The foggy, rainy, cold, water-logged conditions here in the Midwest bring to mind other summers where the normal growing season hasn’t gone as planned. Summer should be hot, with average rainfall, so that farmers can once again bring forth a startlingly great harvest from the American land.
Yet history furnishes instances when nature has refused to cooperate, as in the summer without a summer (1816), when a volcanic eruption half a world away filled the atmosphere with so much ash that the sun’s rays couldn’t warm the Earth and crops throughout the United States, northern Europe, and Russia froze.
Other than that, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s furnishes most dramatic instance of agricultural disaster with its attendant suffering. Readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall its harrowing beginning, as Steinbeck describes the drought and terrifying and relentless dust storms that drove masses of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from their land.
That human action caused this “natural” catastrophe is perhaps less known. The editors of History.com make the case that reckless settlement on the naturally arid prairies of the Lower Plains states created the conditions for the disaster that followed.
In the decades following the Civil War, millions of settlers moved to what would then have been “virgin land” in the region where Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico adjoin. Many were inexperienced farmers, responding to the lure of free acreage offered under the 1862 Homestead Act. This federal policy encouraged rapid settlement in the West by allowing any American with a family to acquire up to 160 acres from the Land Office for a small fee. Even though the West’s tough dry prairies were much less promising than those in the Mississippi River valley, where the soils were highly fertile and received much more rainfall, settlers snapped up the barren acres, impelled by the superstition that “rain follows the plow.” According to this “now-discredited theory of climatology,” only human cultivation was wanting to turn desert land into “a garden” and increase its rainfall and humidity.
The First World War caused grain shortages, increasing incentives for American farmers to grow more wheat. Homesteaders zealously tore up millions of square miles of the deep rooted prairie, grasslands that had kept the dry soils of the region in place. After the end of World War One, grain prices slumped dramatically as peacetime production of wheat resumed around the globe. Paradoxically, even as wheat prices plummeted, American farmers produced record wheat crops in 1928 and 1931. By then, the US economy was in the grip of the Great Depression and much of the wheat crop went unsold. Such were the conditions when a terrible drought came, forcing countless Americans to abandon their homes.
It was the most consequential weather disaster in American history. For several years, winds swept the dry plains, picking up millions of tons of soil and balling them into fearsome looking “black blizzards,” dark billowing clouds that traveled as far east as the Atlantic Coast. At the epicenter of the Dust Bowl region, fine particles of brown dust drifted from the sky, settling in heaping dunes, asphyxiating cattle, clogging human lungs, coating leaves. Only belatedly did the government begin to encourage farmers to plant windbreaks and take other measures to mitigate erosion. Devastation on such a scale was only partly “natural”; human folly contributed to human suffering in the Dust Bowl era.