The farmers’ practices, borrowed from the higher rainfall regions of the East, no longer translated. “They’re entering this landscape, this environment of the semi-arid plains that they weren’t familiar with, and applied these old farming techniques and just assumed it would work. The wet years gave them confidence it was fine, and then the dry years came along and hit them,” Julie Courtwright, an associate professor of history at Iowa State University, told Teen Vogue.
The farmers accidentally helped create the perfect confluence of factors to feed major dust storms. While native grasslands had deep root structures that held the soil in place even in drought periods, the short roots of newly planted wheat couldn’t stop the soil from being carried away by high winds once the plants died.
“The Dust Bowl is really an erosion event. When the soil is exposed to the elements, wind can rather easily mobilize topsoil, which is where all of the nutrients for plants are. These were highly fertile soils, which is why farmers gravitated [towards] them, but when the land lost its productive topsoil, farmers were no longer able to support agricultural activity on the land and it created all sorts of horrible scenes across the country,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced who is now President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Soil loss is such a serious issue, she added, because it takes 100 years to create an inch of soil.
At some point in the 1930s, dust was blowing across the entire western grasslands, from Texas north to Canada, but the worst of it was concentrated in the panhandle of the southern plains. The majority of people, many of them poor already, were invested emotionally and financially in the land, and didn’t have the resources to leave, Iowa State Professor of History Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, told Teen Vogue. About a quarter of the Dust Bowl population ultimately left, mostly to California, but the rest stayed and endured. Several thousand people also died, primarily from “dust pneumonia.”
“From February through August, there were days when the air was just filled with dirt, and it was miserable. It’s really wearing on people, and on top of that they have the Great Depression, which means everything is just worse,” said Riney-Kehrberg, pointing to widespread food insecurity in the region.
The scenes of human hardship and environmental degradation shocked the country, and officials in Washington debated whether they should employ the Resettlement Administration to move people out of the area. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, wanted to help save the land and people, implementing a series of ambitious programs to restore the Great Plains as part of the New Deal. The Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation brought food to those destitute in the Dust Bowl, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and National Youth Administration, helped provide jobs, and critical income, to the nearly quarter of the unemployed population, putting them to work on public works and service projects.
Perhaps most important for the rehabilitation of the region was the Soil Conservation Service. The program brought soil experts into and from the Dust Bowl to teach erosion prevention and soil and water conservation techniques, and paid some farmers to return their land to native grasslands. It also established soil conservation districts that helped farmers band together to prevent erosion in their region. “A lot of what the soil conservation districts did was shift from hyper-individualism behavior to community-based organization and a realization that what happened to you affected your neighbors, so it’s important to cooperate and collaborate to enact some form of erosion control measures,” said Cook. By the 1940s the rains returned, and with new sustainable management practices in hand, the region was able to weather future droughts without causing major dust storms.