The Dust Bowl was the name given to the Great Plains region devastated by drought in 1930s depression-ridden America. The 150,000-square-mile area, encompassing the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and neighboring sections of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, has little rainfall, light soil, and high winds, a potentially destructive combination. Ranchers and farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, driven by the American agricultural ethos of expansion and a sense of autonomy from nature, aggressively exploited the land and set up the region for ecological disaster. Most early settlers used the land for livestock grazing until agricultural mechanization combined with high grain prices during World War I enticed farmers to plow up millions of acres of natural grass cover to plant wheat. When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.
In response, the federal government mobilized several New Deal agencies, principally the Soil Conservation Service formed in 1935, to promote farm rehabilitation. Working on the local level, the government instructed farmers to plant trees and grass to anchor the soil, to plow and terrace in contour patterns to hold rainwater, and to allow portions of farmland to lie fallow each year so the soil could regenerate. The government also purchased 11.3 million acres of submarginal land to keep it out of production. By 1941 much of the land was rehabilitated, but the region repeated its mistakes during World War II as farmers again plowed up grassland to plant wheat when grain prices rose. Drought threatened another disaster in the 1950s, prompting Congress to subsidize farmers in restoring millions of acres of wheat back to grassland.
The Dust Bowl prompted a cultural response from artists like Dorothea Lange, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck, who lamented the American economic ethos that had created the disaster. To them, the Dust Bowl signified the final destruction of the old Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian harmony with nature.
Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, Dorothea Lange, 1936 from the Library of Congress.
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