The Dust Bowl I

‘The Dust Bowl’. We all know what a bowl is, and the Dust Bowl is also based on the same shape.

In America (which is the continent, not the country), there are huge areas which are used for agriculture. For planting crops, for animals and for other types of cultivation.

In modern times, farmers in America and all over the world understand about how to use land properly.

In the 1930s, and a little bit before, much of America was low in population. Most of the people lived in cities or towns, and those who lived on the land worked to produce as much food as they could.

That sounds fine, but really, it was a bad idea. Farming is actually a very complicated thing to do, if you want to do it well. In the climate of America, it was very hard to get it right.

Does anyone know what we call the type of climate in America?
It’s a ‘temperate’ climate, which is a general mix of sunshine, rain, and everything in between.

In most Asian countries, the climate is one of which two types?
Tropical or sub-tropical. These are climate which are either like Thailand’s (sub-tropical - a mix of hot weather but with a heavy rainy season) or like Indonesia or Southern Malaysia (tropical climates), where they are mostly hot, but suffer from typhoons more than a distinctive rainy season.

In America in the early part of the last century, the government wanted people to become farmers so they could feed the growing general population.

They gave incentives for people to become farmers.

What’s an ‘incentive’?
A reward to encourage people to do something.

Lots of people saw an opportunity to go and make their fortunes as large-scale farmers with millions of rai as their land. Some didn’t even have to pay for it! All they had to do was turn up, sign a document and go out into the vast country, put up a fence or some markers and that land became theirs.

Great idea, right, to get land and make money. Do you think so?

Well, at first it all went very well. People who had been maybe office workers, factory workers, or manual labourers went to the Western parts of the country (that’s on the left side) and became farmers.

Can anyone see any problems with that?
They had no experience at all of how to manage the land, so it was bound to go wrong.

They started planting crops, wheat, barley, maize, vegetables, and when the time came around there was a harvest.

Who can tell me what ‘harvest’ means?
It’s the time when crops are cut, cleaned and sent to the markets.

The people were there to make money, so that’s what they did. Plant, grow, harvest. Year after year. That seems like a really good way to make money, and for a few years, all went very well and farmers made quite a lot of money.

But there’s one small problem with plant-grow-harvest, year after year.

Does anyone know what happens?
The soil loses all the minerals it has, the plants put down deeper roots and use up everything from deep down. The soil becomes exhausted.

That means that after only a few years, the soil itself had no more to give. No more minerals, not more nutrients, no more moisture (‘wetness’) either.

Very soon, crops started to fail; they simply could not grow because they had nothing to use as ‘food’. Just like us, if we stop eating or drinking, we die a horrible death. Plants may not have feelings in the same way that we do, but as they are living things, they can die too. And that’s what they did. Seeds were planted, and they died in the soil.

Does anyone know why soil stays where it is?
That’s right - moisture and the roots of plants - crops, flowers, weeds, or even trees - keep the soil in one place more or less because their roots form a strong bond with the soil.

But they can only do that if there’s enough nutrient in the soil to make them grow. By the time the American farmers had used the land for a few years, the soil itself was dead too.

And what happens when soil is dead? It has no moisture and nothing grows. There’s nothing to hold the soil in place.

That’s exactly what happened in Mid-America. The dead soil was light, like very dry sand, so when a wind came along, it literally blew the soil away. Disaster!

Now, a little bit of wind is not strong enough to blow much of anything away. The thing about wind is that - the greater distance it blows, the strong it gets.

America is a vast continent, and if a tiny little wind starts in one place, by the time it arrives
1500 km away, it’s strong enough to blow you over.

And if it’s strong enough to blow a man over, it is certainly strong enough to … what?
That’s it! Blow the soil away.

Again - that’s exactly what happened in the farming lands of the Great American West. It was DUST - not snow or rain - just dead, dry soil.

That’s not snow, or even soil - it is what’s left of soil once the soil is dead. It becomes dust.

Sometimes the storms of dust were so thick, you couldn’t see even a metre in front of you. And that was that. The soil blew away, and the farmers could not grow anything.

What happened to them?
They became poor very quickly, lost their savings; if they had a mortgage (a loan from the bank to pay for new equipment or more land) they could either pay it back, or the bank took their land and equipment and even their cows, houses and sometimes even their clothes too!

And finally, almost the whole, huge area became like this - a bowl shaped massive area, filled with just dust, rotting houses, bones of animals, cars sunken into the dust … and lots of broken dreams.

So how could this happen?
Bad farming, no thought, no knowledge of farming techniques, no crop rotation.

You might wonder why the people went there to farm in the first place. As I wrote way back at the beginning, it was shown to them as a way to get rich quite quickly. 

What the government showed them were beautiful pictures of very green landscapes, plenty of moisture and great soil with lots of nutrients.

The problem was that the government only wanted people to be farmers. In fact, they fooled many people by showing pictures of the land after a few years of high rainfall - which was definitely NOT normal.

The government didn’t really care, they needed farmers to grow food for the expanding population.

Again, as we said before, the new farmers came from office jobs, factories or manual labourers, like car mechanics, road diggers and so on.

What did these people not have, did we say?
Knowledge of how to manage the land.

Do any of you know how to farm properly?

Probably not. It’s not just like planting, letting things grow and cutting them down to send to market.

Land must be managed, cared for and worked properly. The new farmers didn’t get any advice or training in how to farm - like most people, they thought all they had to do was buy seeds, put them in the ground and let nature do the rest, until the plants were big enough to cut and sell.

In a way, of course, that’s not far from the truth. But the soil  cannot live like that. 

Does anyone know about crop rotation?
What it means is, that if you have four fields, or 8, or 16, or 32 or 64 and so on, you have to leave one in every four doing nothing every year. A different quarter of your fields every year.

Something as simple as that means the fields can recover their nutrients, their moisture
and even the essential bacteria which keeps the soil alive. This diagram shows crop rotation.

Leaving that one field empty - or ‘fallow’ means that it can recover and will be ready for planting the next year, as good as new.

The new farmers didn’t know this, and so year after year, they planted all their fields. So, the soil died, the famers lost everything, the winds came and the soil blew away is terrible storms. Storms so horrible that you could not get away from the dust - it got into everything - houses, cars, up your nose, in your pants - even if you were hiding inside a house.

In the end, people packed up whatever they had left and had to move back to cities. A very sad, bad time for many families.

Not only did people lose almost everything, but they had no money so they had to work their way to wherever they were going. In this picture, they were going to California by way of Arizona, working by picking cotton to make a bit of money to continue their journey.

Some walked hundreds of kilometres.

That’s the very basic story of the Great American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.


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