The Causes of the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression

The 1930s were a difficult time in world history and living in the United States during this period was no different. One of the major events of the Great Depression was the Dust Bowl.

The Dust Bowl was a devastating event in the Great Plains region of the United States that took place during the 1930s. The event got its name from the terrible, massive dust storms that blew through the area over a period of several years, destroying farms, agriculture, and property wherever they went.

Largely centered around the panhandle regions of Oklahoma and Texas, it also spread to large sections of Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.

Regions of the Dust Bowl impact, map via PBS

There were many causes of the event itself, though the Dust Bowl was hardly shocking. Farming practices in the region were not sustainable enough to last over an extended period.

When drought came in the early 1930s, loose top soil was easily picked up by the high winds in the region. These winds picked up the soils and transported them in massive storms all across the United States.

Local communities were shattered. Farms went out of business and people couldn’t afford food. The Dust Bowl led to the migration of millions to varying locations across the United States.

Though a separate event from the Great Depression, the two events are interlinked in that they fed upon each other, each making the other event much worse.

By the end of the decade the Dust Bowl finally was over. The drought ended, bringing rains to quell the angry dust clouds. Though the awful storms were gone, the road to recovery would not be an easy one for the region.

The 1930s Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a cataclysmic event that brought great suffering and destruction to hundreds of communities. Beginning in 1931 drought wreaked havoc on the semi-arid region of the Great Plains surrounding the panhandle regions of Oklahoma and Texas.

At first crops failed due to the lack of water, sending the huge farmer population reeling. Most of these farmers needed the money from selling crops at market to pay their mortgages and other expenses.

With crops failing, the dry conditions made farms more susceptible to the frequent high winds of the region. Many farmers did not practice sustainable agricultural methods, loosening too much topsoil and destroying many of the native grasses that held the topsoil in place.

The combination of loose topsoil and high winds led to the creation of dust storms. These storms varied in size, though they were destructive wherever they passed.

Small particles of loose topsoil would be picked up and become part of the storm, while heavier particles would remain on the ground to be moved by the wind to create dunes as tall as 25 feet.

Dust Bowl storm approaching a Kansas town

The storms could be intense. Eyewitness accounts detail how visibility in some storms was reduced to no more than three feet. Others detail massive dark black clouds that would blot out the sun for days at a time.

The storms could travel thousands of miles. Most notably, the cities of Chicago and Washington, DC experienced dust storms that had originated as far away as western Oklahoma.

What most remember about the Dust Bowl is simply just how much dust there was and its ability to go everywhere.

“Even wet towels stuffed in the cracks of windows could not keep the dust out… Everything in the house — even food in the refrigerator —  was covered with dust.”

American Scientist vol. 66 no. 5 via JSTOR

The Dust Bowl was a horrific event and one which led to the suffering of a great many people. The fact that the Great Depression occurred at the same time as the Dust Bowl made the suffering that much worse.

The Causes of the Dust Bowl

There were many causes leading to the Dust Bowl. The primary reason behind the Dust Bowl, of course, was the near decade-long drought in the region.

However, this drought may not have led to the severeness of the Dust Bowl had farmers practiced sustainable agricultural methods. In the decade leading up to the Dust Bowl, farmers in the region greatly expanded on planting crops more suitable to temperate climates, instead of the semi-arid climate of the region.

The main reason behind this was due to fluctuating prices for crops, including the most favored in the region: wheat. The demand for wheat during World War I saw wheat prices skyrocket and sent farmers rushing to plant more of the crop.

The post-war years saw an immediate decline in wheat prices back to historical averages, though a few years later prices would once again drastically increase. These wildly-fluctuating prices led to poor agricultural habits.

Economic Causes of the Dust Bowl Wheat Price chart

In years when prices were high, farmers would plant more wheat in order to cash in on a bigger harvest. Some of these big harvests could bring in enough money to pay off an entire farm.

In years when prices were low, farmers needed to plant even more wheat to simply break even on their expenses.

In both scenarios, ever more land was being dedicated towards farming despite the general knowledge that some lands needed to remain fallow in order to maintain native grasses that helped protect the topsoil.

There were, of course, other causes of the Dust Bowl. The relatively small land holdings’ sizes were partly to blame for the over-farming.

The Homestead Act called for parcels of 160-320 acres to encourage settlers to move to the area. These land holdings were deemed to be too small for the region in order to turn a consistent profit and were a big reason for the over-farming as settlers needed to utilize as much of the land as possible for productive crops.

Rapid advances in technology also produced machinery that made farming cheaper, easier, and more productive. These methods failed to account for the damage they would do to the soil, especially in a semi-arid environment prone to droughts.

Though there were many causes of the Dust Bowl, it was an entirely predictable event, even given the general knowledge at the time.

The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was an awful event on its own, but it also occurred in the middle of the Great Depression. This time period is well-known for being one of the worst periods in American history, during which millions of Americans suffered greatly.

When the Dust Bowl began in 1931 the state of the US economy was dire. Millions were unemployed and relief did not appear imminent. The Hoover administration believed in laissez-faire economics and that the economy would “fix itself” which would prove disastrous.

Thousands fled the region seeking relief from the Dust Bowl and opportunity elsewhere. Many of these migrants were called “Okies,” named for the region many hailed from, and while they settled all over the US, a popular destination was California.

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” via Library of Congress

The hardships of the migrants were popularized in the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Without available employment opportunities, many would settle in makeshift shanty towns called “Hoovervilles” to just try to survive.

The beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933 is when effective relief measures finally began.

Several programs were set up to help the struggling farmers of the region. The Farm Mortgage Act helped prevent foreclosures by allowing farmers to refinance their mortgages.

The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation bought farmers’ crops and animals and helped to distribute this extra food to the poor and unemployed. This was in conjunction with the Drought Relief Service that also bought herd animals at higher prices than local markets would offer to help keep farmers afloat.

In one of the more effective measures, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Public Works Administration (PWA) helped to employ millions of unemployed workers. These included many of the “Okies” and other Dust Bowl migrants.

The Aftermath of the Dust Bowl

While these programs were necessary to help keep the Dust Bowl region afloat during the Great Depression, rapid changes were needed to help the environment in the long term.

The 1935 Soil Conservation Act created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that helped to standardize soil conservation practices. It also paid farmers to adopt more topsoil-friendly methods in order to prevent ecological destruction of arable lands.

In 1937 another one of Roosevelt’s policies began to take effect in earnest. The Shelterbelt project was a massive undertaking that hoped to provide an immediate reduction in topsoil erosion and the subsequent dust storms.

The project called for millions of native trees to be planted throughout a stretch of land from the Canadian border to Texas to act as a windbreak. These trees would simultaneously slow down the winds as well as anchor the topsoil into the ground.

Despite opposition, the shelterbelt project was considered widely successful at helping to ease the effects of the Dust Bowl and reduce the intensity of the dust storms.

Only in 1939 when the drought ended and the rains returned did the Dust Bowl finally end. Areas that were lightly hit recovered relatively quickly. World War II in the early 1940s meant a dramatic increase in the demand for crops such as wheat, and the harvesting resumed.

However, other areas where the dust storms were more severe took much longer to recover. Land values plummeted in the aftermath and much more relief work was required to make the land suitable for farming, or any use, in the future.

The legacy of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression was of great pain and suffering. One can only hope the lessons learned can help prevent another environmental catastrophe in the future.

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