The Dust Bowl II

You will remember that we looked at pictures, and had a brief description of the situation, and about how farmers failed to get it right.

The result was… ?
The Dust Bowl.

The Dust Bowl affected 100 000 000 acres or 252 928 526.39 rai (400 000 square km), centred on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.

Who knows what ‘adjacent’ means?
Next to.

General knowledge (but related) vocabulary question: why do Americans call beggars ‘Panhandlers’?
It is because during the dust bowl years, all troubled people (whites and blacks) had no money and had to beg for money or food.

Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes; many of these families (often known as “Okies”, because so many came from Oklahoma) travelled to California and other states, where they found economic conditions little better than those they had left.

Why California, do you think?
California was known as a great place to live, with, even then, a higher standard of living and it was a developing area; so, jobs for all.

Owning no land, many travelled from farm to farm picking fruit and other crops at starvation wages. Author John Steinbeck later wrote ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and ‘Of Mice and Men’ about such people.

Causes of the Dust Bowl conditions (Booklet page 1)

Does anyone know where most American people come from?
Europe. There are many other places, but the majority of the dust bowl population were white Europeans.

They had their own ideas about how to ‘be farmers’, but there was one quite big problem with their ideas.

Does anyone know what that would be?
Their ideas were based on European farming methods, which were simply not right for the American Plains.

There wasn’t enough surface water to support farming in the European style - which uses lots of water because there’s lots of rain. There was not enough rain on the central plains of America. That’s why the farming methods would not work.

But as we saw, the government showed wonderful pictures of lush green land. It is true that for a few years before, there had been much more rain than usual. Naturally, it did not continue.

Technology was introduced, and that caused the soil to be ripped up with greater efficiency. Whereas before, men (and women) worked the soil and the land, machines such as tractors
could do their work in a fraction of the time, and do it better.

These days that’s a huge benefit, but not then.

After World War 1, agricultural prices increased, encouraging more people to emigrate to America - and to where they thought they would make their fortunes.

So, there was technology which made the situation worse, not better.

As I mentioned, though, the way in which people did their farming was not correct for the land. Nature has to be worked in the correct way to get the most out of it. For example, cotton farmers (booklet page 2). Cotton comes from plants. It grows mainly in the summer time, and in the temperate climate goes dormant.

What does ‘dormant’ mean?
To be alive but inactive for a long period of time.

So when the cotton plants were dormant, the farmers would burn off the upper parts of the plants, ready for new growth in the new year’s springtime. That’s a standard farming practice, certainly in Asia. But on the Plains, in winter time, when the plants are short and dormant, the winds are the most strong. 

A drought struck in 1934, drying out the soil even more.

What’s a drought?
A severe shortage of precipitation.

What’s precipitation normally called?

The normal way of the Plains to survive was that the spoil would be strongly rooted by the prairie grasses. But what had happened to those prairie grasses?

Yes. They’d been ploughed up by the farmers.

And that’s how it happened. Inappropriate farming methods, compounded by technology, caused the soil to dry out and then - the soil died, and the dust bowl effect started.

But why in this particular area?

Geographic characteristics

It is characterised by plains, but also, at the western side, has some ‘elevation’ (height) which ranges from 760m up to 1800m at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

It is a semi-arid area.

Can anyone define a ‘semi-arid’ area?
It has rain, but not much - about 50mm each year and usually less. It’s not a desert, because it can be cultivated.

When the rain falls normally, it is just about enough to support agriculture and farmers can make a good living, with a good income. When the rains do not come, though, crops fail. And the Great American Plains are prone to extended drought. Oddly, it is also prone to times when there’s a lot more rain than usual. 

As you know from before, the government thought that the actual climate had changed to provide more rain, and so they strongly encouraged the people to farm there. It had not changed. Not only that but there is one other factor which caused the dust bowl effect.

What was that?
The wind. The Great American plains are subject to high winds - higher winds than most of the continent.

The unusually wet period ended in 1930 and that was when the government started to encourage people to go and be farmers on the Great Plains.

Unfortunately, this was exactly the wrong time to get people to go there and farm; a drought started and lasted for a few years. Far too long to farm properly. This severe drought caused crops to fail, which left the soil open to getting eroded more and more.

The winds came from the West and blew soil, even actual objects, towards the East. (Page 3 in the booklet.)

Does anyone remember when of the most strong storms started?
November 11, 1930. It started by stripping the topsoil from parts of South Dakota; and it blew it far westwards.

Other bad storms happened in that same year, and the strongest storm of all that year happened in May. It lasted two days, and blew soil all the way to Chicago. It doesn’t look far on a tiny picture but it’s hundreds of kilometres.

But it didn’t stop there! The dust blew and blew until … the dust actually reached the east coast - and New York city. Now THAT’S a storm!

On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday”, twenty of the worst “Black Blizzards” occurred throughout the Dust Bowl, causing extensive damage and turning day to night; witnesses reported that they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points.

Human Displacement (Booklet page 3)

Who can tell me what ‘displacement’ generally means?
Usually displacement means an area of something moved when something else is put into it.

In this context, displacement means the number of people who HAD to move from their homes - they could not choose NOT to move. Well, they sort of could, but they would have died of starvation.

Even in the topmost part of the plains, into Canada, people had to move. They had a dust bowl effect too - but caused by drought, hailstorms, and weather which was not consistent.

Who can tell me what ‘hail’ is?
Frozen balls of water which fall like rain. They are ice, though and can be as big as tennis balls. That’s going to destroy crops.

These Canadian sufferers moved to the cities and were able to re-settle and develop lives there.

In the United States, the dust bowl effect caused more than half a million people to be left without homes. After only one of the storms, 356 houses had to be pulled down because they were too badly damaged.

Not only did people have to move, but some became very sick and died. Pneumonia was caused by the dust and the lack of food caused malnutrition.

Who can tell me a definition of ‘pneumonia’?
It’s when the lungs of a person fill up with fluid - or even dust; which stops the lungs from supplying oxygen to the body.

So there was a huge movement of people away from the land - land which they, in fact, had destroyed - into urban areas (towns and cities).

By 1940, 2 500 000 (two and a half million) people had left the Great Plains and moved to various towns and cities.

As we saw last lesson, though, it was not an easy journey for many of them. Migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, but all were generally referred to as “Okies”. (Map)

This was the largest migration of people until the period 1940 - 1970 which was not entirely connected with the dust bowl effect.

What the government did
The new president, Franklin Roosevelt, created programmes to restore the ecological balance of the area. The organisation still exists and is now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service. It looks after the ways in which people - and government - treat the land, use it and they try to make sure that people know how to correctly manage the land.

Also the president created the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRD); one important jobs of that corporation was to make sure that there was very little livestock taking up valuable resources such as feed. Six million pigs were slaughtered, to reduce the surplus amount of meat. 

What do you think happened to those 6 million pigs?
They were all wasted. Not eaten, not given away as cookable meat, but burnt or buried.

Another organisation was created - the Drought Relief Service. The function of this was to separate good cattle from bad, and the good ones were given to the FSRC and as meat, given to families all over the country.

Why all over the country?

At the same time as the dust bowl effects, there was also an economic depression, which means that many many people were unemployed. No job - no money. No money - no food. No food - no life.

Although the farmers that were left didn’t want to give up their herds of cows, many of them could survive as farmers - the government paid them for their cattle. A better price than they would have had from a local market.

And that’s not all!

The president started the Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted millions of trees. Trees stopped much of the wind, and therefore stopped the soil blowing away.

In addition, farmers who wanted to stay were given free education about how to actually farm properly according to the conditions.

The administration also began to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plough, terracing, and other improved farming practices.

In 1937, the federal government began an aggressive campaign to encourage Dust Bowlers to adopt planting and plough methods that conserved the soil.

The government paid the reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to practice one of the new methods. By 1938, the massive conservation effort had reduced the amount of blowing soil by 65 percent.

Even though, the land failed to provide enough money to live. In the Autumn of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the nearly decade long drought ended as regular rainfall finally returned to the region.

What’s a ‘decade’?
It just means a group of ten. Usually it means years, such as 2000 - 2009, but there are other meanings too. Wait a minute - 2000 - 2009? Yes. Those are ten years.

Lasting effects

The dust bowl didn’t only affect Americans and during that time. Next time, we will look at a few of the lasting effects.


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