust.  I think a lot of people still believe this because we never hear about the bad farming practices that directly caused it.

Sure drought contributed, but the prairies had experienced bad droughts before.  Diverse grasses with 20-foot long roots held dry soil in place.  The Dust Bowl difference:  the prairies were gone. 

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (another great book) documents the farming scene after World War I and into the 1920s.  Wheat prices had soared world-wide, and there was a great rush to plant and get rich.  Speculators came into Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, sparsely-populated areas with mineral-rich soils, to plant wheat.  They plowed away vast acreages of prairie sod and planted.  They got rich for a while, until the wheat bubble burst in the 1920s.  They left town and left the soil wide open with no cover.  Then severe drought came.  The soil cracked and loosened, and hot, dry winds started carrying it away in sheets.

This was environmental disaster on a monumental scale.  Timothy Egan wrote that one enormous dust cloud reached DC, right as a congressional committee was meeting on the disaster.  It’s eerie to think I could be farming on Oklahoma soil, so far from home.  Bromfield mentions that eco-agriculture and respect for the soil was really picking up in the late 1940s.  I really, really wish it had continued.  World War II munitions plants already knew the intricacies of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, key elements in chemical fertilizer.  Farmers were offered easy, drudgery-free ways to fertilize, and soil was disregarded once again.  I think we’re making a turn again though.  Small farms are multiplying, and interest in non-chemical fertility is rising.  Let’s hope it sticks this time.


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