An Overview of Farmland, Crops, and Property During the Dust Bowl

The 1930s was a period of great struggle in the United States. The Great Depression was taking a toll on the nation's economy and left many people in dire straits financially. The farmers living in the Great Plains were hit twice as hard as others in the nation due to a decades-long drought, erosion of the soil, and severe dust storms. This region was known as the Dust Bowl, and it would become one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States.

Dust Bowl Causes and Effects

There are many factors, starting with Manifest Destiny, that led to the environmental disaster that was the Dust Bowl. When Americans moved to expand the country's boundaries westward, they were unfamiliar with the land in the Great Plains and how to manage it. These inexperienced farmers believed that "Rain follows the plow," thinking that once they established farms, the rain would naturally come. As people migrated to the region, it experienced an unnatural amount of rain that led farmers to believe that this was the normal state.

At the same time, there was a growing need for wheat in Europe due to World War I, and farmers strove to meet that demand by plowing under the prairie grass to make room for wheat crops. When the Depression struck, the price of wheat dropped; in an effort to produce more crops to make a profit, farmers plowed more of the grassland. What they did not understand was the importance of the prairie grass to the soil. The grass helped to anchor the soil in place. As crops failed due to drought, the now dry and loose soil was susceptible to wind erosion and was easily lifted and blown away.

As a result, tremendous dust storms plagued the region and beyond. The storms displaced topsoil, making the land unfarmable, and suffocated livestock. People had to wear masks to breathe, and children and adults developed dust pneumonia from inhaling the dry soil. While some farmers held on to their land, others could not do so and either lost or sold it. As the economy suffered, an estimated 2.5 million people migrated west as environmental refugees.

When Was the Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl took place during the 1930s in a period called the Dirty Thirties. It started with the onset of a severe drought in 1930 and continued until the end of 1939, with the return of rainfall. Although the drought started in 1930, the first large dust storm did not occur until 1931.

Frequency and Severity of the Storms

Every year during the Dirty Thirties saw multiple dust storms ravage the Plains. These storms seemed to worsen each year. In 1932, 14 dust storms hit the Midwestern and Southern Plains. In 1933, the number of storms increased to 38. Although 1934 experienced only 22 storms, they were more intense. For two days in May 1934, the most severe storm to that point carried 350 million tons of dust in the air, blowing it as far as across the East Coast and 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Between 1935 and 1938, the Dust Bowl experienced the worst storms. In 1935, for example, there were 40 dust storms and 908 hours of blackout conditions, including an event that would become known as "Black Sunday." During the final year of the Dust Bowl, the number of storms dropped to 30, and for two years after, dust storms continued, with both 1940 and 1941 experiencing 17 storms.

Black Sunday

Some of the more severe dust storms were characterized as black blizzards that darkened the sky with clouds of dust. These storms were so intense that even the interiors of tightly sealed homes were covered in layers of dust.

On April 14, 1935, the worst of these black blizzards struck. A day that started with clear blue skies was dubbed Black Sunday when a 1,000-mile-long dust storm carrying roughly 300,000 tons of topsoil rolled across the Great Plains starting at the Oklahoma Panhandle. The storm had winds as fast as 60 mph, and it turned daylight into darkness that many would describe as darker than night. It was on Black Sunday that Robert Geiger, a reporter with The Associated Press, coined the phrase "Dust Bowl."

New Deal Programs for Farmers

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's answer to the drought and dust storms came in the form of his New Deal programs. The alphabet soup of programs provided emergency relief to people suffering from the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of these programs were specific to Dust Bowl farmers and the environment. These programs included the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which paid farmers to reduce their crops, and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, which gave loans to farms at risk of foreclosure and extended repayment. Other New Deal programs established the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 and enacted the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act in 1936, which encouraged farmers to plant crops, such as grasses and beans, that helped build soil.

Disaster Gives Way to Hope

The hunger, drought, dust-induced illness, and even an invasion of crickets became more than many could bear. More than a quarter-million individuals and families fled westward hoping to find work and a new life. Unfortunately, this did not resolve their plight, as work was scarce because of the sheer number of environmental refugees, many of whom settled in California. To make matters worse, they were also met with hostility and prejudice, as many Californians did not want them there.

Although the drought and dust storms continued, many farmers decided to stay on their lands. Government programs began paying them to learn and use new farming techniques that conserved topsoil. And the Prairie States Forestry Project, originally called the Shelterbelt Project when it began 1934, planted trees to create windbreaks and reduce soil erosion. These efforts were effective; there was a 65% reduction in the loss of topsoil by 1938. While not perfect, this improvement gave farmers hope. The drought and dust storms, however, continued on until 1939, when the rains returned, putting an end to the decade-long drought.

Additional Reading on the Dust Bowl and Farmland