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What made the Dust Bowl?

Does your grandmother have a special drawer in her kitchen containing a ball made of elastic bands, a collection of string, and a box of odd buttons? Does she have a closet or a shelf full of canned food? Chances are she does, especially if she lived through the Depression in the 1930s.

The Depression, which ended with the declaration of World War Two in September 1939, was a terrible experience for city dwellers, but for farmers in the arid plains of central North America, it could be fatal. And, those who did survive often lost their homes and their land, victims of drought, successive plagues of pests, and the inability to pay the taxes and mortgages on their failed farms.

Times were already hard because of the 1929 stock market crash, but a 2014 study discovered that the drought of 1934 was the worst in 1,000 years [] A high pressure ridge over the West Coast in the winter of 1933-1934 dried things out, but then the huge dust storms, caused in part by the agricultural practices of the day, made things far, far worse by suppressing further rainfall. By blocking sunlight, the masses of dust, caused in part by poor farming practices, prevented water from evaporating into rain clouds. The pattern of successive droughts and dust storms, combined with twisters, plagues, and record high and low temperatures carried on until 1940. To add further to the “perfect storm” of conditions, warm ocean temperatures in parts of the Pacific and the Atlantic meant that the winds that would usually carry humid air and rainfall to the area shifted north and away. []

Millions of acres of agricultural land were affected with the topsoil blowing away in the dust storms that followed the drought. In 1937 alone, 72 separate storms ravaged the landscape, with plumes of black dust reaching 1000 feet high, blown east as far as New York City. Twenty-seven states or 75 per cent of the continental US was affected, with dust settling on ships as far as 200 miles out at sea in the Atlantic. []

What caused this environmental disaster? Besides the weather, there were historic and human factors that led inexorably to the Dust Bowl, a phrase first used by Associated Press journalist Robert Geiger. [] The vast grasslands of the central US, previously grazed by herds of buffalo, were settled by Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with settler families being granted hundreds of acres to cultivate. The problem was that the grass roots were anchoring the soil and when they were ploughed up to plant wheat, those anchors were destroyed. Year after year, the same crops were planted on the same land, and for a long time, the yields were terrific. 1926 saw a bumper crop. What the farmers didn’t know was that they were benefitting from a weather anomaly: usually arid lands were blooming under unprecedented rainfall. And, unfortunately, they believed that “the rain follows the plough,” and cultivating could lead to permanent climate change. The settlers who did have farming experience had farmed on the east coast of the US, where the rainfall is fairly dependable. So, when they found what they thought were the same conditions, they used the same farming methods that had succeeded there. []

The government did its best to address the disaster, but there was only so much that could be done. The largest migration of people in US history sent nearly 3 million people from Oklahoma, Texas, and other states to California. By comparison, the “Trail of Tears” forced migration, which sent the Cherokee off their lands affected more than 600,000 people but a greater percentage of them died on the trail.

A fascinating first-hand account of the conditions in North Dakota by the journalist Lorena Hickok (Eleanor Roosevelt’s constant companion), the lead investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, can be found here []

In 1934 alone, the federal government gave $1 million to the state of Utah for relief, but in the end it was the rain that came in November that gave the farmers some hope. []

In the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, American farmers learned valuable lessons about how to make the Great Plains support crops. [] Crop rotation, leaving some fields fallow to grow grass or even weeds to anchor the soil, planting trees, and contour ploughing were all tactics for use in fighting erosion.

In 2000 and in 2012, severe drought struck again, although the suffering was not on the scale of the 1930s. This time, although farmers plant and harvest in ways that are radically different from the early twentieth century, human action is still involved. Climate change means that overall temperatures have risen in the southern US, and so water dries up faster.[]

And, in 2014, scientists found near identical weather conditions to the 1934 drought: a ridge of high pressure lying over the western US, deflecting rainfall away from California, a state not badly affected by the Dust Bowl. []. I

in fact, in the thirties, it was to the farms of California that the people who left their land in Oklahoma and other badly affected states turned for work: the migrants followed the harvests of peas and other crops, finally earning some money. The Federal Relief Agency photographer Dorothea Lange photographed one such migrant, Florence Owens Thompson, and some of her children as they rested near the pea fields in northern California. "Migrant Mother" sold for more than $200,000 at auction in New York. Thompson and her family made it through the Depression and in later life, when she was identified as the subject of Lange's iconic photograph, she gave interviews correcting the information Lange had included with the print. They hadn't "sold their tires for food", otherwise "how would we have travelled?" Lange had not sent Florence a copy of the photo, even though she'd promised. And, contrary to another promise, Lange had published the picture. The story had a happy ending though: because of her position in history, Thompson's children raised $35,000 from the public to pay her medical expenses when she was dying in hospital.

The weather patterns in the 1930s were extreme, but the people affected did have somewhere to go. Twenty-first century drought has more global implications. The state of California is now the source of winter fruit and vegetables for most of North America, and the recent drought there has meant that prices have risen by a few dollars a pound for warm weather crops like celery. Modern trade agreements have centralised crops in certain areas: raw resources from Canada; food from the US; manufacturing from China, and so on. A weather catastrophe now means that supplies are less diffused and real shortages can occur.

Next week, we'll look at why celery costs nearly $5 a bunch and why water costs $1 a bottle. What are the global implications of a drought in our food pantry?

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