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The legacy of the ‘Dust Bowl’, or have we learned anything?

OP: The 'Dust Bowl' refers to "the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the 'Great Plow Up,' followed by a decade-long drought in the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation". (More on the history of this is below.) Canada was also affected (i.e. in Saskatchewan, one of the 'prairie provinces').
U.S. ​Pays Farmers Billions To Save The Soil. But It's Blowing Away

Buried machinery in barn lot in Dallas, S.D., during the Dust Bowl in 1936.

Neil Shook was relaxing at home in Woodworth, N.D., on a Saturday afternoon just over a week ago.

"My wife was outside and she yelled at me to come outside and take a look at this," he recalls.

A massive brown cloud covered the horizon to the west. It was a dust storm — although Shook, who's a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn't like to call it dust. "I like to refer to it as soil, because that's basically what it is," he says. "We saw this huge soil cloud moving from west to east across the landscape."

That soil cloud is a result of farming practices — and of government policies.

Soil has been blowing away from the Great Plains ever since farmers first plowed up the prairie. It reached crisis levels during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when windblown soil turned day into night.

In recent years, dust storms have returned, driven mainly by drought. But Shook — and others — say farmers are making the problem worse by taking land where grass used to grow and plowing it up, exposing vulnerable soil.

"The first soil storm that I saw was in 2013. That was about the height of all the grassland conversion that was happening in this area," he says.

This is where federal policy enters the picture. Most of that grassland was there in the first place because of a taxpayer-funded program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rents land from farmers across the country and pays them to grow grass, trees and wildflowers in order to protect the soil and also provide habitat for wildlife.

It's called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Ten years ago, there was more land in the CRP than in the entire state of New York. In North Dakota, CRP land covered 5,000 square miles.

But CRP agreements only last 10 years, and when farming got more profitable about a decade ago, farmers in North Dakota pulled more than half of that land out of the CRP to grow crops like corn and soybeans. Across the country, farmers decided not to re-enroll 15.8 million acres of farmland in the CRP when those contracts expired between 2007 and 2014.

Environmentalist Craig Cox wants this on-again, off-again cycle of land protection to end.

"One of the fundamental problems is that we're not making lasting change," he says.

Cox is in charge of advocacy and research on agricultural policy at the Environmental Working Group. The EWG just released a report calling for big changes in how the Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars in conservation money.

According to Cox, when farmers decide to take land out of the CRP, it means that most of the money spent on environmental improvements on that land is wasted. "The benefit is lost really quickly," he says.

He says that instead of renting land for 10 years, the government should buy more easements — legal restrictions ensuring, for instance, that a farmer cannot plow a piece of land for the next 30 years … or forever.

It takes a lot of money to buy easements, so the government would have to focus on places where protecting land does the most good; where it limits water pollution most effectively, for instance, or keeps most soil from blowing away in the wind.

"If you're really targeting the most environmentally sensitive lands, and you're providing permanent protection, we're going to be able to get a lot more return for the investment that taxpayers are making," he says.

The government already is doing this on a small scale. The USDA used to buy easements to protect wetlands, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Program buys "conservation easements" that restrict a landowners right to farm particular parcels of land. In North Dakota, there's a waiting list of farmers who'd like to get into this program, and get paid to permanently protect their soil with grass.

OP: The following is about the history of the 'Dust Bowl' in the United States. It's also interesting because it shows how this problem has been ignored since the Ogallala aquifer was found. Unfortunately, this aquifer is nearing depletion.

I refer you also the really great documentary by Ken Burns (i.e. which I saw on PBS) about the history of the 'Dust Bowl' and its huge human impact during the 1930s.
The Great Plow-Up

Farmer with tractor and plows in field; rear view of disking with a Big 4 tractor, pulling seven six-foot disks. c. 1910-1915.

In the 1910s and 1920s the southern Plains was "the last frontier of agriculture" according to the government, when rising wheat prices, a war in Europe, a series of unusually wet years, and generous federal farm policies created a land boom – the Great Plow-Up that turned 5.2 million acres of thick native grassland into wheat fields. Newcomers rushed in and towns sprang up overnight.

As the nation sank into the Depression and wheat prices plummeted from $ 2 a bushel to 40 cents, farmers responded by tearing up even more prairie sod in hopes of harvesting bumper crops. When prices fell even further, the "suitcase farmers" who had moved in for quick profits simply abandoned their fields. Huge swaths of eight states, from the Dakotas to Texas and New Mexico, where native grasses had evolved over thousands of years to create a delicate equilibrium with the wild weather swings of the Plains, now lay naked and exposed.

"Unless something is done," a government report predicted, "the western plains will be as arid as the Arabian desert."

The huge Black Sunday storm as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935.

Three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust. Lakin, Kansas, 1935.

The Dirty Thirties

Then the drought began. It would last eight straight years. Dust storms, at first considered freaks of nature, became commonplace. Static charges in the air shorted-out automobiles on the road; men avoided shaking hands for fear of shocks that could knock a person to the ground. Huge drifts of dirt buried pastures and barnyards, piled up in front of homesteaders' doors, came in through window cracks and sifted down from ceilings.

Some 850 million tons of topsoil blew away in 1935 alone. "Unless something is done," a government report predicted, "the western plains will be as arid as the Arabian desert." The government's response included deploying Civilian Conservation Corps workers to plant shelter belts; encouraging farmers to try new techniques like contour plowing to minimize erosion; establishing conservation districts; and using federal money in the Plains for everything from grasshopper control to outright purchases of failed farms.

Sand drifts. Dalhart, Texas. June 1938.

"We Survived"

In 1944 just as it had thirty years earlier, a war in Europe and the return of a relatively wet weather cycle brought prosperity to the southern Plains. Wheat prices skyrocketed, and harvests were bountiful.

In the first five years of the 1940s land devoted to wheat expanded by nearly 3 million acres. The speculators and suitcase farmers returned. Parcels that had sold for $ 5 an acre during the Dust Bowl now commanded prices of fifty, sixty, sometimes a hundred dollars an acre. Even some of the most marginal lands were put back into production.

Lessons of the Dust Bowl

Then, in the early 1950s, the wet cycle ended and a two-year drought replaced it. The storms picked up once more. Bad as the "Filthy Fifties" were, the drought didn't last as long as the "Dirty Thirties." The damage to the land was mitigated by those farmers who continued using conservation techniques. And because nearly four million acres of land had been purchased by the government during the Dust Bowl and permanently restored as national grasslands, the soil didn't blow as much. At least a few lessons had been learned.

But now, instead of looking to the skies for rain, many farmers began looking beneath the soil, where they believed a more reliable – and irresistible — supply of water could be found: the vast Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground reservoir stretching from Nebraska to north Texas, filled with water that had seeped down for centuries after the last Ice Age. With new technology and cheap power from recent natural gas discoveries in the southern Plains, farmers could pump the ancient water up, irrigate their land, and grow other crops like feed corn for cattle and pigs, which requires even more moisture than wheat.

Writer Timothy Egan calls the Dust Bowl "a classic tale of human beings pushing too hard against nature, and nature pushing back."

An auto parked in front of a sand drift. Dalhart, Texas.

The same auto parked in the same location, after Soil Conservation Service workers have returned the dunes to grassland. The soil is now able to sustain a healthy mix of grasses and other crops. October 1941.

"We want it now – and if it makes money now it's a good idea. But if the things we're doing are going to mess up the future it wasn't a good idea. Don't deal on the moment. Take the long-term look at things. It's important that we do the right thing by the soil and the climate. History, is of value only if you learn from it."

Wayne Lewis, Dust Bowl survivor


OP doesn't hold out much hope given the current administration, of course.

Source: ONTD_Political

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