The Return of the Dust Bowl
Nearly a century later; have we learned anything?
Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has maintained a strict hold on the American diet and lifestyle. Farming is one of the most common jobs around the world and one of the most ancient. Nearly 40% of Earth’s landmass is dedicated to agricultural development and use (FAOSTAT, 2008). With a demand that is unseen in previous centuries, it is only a matter of time before our aggressive farming methods begin to destroy the very foundation that agriculture rests upon: soil.
It is important that farmers and corporations work together to address some of the most critical aspects of modern farming, like preserving nutrients in the soil because, without immediate action, the United States may once again be faced with a Dust Bowl where poor farming techniques led to sheet erosion, erosion caused by run-off, as well as gully erosion, large streams or channels created by poor soil management that carried run-off. A drought also attributed to the dangerous conditions that swept the middle of North America during this era, leading to a decrease in fertile land availability and less available food for smaller species like rabbits and mice, which pushed them closer to humans.
THE DUST BOWL OF THE 1930s |
In the late colonial days, thousands of immigrants flocked from the east toward the west as the country bought up the available land. Many stopped along the way, dispersing into the plains of the United States, which consists of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. They were lured in by spacious fields of lush grasses that lie beneath a cloudless sky that resembled a sea. The land was fertile, making agriculture an easier task than it would have been in the rocky terrain of the easternmost states.
However, after several generations, the land that was once so lavish became barren. This happened because soil management efforts were nonexistent. The fields had supported that same grass since the glaciers of the last Ice Age but with the introduction of aggressive farming, those grasses were removed, exposing the nutrient-rich soil to the forceful winds of the midwest.
The air soon became thick with dirt particulates which would then be carried over to neighboring states. Dirt left the ground with such intensity that houses were often buried, forcing homeowners to crawl outside through a window so they could shovel the dirt away from the doors. Homes were not as secure as they are today, so dirt infiltrated every crack and crevice in the walls, floors, and windows, caking everything in a filthy powder. Even their food and water were contaminated. It was impossible to avoid consuming dirt. Dust storms would grow from these aggressive gusts of dirt-carrying wind as well, with one particularly disrupting event known as Black Sunday occurring.
This dust was so severe that it forced many homes and barns to become infested with rodents. One woman was quoted as saying the floor of her barn appeared to be “alive” because there were so many mice attempting to survive the drastic weather.
The events of the Dust Bowl era affected crop production which created economic disparity and social disruption.
NEARLY A CENTURY LATER |
Modern farming techniques that work to conserve soil and its nutrients include practices like conservation tillage. Conservation tilling has come to the forefront of agriculture practices because of the damaging consequences of farming techniques that led to the Dust Bowl. The aim of conservation tillage is to avoid overworking the soil, which can strip essential nutrients from the earth while conserving as much energy as possible for machine, soil, and man alike.
There are a couple of options when it comes to conservation tillage techniques: diesel-fuel, chisel-plowing, and no-tillage. Frye (1984) researched at length the benefits of practicing conservation tillage and spoke on the management of N (nitrogen) fertilizer. He is noted as stating that no-tillage conservation farming techniques were low-energy, but the benefits were offset by the increased need for herbicides.
Today, the use of fertilizers with high chemical levels lead to downstream contamination, which affects the surrounding ecosystems, putting flora and fauna at risk.
While no-tillage has a few negative drawbacks, it also offers a variety of benefits that are visible on-farm and off-site.
Typically, a plow removes the residual crop trash and upturns the soil, adding oxygen and space between the lumps of soil before seeds are evenly distributed, no-tillage practices, however, do without the use of a plow and instead deposit seeds on top of the soil. It is important to note that this technique is only useful in warm climates where the soil is not overly compact. Zero-tilling is also attributed to less erosion, less biodiversity, and can provide a stable micro-biome for subterrestrial species like worms. According to ScienceDirect, in years with average or above-average rainfall, no-tillage techniques offer similar comparative rates of productivity as crops grown with conventional methods (ScienceDirect, 2013).
AGRICULTURE IS A BIG DEAL |
Soil has the ability to cross oceans on gusts of wind. The nutrients within soil allow agriculture to feed millions of people where previous generations were unable to. As soil degrades, so does our food supply and the nutritional value of the crops produced.
Unintended results of soil degradation include the loss of macrofaunal like worms and beetles, which add necessary nutrients and biodiversity to the soil. Without these small organisms, the nutrients deposited from various sources cannot penetrate past the A Horizon, which depletes the deeper soil of much-needed nutrients. Some consequences of soil degradation also include chemically-imbalanced run-off that can be potentially dangerous to downstream community members, lead to higher levels of salinity, and can clog vital waterways leading to flooding, waterlogging, and cause an overall decline in native species like plants and fish.
It is vital to encourage better farming practices as well as accurate management over herbicides, pesticides, and run-off. To save our food supply, to support our population, and to renew the biodiversity that the plains once held, we must adopt less aggressive methods of tilling and acquiring crops.
Works Cited |
Ganzel, B. (2003). The Plow that Broke the Plains. Wessels Living History Farm. Retrieved from https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/machines_05.html
National Geographic. (n.d.). Erosion. Retrieved February 16, 2019, from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/erosion/
Dumanski, J., Peiretti, R. (2013). Modern concepts of soil conservation. International Soil and Water Conservation Research, 1(1).
Borowski, S. (2012). The Dust Bowl: A wake-up call in environmental practices. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/dust-bowl-wake-call-environmental-practices
Amadeo, K. (2019). The Dust Bowl, Its Causes, Impact, With a Timeline and Map. The Balance: GDP and Growth — natural disasters. Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/what-was-the-dust-bowl-causes-and-effects-3305689
Belvins, R.L., Frye, W.W. (1993). Conservation Tillage: An Ecological Approach to Soil Management. Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/no-tillage
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2018). Land Use Total Calculator. Retrieved February 16, 2019, from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/GL/visualize
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