Dust!

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The sunlight began to dim hours before sunset and the clean, fresh air acquired a peculiar density as a giant, black dust cloud approached from the northwest. More than a thousand feet high, the cloud swept southeast and extended in a straight line as far as the eye could see, rolling and tumbling like a great wall of muddy water. Hundreds of birds flew in panic before it.

The sunlight began to dim hours before sunset and the clean, fresh air acquired a peculiar density as a giant, black dust cloud approached from the northwest. More than a thousand feet high, the cloud swept southeast and extended in a straight line as far as the eye could see, rolling and tumbling like a great wall of muddy water. Hundreds of birds flew in panic before it. People who saw the dust storm coming fled quickly to their homes to tape windows, jam rugs under doors, cover furniture, and hang wet sheets across rooms. Wet towels were held over mouths and noses as the premature but total darkness descended. Homes rattled with the force of the storm, and as the dust sifted in and piled up beneath keyholes, breathing became labored and gave way to choking. Spring, 1935, had come to the southern Great Plains.

People who saw the dust storm coming fled quickly to their homes to tape windows, jam rugs under doors, cover furniture, and hang wet sheets across rooms. Homes rattled with the force of the storm

The people of this region were entering their fourth year of dust storms, and the traditional “blow months” of February, March, and April. The wind erosion hazard was the greatest in a 97-million-acre section, which an Associated Press reporter writing for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star casually but appropriately termed the “Dust Bowl.” The Soil Conservation Service adopted the term almost immediately and used it when referring to the wind-blown, drought-stricken area encompassing eastern Colorado and New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.

The dust storms of the thirties were not new to the southern plains, but in that decade their frequency and severity reached an all-time high largely because of the seven-year drought that began during the summer of 1931 following the great plow-up of the teens and twenties. High prices during World War I had stimulated plains farmers to break new lands, and rainfall was sufficient enough to allow, if not encourage, this expansion. When the wheat prices collapsed in the early 1920’s, plainsmen used the newly adopted one-way disc plow to break more sod and plant more wheat to offset the economic loss. Between 1909 and 1929 Great Plains farmers broke thirty-two million acres of sod. Much of the expansion occurred in the southern Great Plains, where wheat acreage increased 200 per cent between 1925 and 1931, and in many counties it ranged from 400 to 1000 per cent.

As the farmers worked this newly broken land, most gave little thought to plowing under crop residues to increase soil humus, either burning them off or leaving them to be eaten by livestock until every bit of vegetation was consumed, exposing the soil to the wind.

Ordinarily, the southern plains receives approximately eighteen inches of annual precipitation. This amount is adequate for a satisfactory crop yield only when it is carefully conserved, but farmers seldom tried to preserve moisture in the subsoil. Furthermore, snows were insufficient to protect the soil, and winter contributed to erosion by loosening the ground with alternate freezing and thawing. The drought of 1931 began a chain reaction: crop failure followed by the abandonment of lands, followed by relentless wind erosion, followed by dust storms, followed by further crop failure.

By spring, 1934, wind erosion in the Dust Bowl was so serious that most farmers and ranchers were willing to adopt the appropriate measures to bring their soil under control. The Soil Conservation Service, created in 1935, used private lands to demonstrate proper soil-conserving techniques and aided farmers in beginning a massive soil conservation program that stressed emergency tillage to trap blowing soil, contour-plowing and terracing to retain moisture, strip-cropping to provide a soil-holding root system, regrassing blowing lands, and grazing management.

In order to halt dust storms completely, grazing lands had to be restored. Although approximately sixty-five million acres in the Dust Bowl remained in grass through the 1930’s, the carrying capacity of these grasslands was far below normal. Overgrazing and drought had decreased the height and density of the grass to the extent that the soil was completely denuded in some areas. By December, 1934, for example, nearly all the native grass cover near Las Animas, Colorado, was smothered in drifting soil, and by spring, 1935, the pasture lands in western Kansas were 35 per cent below normal in growth. Similar lands were drifting badly in Texas and Oklahoma. With the guidance of the Soil Conservation Service, ranchers began to practice pasture-resting by rotating their grazing herds. They also began to contour-furrow their pastures to decrease runoff and hold as much precipitation as possible.