Dust!

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Despite the efforts of Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers to bring their lands under control, the dust storms increased each year from 1934 to 1938 in the southern plains. But during the summer of 1938 good rains fell over most of the area, enabling farmers to plant soil-holding crops on much of the blowing land, and by spring,1939, the Dust Bowl had shrunk to the smallest area since 1932. Ample rainfall also came in the summer and autumn of 1940, and for the remainder of the decade the plains received above-average precipitation.

During the ten-year period from 1941 through 1950 most Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers prospered. Bumper crops were the rule, and prices were high. Land that could not be sold for $3 to $4 per acre in the 1930’s now brought $40 to $60 per acre. During this time another big plow-up occurred in the southern Great Plains. Farmers broke about four million acres. High prices for meat also encouraged heavy stocking of pasture lands.

Rainfall was below normal in many sections of the southern plains during 1950. By 1952 severe drought had returned to the region, and with the drought came the dust. Blowing soil was particularly bad on the newly plowed lands, on the poorer wheat lands, and on the overgrazed pasture lands. Serious dust storms in the spring of 1954 and 1955 once again darkened the sky and sometimes reduced visibility to zero, drifted soil along fence rows, created sand dunes in some fields, and ruined crops.

Although wind erosion affected a larger area than it had twenty years earlier, the region did not revert to the severe conditions of the 1930’s—principally because of the conservation techniques practiced during the previous two decades. As a result, some of the worst blow areas of the 1930’s were not critically affected by the drought and wind of the 1950’s. Furthermore, Dust Bowl farmers were better prepared financially to handle the drought and blowing soil, and the federal government once again provided funds for emergency tillage.

Today, the southern Great Plains is experiencing another drought. The deficiency in rainfall has stunted vegetation growth, and the wind is blowing the soil. But this is not to say that the “black blizzards,” a characteristic of the 1930’s, will necessarily return. Dust Bowl farmers, as a whole, now know how to handle blowing soil and, more importantly, recognize the need to keep protective cover crops on the soil to prevent a serious wind erosion problem. But they may have to make other major adjustments in their current practices; they must realize the value of planting more drought-resistant crops and of reducing grazing on pasture lands.

Another Dust Bowl is not inevitable. But it is possible.