When the Dust Settled

U.S. Farm Bill Conservation Programs Have Roots in Dirty Thirties

Words by Woody Guthrie

Farmers use plows to turn the soil for planting. Intense cultivation in the Great Plains in previous decades was one of the causes of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Native prairie grasses have deep roots that keep soil in place. When these plants were tilled up, shallow-rooted plants like wheat and corn couldn’t stop erosion.

Over-plowing, coupled with a severe drought, led to one of the world’s worst man-made ecological disasters: The Dust Bowl.

A dust storm envelops houses in Stratford, Texas, 1935. These massive storms, called ‘black blizzards’ or ‘black rollers,’ could reduce visibly to just a few feet.

Residents of the Great Plains were in danger of dust pneumonia, a possibly fatal illness that results when lungs are filled with dust.

A Dust Bowl farmer raises his fence to keep it from being buried in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936.

In an effort to humanize the Dust Bowl, the Farm Security Administration hired photojournalists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

This iconic image known as “Migrant Mother” depicts Florence Owens Thompson and two of her seven children looking for work in California.

Lange took six photographs of Thompson and her family. Despite the photo’s fame, Thompson’s identity remained unknown until 1978.

In 1935, soil conservation pioneer and Soil Erosion Service director Hugh Hammond Bennett (right) timed his speech to Congress to coincide with an approaching dust storm.

As the sun was blotted out and dust fell on the Capitol, Bennett said, “This, gentlemen, is what I’ve been talking about.” Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act in 1936.

By 1940, 2.5 million residents of the Great Plains had been displaced by the Dust Bowl. It remains the largest migration in American history in that short a time period.

Approximately 15 percent of the population of Oklahoma alone left the state. Called ‘Okies,’ their plight was depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Conservation programs initiated by the Soil Conservation Service, as well as farming practices like terracing and contour plowing, helped stop erosion and end the Dust Bowl.

Many of these conservation measures continue in the U.S. Farm Bill. Since 2008, The Nature Conservancy has helped guide $200 million per year to priority landscapes and watersheds.


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