The Dust Bowl

Geoffrey Farmer

I finished watching Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl, last night and it connected some dots for me. The people living there knew at the time that their actions in plowing up millions of acres of virgin grass land had caused the huge dust storms and wholesale erosion of the soil, and several government officials said as much publicly. As a kid,  I had heard about the horrible drought and the devastation that it caused - and my grandparents used to talk about the wicked dust storms that were so much worse than the dust storms that they live with now, but nobody ever mentioned that this was one of the greatest MAN-MADE natural disasters of all time.

It was a case of everybody doing what everybody else is doing and hoping that things turn out all right. They didn't know any better. Farmers had recently got the tractor and it allowed them to "open up" the prairie like never before. It worked well for a while, but in about ten years they had destroyed the deep, rich soils of the native prairies and made the place uninhabitable.

The government stepped in and began 'recommending' different soil management techniques and - brilliantly - planted millions of trees in "shelter-belts" to help slow the erosion and restored millions of acres to native grasses. Government has never left the business of agriculture since.

When I was living in the panhandle of Texas, an area that was severely effected by the Dust Bowl, I heard farmers talking about how they should cut down those sickly trees that remain in the old shelter-belts. "We don' need 'em any more. We know how to plow the soil now. They're just taking up space that could be farmed."

One day, I was telling an old farmer that stopped by my grandparents place that I intended to plant leguminous trees (Black Locust and Honey Locust) in my garden to improve the soil. He said, "Trees? Don'cha know them trees'll sap yur soil?"

I thought about explaining to him that trees actually shelter the soil from the noon-day sun and encourage the growth of smaller plants at their base that help hold on to nutrients and moisture. And explaining that trees actually create precipitation at times by condensing moisture out of the air when it wouldn't have otherwise rained. And how they create the conditions that support a community of living organisms that help cycle nutrients and retain moisture in the soil. But, it didn't seem like the right time to offer an education in a better way to farm - seeing as how I wasn't able to grow a darn thing in that burned-out, poisoned, lifeless old dusty soil.

But some education is needed, I think.