A Fine Crop of Dust


Europe was hungry. World War I was raging, and many European farmers were now in the army. The nitrates that would have gone into fertilizer were being used to make munitions. So it was decided that the United States needed to grow more food. The way to do that was to plow formerly unused lands and plant wheat or corn on them. This came at a time when there was also a period of unusually high rainfall. That was fortunate in that it made a lot of marginal land productive. It was unfortunate because the extra rainfall didn’t last.

The encouragement to plant came from the U.S. Food Administration (USFA), which was founded as part of the Food and Fuel Control Act passed August 10, 1917. The USFA was created to encourage more food production and to control the distribution of agricultural products. So the USFA turned to the most traditional way to encourage an activity. They offered a bonus payment for every acre on which corn was planted. The bonus was enough to make corn growing profitable even on marginal land. Even less fertile soil in normally dryer states was used to grow wheat. The guaranteed high prices from the USFA subsidized the plowing of new lands in such states as Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. The soil in those states was normally too dry for wheat, but thanks to a few seasons of unusually high rains, large crops of wheat were possible.

When World War I ended so did the subsidies. A few of the new farms were able to get in several more good wheat crops, but many others were abandoned. Within a decade, there were only a few of the new farms left. They were replaced by ranchers raising cattle and horses, just like the farmers had replaced those ranchers when the land was first converted to crops. But there was a difference now. Before the land was farmed, the soil had been held together by the roots of sturdy, slow-growing grass. But that grass had all been plowed under. So with that ground cover gone, the hooves of the animals chewed up the unprotected soil.

Then in 1934, strong winds blew for weeks across the Southwest. Millions of acres of already pulverized soil turned to dust. Dust clouds, know as dusters or black blizzards, covered the skies. When they had ended, what little fertility the dry land once had was gone. So badly had the soil been ruined that any period of high winds created mini dust bowls up to as late as the 1950s.

For a few years, American wheat was able to feed the doughboys and our allies. The cost of that wheat was millions of acres of grazing land lost. The lives of tens of thousands of farmers were ruined and the Great Depression was made even worse. The drama was so tragic and widespread that it was the theme of one of John Steinbeck’s greatest novels, The Grapes of Wrath.

This pattern is recurring again today. In China the need for food led to the plowing of the lands adjoining their northern deserts. Today those deserts grow at a rate of 1,500 square miles per year and on some days the red dust clouds over Beijing are so thick that you cannot breathe without a mask. It appears this is one world-changing mistake we keep on making.

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