Could the catastrophic dust storm along I-55 in Illinois in May have been prevented? YES! If the farmland had been in continuous no-till with cover crops, there would have been no dust. No dust. No deaths. No injuries. No crashed vehicles. No drivers upset because the main highway from Chicago to St. Louis was shut down for almost 24 hours. The tragedy of the infamous Dust Bowl era of 1930s was repeated on I-55 in the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt region.

Dust storms are major problems in the world's drylands and in the U.S. Great Plains and Southwest where annual rainfall is about 5-20 inches. A catastrophic dust storm does not need to happen in the nation’s highly productive corn belt where 40 inches of annual rainfall is common.

Unfortunately, a rare and intense dust storm caused a 90-vehicle pileup on May 1, 2023, at about 10:55 a.m. in Montgomery County in central Illinois on Interstate 55, about 30 miles south of Springfield. Seven people died, and 30 people were hospitalized. The accident involved 30 commercial trucks and more than 50 passenger vehicles. Visibility was near zero after 55-mph winds carried soil dust from newly tilled fields across both lanes of the highway.

The unintended consequences of intensive tillage — usually one pass in the fall and 1-2 more passes before planting in spring — includes soil erosion by water and wind; decreased soil, water and air quality; and the loss of soil organic matter/carbon that is the heart and soul of soil health. Soil dust from both tilled and bare fallow farmlands pose severe risks to public health and transportation safety as illustrated in this recent catastrophe.

Dust storms are not a minor inconvenience. They can have a major impact on our environmental quality and the health and well-being of humans and animals. A research article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society recently reported a total of 232 deaths from windblown dust events from 2007 to 2017, with dust fatalities most frequent over the southwest Great Plains. It is interesting that nonagricultural researchers have been collecting quantitative data about the impacts of dust storms on humanity and agricultural production for years. Minimizing dust storms will require widespread adoption of new and improved agricultural practices that preserve, protect and regenerate our soil, and our welfare, along with the environmental and food security.

Is Dust Soil?

Dust particles are very small soil particles. Dust storms are primarily the result of turbulent wind systems lifting and carrying small soil particles into the air. Those soil particles are valuable! The dust is usually our best topsoil and contains nutrients necessary for plant growth. When combined with dry weather and windy conditions, tillage disturbance can create chaos on our fields and adjacent highways. Tillage not only sets the soil up for erosion and degradation, it causes carbon and water loss — and decreases the quality of soil, water and air — leading to environmental degradation and food insecurity. In addition, tillage-induced dust storms damage crops, delay transportation, disrupt commerce and reduce the recreational value of all landscapes10. Is this the way we want to treat our beloved soils that we depend on for food and other essential ecosystem services? 

Slow to Learn Conservation Lessons

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s is perhaps the best-known and most often quoted example of large-scale wind erosion and dust-storm activity anywhere in the world. The core of the Dust Bowl area comprised much of the U.S. Great Plains when the most severe dust storms ("black blizzards") occurred between 1933 and 1938, with activity related to the plow and usually at a maximum during the spring. The single worst day of the Dust Bowl was April 14, 1935, known as Black Sunday. These experiences led to the development of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935 that evolved into NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) in 1994.

No-tillage research began in the 1960s. The development of efficient herbicides initially made no-till a more popular soil conservation practice. Now, both weed and erosion control are being enhanced using cover crop mixes. The economic cost of losing 5-10 tons per acre of topsoil per year, with attached nutrients, is shameful when soil erosion can be reduced to a few pounds per acre, not tons, with no-till and other conservation practices.

Cause & Solutions of Soil Dust Storms

The 3 requirements for severe soil dust storms are dry weather, windy conditions, and bare or tilled soil surfaces. From a farm management perspective, we have little or no control over dry weather and windy conditions; as a result, the main management decisions relate to the soil surface and tillage decisions. Transitioning from intensive moldboard plow tillage to no-tillage minimizes soil loss and degradation2. Adding cover crops to continuous no-till offers many benefits: erosion control, increasing organic matter, nitrogen fixation, increasing water infiltration, better soil structure, improving the soil microflora, and helping sustain or increase yields through healthier soils.

Education is Key

While no-till showed promise with respect to decreasing soil erosion, having living plants and roots as long as biologically possible providing biomass is essential. Some time was required to understand the complexity and interactions of the natural systems and put them in proper context to farm in nature’s image. No-tillage reduces erosion losses, tends to maintain the level of soil organic carbon, reduces the detrimental effects on soil quality, retains soil moisture, and lowers the input costs of fuel, labor and machinery2.

No-tillage as a single practice was not sufficient to provide economic and environmental benefits with profitable yields. The combination of no-till, cover crops and crop diversity are the three pillars of Conservation Agriculture Systems (CAS). Several prominent researchers suggest adopting CAS for erosion control, improve soil and water management outcomes, protect the environment, and achieve food security11 7 8 3 .

The 3 primary principles of CAS are:
1. Minimum soil disturbance
2. Continuous plant biomass cover
3. More crop biodiversity in rotations and cover crop mixes9 15 16 18 19

While minimum soil disturbance broadly refers to the physical disturbance of the soil, it can also encompass unnatural forms of chemical and biological disturbance. CAS tends to decrease agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Education is required for the 3 principles to be broadly accepted as a sustainable agriculture system. This major educational process must continue as more innovative ideas and concepts evolve that serves as a foundational basis of other types of sustainable agriculture, such as sustainable intensification, regenerative agriculture, soil health farming and carbon farming.

The solution is more education for farmers. The biggest challenge is changing the mindset about the need for soil tillage6. Tillage has been a part of agriculture for 12,000 years. That’s a long tradition, making it difficult to convince farmers to change to a system developed over the last 60 years2

Slowly, the concept of a living soil system and the importance of soil biology is being understood and accepted. In addition, the unknown risks can be significant and require enhanced management skills as new technology and equipment evolves that requires much data collection to make improved management decisions.

Another area where farmer education can be enhanced is in developing independent farmer-led networks with farmers as mentors. Conferences, field days and other programs organized to educate farmers, crop consultants, agricultural business representatives, ag science teachers and professors are essential. Experienced farmers with positive attitudes and credibility with a little passion are effective communicating with and teaching other farmers. They can also provide their fields for on-farm research. In that way, these farmers help educate the educators.

Policy Changes

The current crop insurance policy reinforces poor farming practices. Basing crop insurance on CAS principles would encourage adoption of practices that prevent soil erosion from water and wind. The resulting resilient soils provide a level of insurance (consistent crop yields).

Important policy decisions are included in the Farm Bill, a package of legislation passed roughly once every 5 years that has a tremendous impact on agricultural production and farming livelihoods. The new Farm Bill, probably in 2024, should emphasize education and funding to get more CAS on farmland. Understanding the 3 primary principles of CAS needs to be provided to the entire agriculture community for truly sustainable production for future generations. Provisions for enabling the development of farmer-led networks should be encouraged to ensure the continuation of sustainable production more effectively than traditional forms of education. Organizations — such as the Ohio No-Till Council, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance and No-Till on the Plains — should be funded to organize events for education of farmers on CAS practices. Payments to farmers based on practices and land use for ecosystem services, like the CRP program in the Farm Bill of 1987, are needed to promote the adoption of conservation agriculture. 

"As a former chief of the Soil Conservation Service and one of several farmers who started as early as the 1950s developing no-till, I know we have the technology to help address the blowing dust problems," Bill Richards says. "I believe we producers have the duty and responsibility to use the best technology available to protect our land, soil and water while producing food, feed, fiber and fuel for the world. However, we should not be asked or required to go beyond what’s scientifically sound and economic for us producers and our families. That’s where public policy dedicated to soil conservation practices must be addressed in our next Farm Bill."

The recent soil dust cloud catastrophe in central Illinois is just another alarm bell and wakeup call from Mother Nature suggesting that all of agriculture needs to implement more sustainable production practices. The loss of human life with this and other verified dust storm incidents should provide a strong justification for the need to apply CAS widely. Farm Bill programs that promote further conservation innovation through payments for ecosystem services, training and new ideas, along with farmer and consumer education programs, are essential. We owe it to future generations.


1. Tong, Daniel, Irene Feng, Thomas E. Gill, Kerstin Schepanski, and Julian Wang. 2023. How Many People Were Killed by Windblown Dust Events in the United States? The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society-(in press): pp 1-38.?? . 10 Mar 2023. DOI:

2. Lal, R., D. C. Reicosky and J. D. Hanson. 2007. Evolution of the plow over 10,000 years and the rationale for no-till farming. Soil and Tillage Research, 93: 1–12. doi: 10.1016/j.still.2006.11.004.

3. Lal, R., Mohtar, R. H., Assi, A. T., Ray, R., Baybil, H. and Jahn, M. 2017. Soil as a basic nexus tool: soils at the center of the food–energy–water nexus. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports 4(3), 117–29. doi:10.1007/s40518-017-0082-4. 

4. Faulkner, Edward H. 1943. Plowman's Folly. Grosset & Dunlap Publishers. New York 

5. Steinbeck, J., 1939. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books, New York

6. Islam, R.  and R. Reeder. 2014. No-till and conservation agriculture in the United States: An example from the David Brandt farm, Carroll, Ohio. International Soil and Water Conservation Research. 2(1): 97-107.

7. Montgomery, D. R. 2007a. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

8. Montgomery, D. R. 2007b. Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(33), 268–272.

9. Lal, R. 2015. A system approach to conservation agriculture. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 70(4): 82A–88A. doi: 10.2489/jswc.70.4.82A.

10. UNEP, WMO, UNCCD, 2016. Global Assessment of Sand and Dust Storms. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi. Edited by Gemma Shepherd, UNEP.

11. Pimentel, David. 2006. Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat. Environ Dev Sustain 8:119–137.

12. Malty, J. 1982. 'Dust, Clouds, Rain Types and Climatic Variations in Tropical North Africa', Quaternary Research 18, 1-16.

13. Pye, K. 1987. Aeolian Dust and Dust Deposits, Academic Press, London.

14. Goudie, A. S.  and Middleton, N. J. 1992. The Changing Frequency of Dust Storms Through Time. Climatic Change 20:197-225.

15. Kassam, A., ed, 2020a. Advances in Conservation Agriculture, Volume 1: Systems and Science. Cambridge, UK: Burleigh Dodds. Pp 602.

16. Kassam, A., ed, 2020b. Advances in Conservation Agriculture, Volume 2: Practice and Benefits. Cambridge, UK: Burleigh Dodds. Pp 498.

17. Kassam, A., ed, 2022. Advances in Conservation Agriculture, Volume 3: Adoption and Spread. Cambridge, UK: Burleigh Dodds. Pp 692.

18. Reicosky, D.C. and Kassam, A. 2021. Conservation Agriculture: Carbon and conservation centered foundation for sustainable production. In: Lal, R., ed. Advances in soil science, soil organic matter and feeding the future: environmental and agronomic impacts. Boca Raton, Florida, USA: Taylor & Francis Group, pp 19–64.

19. Duiker, S., 2022. Conservation Agriculture in the USA. In: Kassam A, ed. Advances in Conservation Agriculture, Volume 3: Adoption and spread. Cambridge, UK: Burleigh Dodds, pp 49–78.