With a historic drought pounding the U.S. this year, an important question is being raised once again: Could we see another Dust Bowl era in the U.S.?
PBS and director Ken Burns recently weighed in on this as they published videos, photos and other information from this ecological disaster during the 1930s.
I would like to think modern agricultural practices will keep the Dust Bowl as a distant memory. Some 88 million acres (35% of the total) of farmland is no-tilled in the U.S., compared to only about 3.3 million when this magazine was founded in 1972. Yet, editors here regularly hear skepticism of no-tilling.
So are we doomed to repeat history? Let’s look at the statements of two farmers connected to this documentary:
• “We had the best wheat crop we had had in 1929 and everything was looking up,” says one farmer from the Dust Bowl era who was interviewed. “We were just too selfish, and we were trying to make money. And it didn’t work out.”
• A farmer from Minnesota commenting on this documentary: “I'm guilty of practicing some tilling techniques for short-term gain, even though washout erosion can be especially severe in my area. No-till drastically reduces yield, especially in consecutive years. It's still all about money and getting a crop at all costs, even if in a hundred years large amounts of topsoil will be gone for good.”
In the 1920s, just ahead of the Dust Bowl arriving, prices were good, rainfall was adequate and mechanization was making farming much more efficient and profitable. The idea of turning over 30 million acres of native prairie for agricultural expansion for “factory farming” was looked upon as favorable.
“Soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” a federal agency proclaimed at the time. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”
Today, prices are good again, farms are consolidating, farmland prices are skyrocketing and CRP land is being put into production. Agriculture is bigger than ever as costs and competition weed out the weak.
No-till, terraces, cover crops, precision farming and other developments have put us much further ahead than the farmers of the Dust Bowl. But turning away from this progress, solely for profit, would be a big mistake.