Revisiting the Dust Bowl

By Dr. Perry Cabot, Colorado Water Institute and CSU Extension

A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas ...

A Dust Bowl storm approaches Stratford, Texas in 1935. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The airing of Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl last month brought greater attention to the Great Plains drought that began last year and extended into 2012.  This documentary is another in a long lineage of inspired works on the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s that ruined millions of cropland acres and rippled hardship across the central United States for decades.  Nevertheless, the Dust Bowl has generally faded into distant memory as farming practices improved and irrigation methods advanced and the country as a whole generally experienced stability in its food supply since that time.  In other words, despite the harshness of the recent drought, we simply don’t feel the pain of farming’s travails as we once did.  For instance, I always feel like there is a slight emotional disconnect between farmers and those who report on how the drought is affecting them.  The disconnect tends to manifest itself when, for example, a farmer describes amount of crops lost and the interviewer gets the information on an intellectual level but rarely seems to grasp the gravity of the situation.   Again, this disconnect seems be a result of the fact that food supplies are not currently in any jeopardy in the United States.  But imagine for a second that instead of cropland, we were talking about shelves at the grocery store and shortages on those shelves.  I suspect that urgency of the drought would be more evident if the issue of food security was more directly tangible as a function of water supplies.  For the most part, however, food consumers are still insulated from the hardships experienced by food suppliers, so the disconnect persists.

Hugh Hammond Bennett

Hugh Hammond Bennett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bridging the gap between consumers and producers of food has always been challenging, but Hugh Hammond Bennett was a man who succeeded vastly in this role.  Bennett was born to a farming family in 1881 in Anson County, North Carolina.  After graduating from the University of North Carolina he went to work for the USDA Bureau of Soils, which had just begun mapping county-based soil surveys.  His early work convinced him that soil erosion was not just an agronomic problem, but a problem for rural economies as well.  As a prolific writer, he succeeded in drawing national attention to “to the evils of this process of land wastage and to the need for increased practical information and research work relating to the problem.”   Among his writings, a USDA bulletin coauthored with William Ridgely Chapline titled Soil Erosion: A National Menace (1928) is considered the most influential.  Although the bulletin was not considered a technical manual, it aroused much needed attention to the “evils” and “wastage” and “menace” of soil erosion.  That kind of language might seem hyperbolic these days, but at the time it was apparently just what Bennett needed to push for the establishment of the Soil Erosion Service and Soil Conservation Service and become the first director and chief of those agencies.

The early Soil Conservation Service is widely credited with the furthering the adoption of conservation tillage practices that encourage leaving crop residue on the soil surface to reduce splash detachment of soil particles, promote infiltration and reduce Aeolian (wind) erosion, the last impact being most dominant during the Dust Bowl.   These practices have spawned an array of similar tillage systems, such as “no-till” (aims for 100% ground cover), strip, mulch, rotational, ridge, and zone tillage, all intended to maintain soil stability.  Although droughts are still harsh on farming systems, the use of these tillage practices is credited with staving off the dreadful impacts of future droughts and is still one of the cheapest and most effective methods to prevent soil quality diminishment.  A great video resource is offered by Ray Archuletta, NRCS Agronomist who brings enthusiasm to the subject of soil conservation with numerous practical examples.

Bennett was able to encourage adoption where others might have failed because, as one of his peers noted, he “combined science with showmanship.”  He was known for a kind of evangelism for soil conservation and showcased an unabashed zeal that was sorely needed to convey the urgency of the Dust Bowl disaster and the threat it posed to national security.  He essentially embodied a movement, not just an agenda or policy, and was heralded as the “Father of Soil Conservation.”

Below are some of Bennett’s more famous quotes, which are just as apropos today as they were when he spoke them, with some minor commentary on my part.

 “Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.”

Here we see Bennett’s knack for adding literary flourish to his message of soil conservation.  Over the years, it became commonplace to use the term “soil health” as a catch-all to describe soils in reference to their various properties, but it also reminds us that soil is a living ecosystem.  Bennett helped establish the link between the health of our soils and our “human life.”

National action may be led and aided by government, but the soil must be conserved ultimately by those who till the land and live by its products.”

The last part of this quote is highly informative.  In fact, Bennett aggravated many farmers, who felt that he was excessively critical of their farming practices.  Bennett most likely meant farmers, producers, and growers in his reference to those who “live by its products,” in other words, “earn income through agriculture.”  However, farmers generally grow crops in response to a market system of demand for their product however, so I would argue that a wider understanding of Bennett’s statement includes all of us that consume and “live by” agricultural products.

Too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food.

This last quote is perhaps the most timeless, and in fact was later articulated by Aldo Leopold, who referred to what he called the “two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm,” which were to suppose that “breakfast comes from the grocery” and “heat comes from the furnace.”  Despite the despondent tone, Bennett was heartfelt and I simply read this as fatherly reminder and not an admonishment. Food security is still not a topic that is integrated into common dialogue, but Bennett was ahead of his time in noting this fact.

Although thestatement borders on lament, it is still correct.  Resolving this disconnect will be difficult, as our everyday consumption of food is still so remarkably supported and practically guaranteed by the agricultural industry.  Obviously, the drought has lessons to teach and that much goes without saying.  The Colorado Water Conservation Board and other state entities have done a commendable job this year in keeping the drought out in the forefront as an emergency affecting our water supplies.  The connection that warrants more attention, however, is the essential fact of the drought’s impact on soil health and consequently our long-term food security.

Read more about agriculture in Colorado in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters Magazine.

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