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The Dust Bowl: How Ecological and Agricultural Change Worsened the Great Depression

Severe dust storms plagued the Great Plains region during the 1930s.

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  • A farmer and his two sons during an Oklahoma dust storm, 1936.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On April 14th, 1935, residents of the Oklahoma Panhandle noticed what looked like a black blizzard approaching from the horizon. It was actually a dust storm, one of the worst recorded in American history—and it happened in the middle of the Great Depression.

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The Great Depression was the worst global financial crisis in modern history. Nearly a century later, it remains a grim warning of the potential severity of economic downturn. Global GDP fell by about 15%, compared to less than 1% during the Great Recession of 2008; international trade fell by about 50%; many countries had to cease all construction and development. In the midst of this financial peril, a combination of ill-timed drought and years of farming by people with little knowledge of ecology led to one of the worst climate disasters in American history, leaving more than 500,000 people homeless.

The storm on April 14th, 1935 came to be called “Black Sunday.” It was a particularly powerful dust storm, one of many which devastated the Plains region of the United States during the mid-to-late 1930s. Both the time period in which these storms happened and the area that was afflicted are known as the “Dust Bowl.” 

The Dust Bowl covered an area where five states converged—Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico—but most severely impacted those in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Several factors contributed to the series of debilitating dust storms. 

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The population of the Dust Bowl area had grown after the Homestead Acts were issued around the turn of the century, and a period of unusually wet weather had given hope that the dry region could support large-scale agriculture. Recent advancements in agricultural technology also meant that farmers were able to operate more land with less labor. World War I drove up crop prices, further incentivizing farming in the region.

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  • The Black Sunday storm strikes a church in Ulysses, Kansas.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Years of deep plowing removed the deep-rooted grass that was anchoring the region’s topsoil in place. The result was an overabundance of crops on arid, unanchored soil that could lead to extreme erosion in especially dry conditions.

Subsequently, the Plains recorded some of the driest seasons that had been seen in decades. Eroded topsoil was then picked up by winds to create the towering “black blizzards,” which could spread to neighboring states and reduce visibility to less than a yard. Black Sunday saw a series of dust storms spread from Canada to southern Texas, stifling the air with thick clouds of dirt and eroding much of the farmland away. Dust storms had rocked the Midwest for the past several years, but it was the catastrophe of Black Sunday that led Spearman Reporter editor Edward Stanley to coin the term “Dust Bowl.”

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The timing could not have been worse. The area had already been plagued by drought for nearly half a decade, leading to several poor harvests in a row, and the Great Depression was in full force. Half a million people were left homeless by the damage caused by the storms; 350 houses were said to have been destroyed by one storm alone. Many died of dust pneumonia, and others of malnutrition. With their livelihoods and homes destroyed, thousands of families packed up everything they could into rickety jalopies and set off for better opportunities. The largest short-term migration in American history was underway.

The journey of roughly 3.5 million Midwesterners in the 1930s is immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which follows the plight of a family making their way to the promised land of California, where they were told they could make a living picking peaches. The migrants were often referred to as “Okies” or “Arkies,” even though they came from at least eight states, not just Oklahoma and Arkansas. Not all the migrants were former farmers; the Depression had put many white collar workers out of a job as well, and many made the trip west.

In the wake of the ecological devastation, government agencies and committees were asked to come up with ways to fight soil erosion, including several task forces specifically created to tackle the Dust Bowl. Detailed soil maps and aerial pictures were taken, along with belts of trees planted to shelter soil from the wind and anchor the loose dirt in place. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the Dust Bowl one of the focuses of his famous first 100 days in office, and signed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act into law in 1936. 

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The few farmers who remained behind in the Dust Bowl region were paid and given meat, fruit, flour, and cotton goods. Cattle were purchased by the government for $14 to $20 a head, providing a better price than local markets would fetch for them. The government paid to slaughter the cattle and distribute the meat to hungry families. The government also provided farmers with a dollar an acre if they used new soil conservation methods. By the end of the decade, regular rainfall returned to the Great Plains.

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  • Farm machinery buried by a dust storm, 1936.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Although the short-term ramifications of the Dust Bowl were obvious and brutal, many of the hardest hit regions suffered economic consequences for decades. 75% of the topsoil had been blown away. Land values declined, and only a fraction of the agricultural losses were recovered. Just as the rain returned and crops began to stabilize again, the United States entered World War II, once again dashing any hopes of economic stability.

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The plight of farmers caught in the Dust Bowl had an immediate effect on American culture. Besides the large-scale migration and the success of Steinbeck’s novel, photographer Dorothea Lange captured some of the most iconic images of Depression Era America in the Dust Bowl region, and folk music legend Woody Guthrie created one of the first concept albums with his 1940 classic Dust Bowl Ballads. A subgenre of country music known as the “Bakersfield Sound” emerged in the 1950s as the Okies’ folk traditions merged with West Coast rock and roll.

Today, wells and irrigation along with fertilizers and GMOs mean that most crops in the Dust Bowl will grow independent of how wet or dry that particular season is. However, human-caused climate change has had a worsening effect on the region in recent years, and severe dust storms have made an appearance again. While technology and soil quality have improved in the nearly 100 years since the Dust Bowl, it would be hard to imagine the catastrophic impact of a modern-day Black Sunday.