What is in this article?:
- Dust Bowl forced conservation efforts on U.S. farmers
- Worst drought in U.S. history
- Shelterbelts, terraces
• Eugene Littlefield is referring to the giant black clouds of soil that would blot out the sun and swallow the countryside.
• Littlefield says no matter how hard you tried to protect your equipment or vehicles, the fine sand would penetrate the carburetors and wind up in fuel lines, rendering equipment inoperable until it could be repaired.
• “They taught us about strip-till farming and the equipment we needed to have to farm in better ways. I really feel like the Graham-Hoeme chisel plow saved this country from blowing completely away.” — Eugene Littlefield
ROAD IS COVERED with sand and car is stalled out from dust storm that passed through. Tumbleweeds are piled up against the fences.
Worst drought in U.S. history
The plowing up of native grasslands across the Great Plains left vast stretches of soil exposed to drought and wind. The 1930s mark a decade of the worst drought in U.S. history. Planted seeds would shrivel and die in the ground before they could ever sprout. With no plants to trap the soil or moisture, the parched dirt turned to powder that was easily carried away by wind.
This loss of land and crops only further deepened the effects of the Great Depression, to the point that by 1933 more than 11,000 of the nation’s 25,000 banks had failed and unemployment was at a record high 25 percent.
The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres, centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. In December 1935, experts estimated that 850 million tons of topsoil had been blown off the Plains that year alone. The drought would linger four more years until rain finally brought relief in the fall of 1941.
Hard work preparing the land and planting the crops, was met with years and years of crop failure. With no crops to harvest and no grass for livestock to eat on their Swisher County farm, the Littlefields struggled along with so many, just desperate to survive.
“We were excited when my dad got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps to help build a road across Palo Duro Canyon,” Littlefield remembers. “But when they found out he was selling milk from our milk cow to the neighbors, they considered that a job and let him go so they could hire someone else that was unemployed.”
During this time there was one man who was strongly convinced he had a plan to keep so much of America’s top soil from blowing away.
In 1928, while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a chemist with the Bureau of Soils, Hugh Hammond Bennett wrote about the ongoing soil erosion issue in a government report.
“To visualize the full enormity of land impairment and devastation brought about by this ruthless agent is beyond the possibility of the mind. An era of land wreckage destined to weigh heavily upon the welfare of the next generation is at hand,” he wrote.
Through his experience with soil surveys, Bennett realized the effects of soil erosion and the negative impacts it had on agriculture. His persistent admonition about the devastation of farmland that was occurring across the nation’s landscape led Congress to establish the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now known as Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
The establishment of the SCS marked the beginning of federal funding and natural resource education to landowners, especially farmers.
States established state soil conservation agencies and procedures whereby local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) could be formed in counties across the U.S. SCS assistance was delivered at the direction of the local SWCD board, made up of five landowners from across the county.
The agency employees would hold workshops and in some cases go door-to-door to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing and other beneficial farming practices.
The agency provided financial incentives to help farmers offset the costs of adopting some of these practices.
Littlefield remembers the local SWCD presenting a film about soil erosion at his Wayside Grade School.
“I remember the conservation service men coming by to teach us how to put nutrients back in the soil by rotating our crops,” Littlefield says.