How Soil Erosion and Farming Practices Lead to the Dust Bowl

In 1929, the United States stock market crashed, kickstarting a decade long period known as the Great Depression. The exact causes for this crash are heavily debated to this day, though common factors typically include overproduction of crop and industrial materials, overpricing of stock values, and easy credit/loan practices.  

Farmers were already in a tough spot leading up to the crash, struggling to make a profit in an oversaturated market that dramatically reduced the price on crops such as wheat. The crash further strained the agriculture industry.  

As 1929 came to a close, farmers likely thought things couldn’t get any worse. It turned out, they could. 

Like a Plague from Egypt 

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Great Plains became a popular settlement location for US farmers. Fertile soil and generally flat terrain made it perfect for crop growth and cultivation. Favorable climate conditions and a booming economy lead to prosperity for farmers across the land. 

But in the summer of 1930, less than a year after the stock market crash, America experienced an unusually dry season. This would continue over the next decade as farmers saw record dry spells and scorching temperatures.  

The once fertile soil had already been suffering due to farm practices of the time. The combination of dry weather, high temperatures, and damaged soil resulted in vegetation dying. This wasn’t just farm crops, but the surrounding plains grass that had once covered the region. The lack of vegetation led to high-speed winds that ripped across the barren plains. 

The weak and exposed topsoil was picked up by the wind, creating massive moving clouds of dirt and debris that swept over farmlands and towns like a Biblical plague.  

The Dust Bowl had begun. 

Dust storms, sometimes called “black blizzards”, ravaged most of America’s farmlands until the start of the 40s when regular rainfalls returned. Some would refer to the time as the Dirty Thirties, a near decade stretch of drought and dust. 

During that time, massive amounts of precious topsoil were eroded. One of the worst dust storms, referred to as “Black Sunday” highhandedly displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from Oklahoma, Texas, and more. 

What Caused the Dust Bowl? 

There’s no question that drought was a key cause of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But the soil had been enduring sustained damage long before that due to then-current farming practices. 

In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed, providing settlers with 160 acres of land to farm. Similar programs would follow at the start of the 1900s, leading to a rush of newer, less experienced farmers. In the Plains especially, farmers removed millions of acres of native grassland, replacing it with excessive wheat, corn, and other crops. 

The surplus of crops caused prices to fall, which then pushed farmers to remove natural buffers between land and plant additional crop to make up for it. The farmland was overtaxed, excessively plowed, and unprotected. The soil was weak and drained of its nutrients. 

When the drought came, the weak farmlands quickly folded. Since much of the native vegetation had been torn up, there was nothing to stop winds travelling across the land. The USDA had already been aware of the effects farming was having on soil conditions when the Dust Bowl hit. In 1933, they formed the Soil Erosion Service to help monitor and improve conditions. 

This would eventually lead to the creation of the NRCS, one of the organizations that now assists with the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP itself evolved out of initiatives designed to improve soil health and prevent an event like the Dust Bowl from happening again. 

Combatting Soil Erosion Through CRP 

With CRP, farmers and landowners are paid to take environmentally senstitive and marginal farmland out of active production. In place of traditional crops, native vegetation is established, protecting and enriching soil while reducing erosion and water runoff. This ultimately benefits the land, local water supplies, local wildlife, and more. 

If you’re interested in joining CRP, FDCE can help. We provide full-service CRP solutions that include purchasing CRP seedplanting, documentation, and report submission for cost-share reimbursement. For those who prefer to buy CRP seed mixes and establish it themselves, we offer a variety of high-quality seed options here. 

Otherwise, contact us today and ensure your soil is protected from whatever may lie ahead. 

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