The Dust Bowl refers to a ninety-seven-million-acre area in the southern Great Plains where drought and wind erosion were the most severe during the 1930s. Extending approximately four hundred miles from north to south and three hundred miles from east to west, the Dust Bowl encompassed southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. The region of the southern Great Plains that became known as the Dust Bowl received its name after a gigantic dust storm, known as a black blizzard, struck the area on April 14, 1935. Robert E. Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press who was traveling in the area, sent a series of articles from the region to the Washington, D.C. Evening Star. Geiger referred to the southern Great Plains as a "dust bowl." The public and the Soil Conservation Service quickly adopted the term, and it became the sobriquet for this windblown, drought-stricken area.
Sandy loess soil, drought, lack of soil-holding vegetation, and wind have caused the dust to blow on the southern Great Plains since the prehistoric period. During the nineteenth century, drought and prairie fires sometimes destroyed the grass and exposed the soil to wind erosion. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the settlement of the region and drought contributed to dust storms as farmers plowed the grassland for crops. Similarly, between 1900 and 1930, farmers on the southern plains broke even more native sod for wheat. Steam traction engines, gasoline-powered tractors, and one-way disc plows helped farmers plow the sod and expose the soil to the nearly constant wind. High agricultural prices stimulated by World War I and adequate precipitation encouraged agricultural expansion on the southern plains, and few farmers gave much thought to soil conservation. Many factors, then, contributed to the creation of the Dust Bowl—soils subject to wind erosion, drought that killed the soil-holding vegetation (including wheat), the incessant wind, and technological improvements that facilitated the rapid breaking of the native sod.
In 1931, drought struck the southern Great Plains. By late January 1932, dust storms began to sweep across the Texas Panhandle, and wind erosion became a common problem for the region during the spring. During the worst storms of the decade, the dust drifted like snow, halted road and railway travel, and made breathing difficult. Work crews shoveled the railway tracks clear of drifted dust so the trains could pass. Railroad engineers sometimes missed their stations. During the worst dust storms, residents sealed windows with tape or putty and hung wet sheets in front of windows to filter the air. Others spread sheets over their upholstered furniture, wedged rags under doors, and covered keyholes to keep the dirt out of their homes. Mealtime during a storm meant that plates, cups, and glasses were often covered with a thin coat of dust, and the dust made the food and one's teeth gritty. Electric lights dimmed to a faint glow along streets during the middle of the day. Travel on highways was hazardous during a dust storm because of poor visibility and dust drifts across highways. Static electricity accompanied the storms and caused automobile ignition systems to fail and cars to stall during the storms. Motorists attached drag wires and chains to their automobiles and trucks to ground this static electricity and prevent their vehicles from stalling. Even windmills, pump handles, and cooking pans became so highly charged that a mere touch caused a good shock. Residents often wore masks when they went outside during a storm, because the dust contained silica that irritated the mucus membranes of the respiratory system and made people feel ill. Many residents died from "dust pneumonia." Surgeons and dentists confronted the problems of sterilization. Between 1932 and 1939, dust storms made life miserable and sometimes dangerous for residents of the Dust Bowl.
Throughout the 1930s, continued drought and crop failure caused the soil to blow. The number of dust storms increased across the region from 1934 to 1938. The acreage subject to wind erosion also expanded during the period, despite the increased efforts of farmers and government officials to bring fields under control by various soil and water conservation methods. The dust storms that began in 1932 and peaked in 1935 continued intermittently, primarily during the spring "blow months" of February, March, and April, when the wind velocity is the highest in the region. By spring 1936, the coarse, granular structure of the soil particles had broken down due to drought and the constant blowing and shifting of the soil. Much of the topsoil had become a fine powder that even low-velocity winds could easily lift into the air and carry for hundreds of miles. During the winter the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground pulverized the soil still further, making it even more susceptible to wind erosion. The dust storms remained severe into 1937, and the prevailing winds carried the soil to the Middle Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. During the worst storms, sand and soil lacerated the wheat and cotton crops, and covered pastures and killed the grass used for grazing and hay.
By 1933 the wind erosion conditions in the southern Great Plains became so serious that farmers looked to the federal government for technical and financial support to help them bring the blowing lands under control. In March the Forest Service became the first federal agency to try to stop the dust storms in the region after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the agency to investigate whether a major tree-planting program could substantially reduce wind erosion on the Great Plains. Working with nearly record speed, in August the Forest Service reported that it could. This plan, known as the Shelterbelt Project, advocated the creation of a zone a hundred miles wide that would stretch from Canada to northern Texas, with the western edge running along a line from Bismarck North Dakota, to Amarillo, Texas. Within that area, shelterbelts, that is, rows of trees, would be planted across the entire zone to slow the prevailing winds. With the wind controlled, the dust storms would end or become less severe, and the land could be restored to normal agricultural productivity when the drought ended.
In 1935, after nearly two years of studying the climate, soils, native vegetation, and earlier tree plantings on the Great Plains, the Forest Service reaffirmed the practicality of the project but recommended that the western edge of the zone be moved eastward to follow a line from Devil's Lake, North Dakota, to Mangum, Oklahoma; this new border area received twenty-two inches of precipitation annually, compared to sixteen inches in the border area originally proposed. The Forest Service then began the Prairie States Forestry Project, as it became known in 1937, planting shelterbelts on selected lands leased from farmers. As the trees grew, the shelterbelts shielded wheat fields from the wind and slowed the blowing soil. By the time the project terminated in 1942, the Forest Service had planted nearly 18,600 miles of shelterbelts that had nearly a 60 percent survival rate. Although the return of normal precipitation enabled nature to heal the wounds to the soil from drought and wind, the shelterbelts helped check soil erosion and protected farmsteads, livestock, and fields.
The Soil Erosion Service (SES) in the Department of the Interior and the Department Agriculture also developed plans to end wind erosion in the Dust Bowl. On August 25, 1933, the Public Works Administration provided $5 million to the Soil Erosion Service to support a conservation program. The SES used these funds to establish demonstration projects on private lands where nearby farmers could observe the best soil conservation practices. The work of the SES, however, duplicated many projects of the Department of Agriculture and, in 1935, the agency was renamed the Soil Conservation Service and moved under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The Soil Conservation Service also established demonstration projects to persuade farmers to adopt proper conservation techniques. By the late 1930s, the work of the Soil Conservation Service (along with federal dollars and the return of near normal precipitation) helped farmers bring their blowing lands under control. Most farmers who followed the technical advice and procedures of the SCS adopted proper tillage and cropping practices, such as contour plowing, terracing, strip cropping, and planting drought-resistant crops such as grain sorghum. In order to halt dust storms completely, though, the grazing lands had to be restored. Accordingly, the SCS advised farmers to rotate, rest, and reseed pastures and to use contour furrowing and ridging techniques on their grasslands to derive the maximum benefit from precipitation and prevent runoff. The soil conservation practices promoted by the SCS were designed to restore the land to predrought, pre-Dust Bowl conditions.
The soil conservation projects depended on persuasion and voluntary agreements between the farmers and the agency. Officials in the SCS did not believe the agency had the constitutional authority to impose mandatory land-use regulations. Consequently, the SCS encouraged the state governments to require farmers to practice the best soil conservation techniques. On May 13, 1936, the SCS drafted a model state law, titled A Standard Soil Conservation District Law, which provided for the creation of state conservation districts by local petition and referendum. After a district organized under the direction of the state soil conservation authority, committee, or agency, the farmers in the district worked in a common effort to halt soil erosion, particularly from the wind, and to follow the best soil conservation practices. District supervisors provided technical information and financial aid to help farmers conduct various conservation practices and purchase gasoline, oil, and horse feed to meet basic soil conservation expenses. Dust Bowl farmers adopted SCS programs because they were geared to practicality and low cost, and the SCS and other agencies provided funds to help them initiate the recommended soil conservation practices. By 1940, most farmers who participated in SCS conservation programs credited the agency with improving their farm practices, increasing their land values, and boosting their incomes. Most Dust Bowl farmers planned to continue their newly learned soil conservation practices.
The most optimistic attempt to help farmers in the Dust Bowl end the wind erosion menace involved the land-use program of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Resettlement and Farm Security administrations, like the SCS, contended that if severely eroded lands could be removed from cultivation and restored to grass, and the blowing range lands reseeded, then the soil could be stabilized, the dust storms ended, and the land returned to a grazing economy similar to that of the Great Plains before the sod was broken for crops. Accordingly, in 1935 the Resettlement Administration, and later the Farm Security Administration (which assumed this responsibility in 1937), began a land-purchase program to acquire the most severely wind-eroded lands on the Great Plains in order to restore them with grass and the best soil conservation techniques, and to move the farmers from the lands that it acquired to better federally owned lands. By the time the SCS assumed responsibility for this work in 1938, the land-purchase program had become an unprecedented experiment in environmental and social planning. The SCS continued to restore the wind-eroded lands in the purchase areas after normal precipitation returned. Since 1960, many of these land-utilization projects have been known as national grasslands, such as the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas, the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the Rita Blanca National Grassland in Oklahoma, and the Kiowa National Grassland in New Mexico.
As the wheat and cotton crops withered under the sun on the southern Great Plains, farmers looked to the federal government for aid beyond soil conservation. Although the federal government provided many programs for economic relief from drought and depression, the aid from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) became the most significant. Without the financial aid of the AAA, many farmers in the Dust Bowl would have suffered bankruptcy and lost their lands. The AAA paid farmers nationwide to reduce production by withdrawing a specific acreage from production. In the Dust Bowl, the AAA paid them to reduce production of wheat and cotton, mostly. With fewer acres planted in these crops, agency officials believed that the surplus of these commodities nationwide would disappear and agricultural prices would rise, thereby increasing farm income. Economic necessity compelled nearly all Dust Bowl farmers to participate in the AAA program, but the drought, not the AAA, played a greater role in reducing production than did the allotment or acreage reduction program. Until World War II rapidly increased agricultural prices, AAA checks provided the most important income for many of them.
Dust Bowl farmers also received financial aid from the Resettlement Administration. Only those farmers who could not qualify for loans at banks or other lending institutions could apply for RA rehabilitative loans. These loans allowed farmers to purchase necessities such as food, clothing, feed, seed, and fertilizer in order to remain on their land and ultimately return to self-sufficiency when the drought ended. Before making a loan, the RA prepared a farm management plan that budgeted the farmer's income for daily home and operating needs as well as loan and mortgage obligations. Resettlement Administration loans in the Dust Bowl averaged about $700 per family. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration continued this loan program for the most destitute farmers, on the conditions that the farmers' operations could become profitable and they had adequate credit to obtain equipment, seed, and livestock. The FSA also encouraged Dust Bowl farmers to diversify by raising more cattle and less wheat.
Despite aid from the AAA, RA, FSA, and other federal agencies and programs, Dust Bowl residents often did not have enough income to meet their financial obligations. In some areas drought, dust, and economic depression caused property values to decline as much as 90 percent. As farm valuations shrank, tax revenues decreased and some local governments responded by imposing higher property taxes. As income from wheat and cotton fell and as property tax rates rose, tenancy and nonresident ownership increased more than 40 percent in some areas, and tax delinquencies and bankruptcies increased.
Although wheat and cotton prices fell because of overproduction and although drought and dust storms ruined crops and caused additional economic hardship, farmers did not emigrate in great numbers from the Dust Bowl. The migrant characters in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath were not from the Dust Bowl, but from the cotton region east of the most drought-stricken areas. Migrants from this area had been tenant farmers or share-croppers whom landowners evicted in order to keep the total amount of the AAA allotment checks for reducing cotton production (farmers were required to share the aid with any tenants, but they ignored this provision of its AAA program). These thousands of displaced cotton farmers and field workers were the Okies who headed west to California. Still, between 1930 and 1940, the counties in the Oklahoma Panhandle lost 8,762 people, but they did not create a great Dust Bowl migration. Many Dust Bowl farmers moved to the nearest town, where they sought employment or relief from government agencies such as the Civil Works Administration or Works Progress Administration. Some areas rich in natural gas and oil gained population as the petroleum industry expanded and created job opportunities. Similarly, in the Texas Panhandle twenty-three counties lost fewer than fifteen thousand inhabitants between 1930 and 1940.
In southwestern Kansas, the number of farmers actually increased in a twenty-seven county area between 1930 and 1935 as the children of resident farmers and townspeople returned home from cities, often in other states, seeking refuge from the economic hard times of the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1940, however, the population of southwestern Kansas dropped dramatically, with losses ranging from 18 percent to 53 percent in many Dust Bowl counties. As the farm population decreased, the number of farms declined and farm sizes increased by 24 percent due to the consolidation of farms. Most residents who left the Kansas portion of the Dust Bowl were single men and women or young married couples who perceived better opportunities elsewhere in the region or beyond. Tenant farmers often left the Dust Bowl but landowners usually stayed because they were unwilling to lose their investments in the land, and the agricultural and work-relief programs of the federal government kept most farmers on the land and the majority of the nonfarm population in the towns. Certainly, a large number of people moved within the Dust Bowl area and from the Great Plains states during the 1930s, but most were not people displaced by drought and wind erosion.
During the spring of 1938 precipitation increased and the wheat, grass, and cotton grew and helped hold the soil against the wind. As a result, the black blizzards ended and even the lesser dust storms diminished in number and intensity. By the spring of 1939 only 9.5 million acres were still subject to severe wind erosion, compared to fifty million acres in 1935. Only a few dust storms occurred throughout the year. By December 1939, the Dust Bowl encompassed only southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado. During the early 1940s, the return of near-normal amounts of precipitation ended the drought, and weeds, grass, and crops covered much of the land, preventing the wind from lifting and blowing the soil.
A combination of factors, then, created the Dust Bowl in the southern Great Plains—the plowing of too much marginal land for wheat and cotton, the failure to practice soil conservation, the drought, and the relentless wind. The dust storms of the 1930s forced farmers and the federal government to utilize all of the technical expertise and financial resources they could command to bring the wind erosion problem under control. When drought and dust storms returned to the region during the 1950s, the technology and conservation practices that Dust Bowl farmers had been using for twenty years prevented the region from reverting to the severe conditions of the 1930s.
Bonnifield, Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression. 1979.
Cunfer, Geoffrey Alan. "Common Ground: The American Grassland, 1870–1970." Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1999.
Droze, Wilmon H. Trees, Prairies, and People: A History of Tree Planting in the Plains States. 1977.
Floyd, Fred. "A History of the Dust Bowl." Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1950.
Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. 1989.
Henderson, Caroline. "Letters from the Dust Bowl." Atlantic Monthly 157 (May 1936): 540–551.
Hewes, Leslie. The Suitcase Farming Frontier: A Study of the Historical Geography of the Central Great Plains. 1973.
Hurt, R. Douglas. "Federal Land Reclamation in the Dust Bowl." Great Plains Quarterly 6 (1986): 94–106.
Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History. 1981.
Hurt, R. Douglas. "Gaining Control of the Environment: The Morton County Land-Utilization Project in the Kansas Dust Bowl." Kansas History 19 (1996): 140–153.
Hurt, R. Douglas. "The National Grasslands: Origin and Development in the Dust Bowl." Agricultural History 59 (1985): 246–259.
Johnson, Vance. Heaven's Tableland: The Dust Bowl Story. 1947.
Lockingbill, Brad. Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929–194. 2001.
Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal in the West. 1984.
McDean, Harry. "Dust Bowl Historiography." Great Plains Quarterly 6 (1986): 117–126.
McDean, Harry. "Federal Farm Policy and the Dust Bowl: The Half-Right Solution." North Dakota History 47 (1980): 21–31.
Riney-Kenrberg, Pamela. Rooted in Dust: Surviving the Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas. 1994.
Rutland, Robert Allen. A Boyhood in the Dust Bowl, 1926–1934. 1995.
Saloutos, Theodore. The American Farmer and the New Deal. 1982.
Schuyler, Michael W. The Dread of Plenty: Agricultural Relief Activities of the Federal Government in the Middle West, 1933–1939. 1989.
Sears, Paul B. Deserts on the March. 1980.
Shindo, Charles J. Dust Bowl Migrants and the American Imagination. 1997.
Stein, Walter J. California and the Dust Bowl Migration. 1973.
Svobida, Lawrence. Farming in the Dust Bowl: A First-Hand Account From Kansas. 1986.
Ware, James Wesley. "Black Blizzard: The Dust Bowl of the 1930s." Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1977.
Worster, Donald. The Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. 1979.
R. Douglas Hurt
Farmers across the Great Plains longed for rain during the spring of 1934. But day after day, the weather offered no relief, only intense sun, wind, drought, more sun, then gale-force winds. On April 14, massive clouds of dust blotted out the sun over western Kansas. At first the wind raced along the surface, tearing at the stunted wheat and licking up the topsoil. Then the dust thickened into low, heavy, dirt-laden clouds. From a distance, the storm had the appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it was black, not white; and it seemed to eat its way along with a rolling, churning motion. As the storm swept toward Oklahoma and Texas, the black clouds engulfed the landscape. For those at the storm center there was an eerie sensation of silence and darkness. There was little or no visibility, and wind velocity hit 40 to 50 miles per hour. The next month was exceedingly hot with a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. On May 10, the gales returned, this time from the west. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light-brown fog that spread over an area 900 miles wide and 1500 miles long. The next day an estimated 12 million tons of soil fell on Chicago, Illinois, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland, Ohio. On May 12, dust hung like a shadow over the entire eastern seaboard. By the time they were over, these two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the Great Plains.
The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal "mud balls." The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, and buried fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloths and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from "dust pneumonia." The black blizzards struck so suddenly that many farmers became lost in their own fields and suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. More than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains during the 1930s. These "Okies" loaded their meager household goods and struck out along famous highway Route 66 for California.
Fifty years earlier, a strong, protective carpet of buffalo grass had covered the Great Plains. The grass held moisture in the soil and kept the soil from blowing away. In dry years, the wind blew out huge craters, later mistakenly called "buffalo wallows," but as long as the turf remained, the land could recover. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, farmers began staking out homesteads in regions once considered too arid for anything other than range. Wherever they went, farmers plowed under the buffalo grass. During World War I (1914–1918) the demand for wheat, along with the invention of the tractor, meant plowing larger areas of the virgin grassland. Between 1914 and 1917, the area of wheat planted increased to 27 million acres, much of which (more than 40 percent) had never been plowed before. After the war, the plowing continued. Larger tractors and combines, new machines that could harvest and thresh grain in one operation, inaugurated the age of the wheat kings. By 1930, there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as there had been a decade earlier, and that number was steadily increasing. The plow exposed the land to rain, wind, and sun. By 1932, the earth on the plains was ready to blow away.
The Dust Bowl sped the development of long-range federal programs in the new field of soil conservation. A veteran conservationist, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945) in late 1933, created the Soil Erosion Service, later the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), with Hugh Bennett as its head. The SCS's task was to supply technical assistance and leadership, while local soil conservation districts carried out Bennett's program of strip crops, contour plowing, stubble-mulch farming, and terracing. More dramatically, the Forest Service under Ferdinand A. Silcox in 1934 started planting a "shelter belt" of trees, within a 100-mile wide zone, from Canada to the Texas Panhandle. Ten years later, more than 200 million cottonwoods and other varieties of trees were serving as wind breaks and helping to conserve moisture. In 1936, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), directed by Chester Davies, adopted soil conservation as a subterfuge to get around an unfavorable Supreme Court decision; but on the Great Plains, soil conservation was a legitimate part of the AAA program. Farmers received government checks for both acreage reductions and wind control practices.
After 1936, the New Deal added little to its conservation program. Roosevelt did appoint two special committees under the chairmanship of Morris L. Cooke, one to study Dust Bowl conditions and the other to recommend specific legislation. Congress passed a water storage bill along the lines that the latter committee had suggested, but did little else. In 1939 Harlan H. Barrows reported for the Committee on the Northern Great Plains but again, little was done.
Although it achieved less than it might have, the New Deal did much to hasten recovery in the Dust Bowl; more importantly, the rains began anew. As the buffalo grass spread again, the bowl area rapidly shrank from 8.727 million acres in 1938 to 1.2 million in 1939. Yet there remained the danger that farmers would forget the terrible lessons from the drought and that the Dust Bowl would once again reappear.
See also: Agricultural Equipment Industry, Agriculture Industry, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
Sears, Paul B. Deserts on the March. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947.
Svobida, Lawrence. An Empire of Dust. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1940.
Johnson, Vance. Heaven's Tableland : The Dust Bowl Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1947.
"Dust Bowl" is a term coined by a reporter for the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star to describe the effects of severe wind erosion in the Great Plains during the 1930s, caused by severe drought and lack of conservation practices.
For a time after World War I, agriculture prospered in the Great Plains. Land was rather indiscriminantly plowed and planted with cereals and row crops. In the 1930s, the total cultivated land in the United States increased, reaching 530 million acres (215 million ha), its highest level ever. Cereal crops, especially wheat, were most prevalent in the Great Plains. Summer fallow (cultivating the land, but only planting every other season) was practiced on much of the land. Moisture, stored in the soil during the fallow (uncropped) period, was used by the crop the following year. In a process called dust mulch , the soil was frequently clean tilled to leave no crop residues on the surface, control weeds, and, it was thought at the time, preserve moisture from evaporation. Frequent cultivation and lack of crop canopy and residues optimized conditions for wind erosion during the droughts and high winds of the 1930s.
During the process of wind erosion, the finer particles (silt and clay) are removed from the topsoil , leaving coarsertextured sandy soil. The fine particles carry with them higher concentrations of organic matter and plant nutrients, leaving the remaining soil impoverished and with a lower water storage capacity. Wind erosion of the Dust Bowl reduced the productivity of affected lands, often to the point that they could not be farmed economically.
While damage was particularly severe in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas, erosion occurred in all of the Great Plains states, from Texas to North Dakota and Montana, even into the Canadian Prairie Provinces. The eroding soil not only prevented the growth of plants, it uprooted established ones. Sediment filled fence rows, stream channels, road ditches, and farmsteads. Dirt coated the insides of buildings. Airborne dust made travel difficult because of decreased visibility ; it also impaired breathing and caused respiratory diseases .
Dust from the Great Plains was carried high in the air and transported as far east as the Atlantic seaboard. In places, 3–4 in (7–10 cm) of topsoil was blown away, forming dunes 15–20 ft (4.6–6.1 m) high where the dust finally came to rest. In a 20-county area covering parts of southwestern Kansas, the Oklahoma strip, the Texas Panhandle, and southeastern Colorado, a soil-erosion survey by the Soil Conservation Service showed that 80% of the land was affected by wind erosion, 40% of it to a serious degree.
The droughts and resultant wind erosion of the 1930s created widespread economic and social problems. Large numbers of people migrated out of the Dust Bowl area during the 1930s. The migration resulted in the disappearance of many small towns and community services such as churches, schools, and local units of government.
Following the disaster of the Dust Bowl, the 1940s saw dramatically improved economic and social conditions with increased precipitation and improved crop prices. Gradually, changes in farming practices have also taken place. Much of the severely damaged and marginal land has been returned to grass for livestock grazing. Non-detrimental tillage and management practices, such as conservation tillage (stubble mulch, mulch, and residue tillage); use of tree, shrub, and grass windbreaks; maintenance of crop residues on the soil surface; and better machinery have all contributed to improved soil conditions. Annual cropping or a three-year rotation of wheat-sorghum-fallow has replaced the alternate crop-fallow practice in many areas, particularly in the more humid areas of the West.
While the extreme conditions of drought and land mismanagement of the Dust Bowl years have not been repeated since the 1930s, wind erosion is still a serious problem in much of the Great Plains. According to the Soil Conservation Service, the states with the most serious erosion per unit area in 1982 were Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Montana.
[William E. Larson ]
Hurt, R. D. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
In 1934, weather conditions and farming practices in the Great Plains combined to produce an ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl. The Plains stretched from South Dakota to Texas , and included several states, among them Kansas , Nebraska , and Oklahoma . An intense, long-term drought (a period of below-average rainfall), high heat, and farming practices that exposed the soil caused two immense storms of dust that blew across the nation. Virtually all aspects of life on the Plains struggled in the resulting conditions.
The southern plains had once been natural grazing lands covered in prairie grasses, particularly buffalo grass. The plants not only provided a diet to buffalo, sheep, and cattle, but also served as a protective anchor for the land. Catching moisture in their roots, plants prevented winds from blowing the soil away. As long as the grasses were present, the soil could recover from the effects of strong prairie winds.
In the late nineteenth century, humans began settling in the grasslands. The large grazing lands quickly turned into small individual farms. Wherever people established themselves, the grasses were plowed under, and crops were planted instead. The combination of improvements in farming technology and the high demand for wheat caused large plots of land to be devoted to growing wheat. Though the fields were planted, the roots of the crops were not as moist and strong as buffalo grass. Rainfall had been relatively frequent in the decades when farming had become so vast in the Plains. People did not have reason to suspect that the farmed crops would be challenged by drought and wind.
In 1931, a long-term drought began, and when the winds started blowing in 1934, the farmers’ fields could not hold. The drought powdered the soil, which allowed the wind to pick up the dust and spread it. Over the course of the next few years, local dust storms combined into large regional storms. Eventually, two great storms developed in the spring of 1934, large enough to cause a great natural disaster. Strong winds stripped the land of its topsoil and carried the dirt over hundreds of miles.
An estimated 650 million tons of soil blew away, leaving farms devastated. The wind carried off most of the crops, too, and layers of dirt covered what remained. Soil caked the grazing pastures of livestock, which they then tried to eat. Mud balls formed in their stomachs as a result, and many animals died. Like snow, the dust blanketed everything, burying fences, penetrating automobile engines, and causing “dust pneumonia” among the people. The Dust Bowl covered 300,000 square miles of territory located in Kansas, Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado , and New Mexico . Dust-filled skies dumped the soil as far east as Chicago, Illinois , and darkened skies along the entire eastern seaboard. It was a great disaster that demanded government attention.
The Dust Bowl happened during the Great Depression (1929–41) in the United States. It was a time of economic recession, when people were already experiencing enormous difficulties in finding steady work to provide food and shelter for their families. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) took office in 1933 and worked quickly to establish relief programs for the entire nation.
When the Dust Bowl storms occurred, Roosevelt and Congress established other programs to provide relief to the farmers. The Soil Conservation Service was created to supply technical assistance and leadership in the development of soil conservation techniques. The Department of Agriculture encouraged strip crops, contour plowing, and terracing as new methods of wind control for farmers to use. Farmers received monetary incentives to reduce farmed acreage and to employ wind control practices. The government also planted a hundred-mile-wide belt of trees from Canada to Texas in hopes of creating a wind break. It also purchased more than eight million cattle to cut down on grazing needs in the region. Most importantly, it worked to return the region to grassland, shrinking the Dust Bowl area from 8.727 million acres in 1938 to 1.2 million in 1939 as grasses took root.
DUST BOWL, a 97-million-acre section of southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, that in the Depression-torn 1930s was devastated by dust storms, resulting in the one of the greatest agro ecological disasters in American history. Already suffering from one
of the worst droughts in recent history and with eastern markets insisting upon the adoption of unsustainable agricultural practices to maximize production, the region was hit by strong winds that lifted the dry topsoil from fields, creating clouds of dust that, at their worst, plunged communities into total darkness sometimes for hours at a time. As a result of economic and agricultural depression, many small farmers were forced to foreclose and leave the region.
Bonnifield, Mathew Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.
Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
Dust Bowl, the name given to areas of the U.S. prairie states that suffered ecological devastation in the 1930s and then to a lesser extent in the mid-1950s. The problem began during World War I, when the high price of wheat and the needs of Allied troops encouraged farmers to grow more wheat by plowing and seeding areas in prairie states, such as Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, which were formerly used only for grazing. After years of adequate yields, livestock were returned to graze the areas, and their hooves pulverized the unprotected soil. In 1934 strong winds blew the soil into huge clouds called
and in the succeeding years, from December to May, the dust storms recurred. Crops and pasture lands were ruined by the harsh storms, which also proved a severe health hazard. The uprooting, poverty, and human suffering caused during this period is notably portrayed in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Through later governmental intervention and methods of erosion-prevention farming, the Dust Bowl phenomenon has been virtually eliminated, thus left a historic reference.
See D. Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979); T. Egan, The Worst Hard Time (2005); K. Burns, dir., The Dust Bowl (documentary, 2012).
dust bowl • n. an area of land where vegetation has been lost and soil reduced to dust and eroded, esp. as a consequence of drought or unsuitable farming practice. ∎ (the Dust Bowl) an area of Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Texas affected by severe soil erosion (caused by windstorms) in the early 1930s, which obliged many people to move.