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How likely is a new dust bowl

 
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Hello everyone!!

For the moment I am parking this topic in meaningless drivel for lack of a better place.  If anyone has a better home for it, please feel free to move it or recommend a better home.

So a question I have pondered for some time has been the likelihood of another dust bowl event happening again in the American Midwest.  I am posing this question both from an interest in my family’s own history of farming and in an interest in history in general.

First off some basics.  The Dust Bowl has at least 3 primary causes:

1). A prolonged, though not constant, drought lasting about 10 years

2). Farming practices wholly unsuited to the region/climate

3). The Depression that encouraged farmers to put even more land under cultivation than had been in the ‘20s.  Further, the Depression made more difficult the task of switching cropping practices as switching crops always requires new equipment and therefore more money.

So I have tried to break this down into two categories

FACTORS FAVORING ANOTHER DUST BOWL
1). Large amounts of land put to annual cultivation

2) relatively small amounts of land put to grazing operations

3) a tendency towards mono cropping

4). Shelter belts are dying and being removed to make room for huge farming equipment

FACTORS AGAINST ANOTHER DUST BOWL
1). Generally less disturbance of the surface compared to the 20’s

2). It is now common practice to leave stubble on fields after harvest

3). In the 20s, it was common practice to burn crop residue in an effort to combat weeds.  I am not advocating the use of various ‘cides, just pointing out that their use had eliminated much of the “need” to burn fields.

4). A lot of farmers regularly use no-till or minimal till approaches that leave at least some of the soil structure intact (though there are still better options such as those being done by Gabe Brown).

History has been generally favorable to the conservation efforts initiated by the Roosevelt administration beginning with large scale shelter belts started in 1934.  By 1940 the dust bowl was largely over.  A lot of credit was given to those shelter belts.  I have to wonder though just how effective a 6 year old shelter belt could possibly be.  How tall could it grow and how thick it become?  Especially considering that they were planted during one of the worst droughts in North American history, their rapid growth seems unlikely.

On a final note, the drought itself was not man-made, though many effects were.  The Midwest is historically prone to periods of drought.  Take any 20 year period and 2-5 of them are frequently drought years.  Recent research has revealed that the drought itself was caused by an increase in Atlantic temperatures and a decrease in Pacific temperatures.

So this is a long, complex post and I don’t really have a specific “side”, more just questions.  I would like to keep this out of the cider press, but if it has to go there, then so be it.

At any rate, I look forward to your responses.

Eric
 
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I spent the first 13 years of my life living in rural Kansas where anyone over 50 remembered the dust bowl.  They were all acutely aware of the potential of this happening again.  That was 50 years ago, but even then the farmers were all actively taking measures to see that those conditions never took place.  Nothing has changed in that regard, in fact, there has been more research regarding what causes wind erosion and the best practices to prevent it from ever happening again.

The thing about a field that starts blowing is that it'll then cause other fields to blow.  One leads to another, and before you know it, there can be 10 miles of fields where the soil is blasting along.  So if the wind picked up and someone's soil started to blow away, several farmers would immediately get out there and help that guy.  With their massive tractors, they'd quickly turn-under any field that was blowing.  That may sound counter-productive (tillage to stop wind erosion caused by tillage), but thats the only way to immediately stop a field that is blowing.

I'd never say never, as you can't imagine what might happen if they got a prolonged multi-year drought, but farming practices have gone through 3 or 4 revolutions since the dirty thirties.  The most recent is no-till cropping.  It was the late summer tilling of the dry soil that caused those farm fields to be prone to blow.  Nobody does that anymore.  Stubble sits on the grain fields (mostly wheat, but other crops as well) until late fall or early winter.  The other big change is that many of those regions where the dust bowl happened was land that should have never been broken.  Farmers were turning land that should have been left as wild grassland.  Most of those most vulnerable areas (certain areas of Oklahoma, North Texas, West Texas and Western Kansas were particularly prone to this) have been restored to pasture, or if farmed, are farmed very carefully.

The dust bowl was 1929 and 1930 (80 years ago) and was highly regional.  Yes, it reached from Texas to Nebraska, but it was spotty and not like every farm blew away.  Not even close.  It's not happened since.  That should tell us something.  

My perspective: no, it will never happen again (at least in those places that got it so bad in 1930).  Africa?  Yeah, I could totally see it happening there.
 
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I will propose that we already would have had another dust bowl EXCEPT for the high rate of irrigation compared to the 30's.

Leaving stubble over winter has definitely helped--even when the farmer does till they do it all in the spring.  So there is less wind loss, but still plenty of water-based soil loss--as you can see with the growth of the delta.

I truly believe we are at the tipping point back away from the toxic gick practices.  My extended family is very deep in conventional ag.  I tried to avoid the topic at Thanksgiving to "keep the peace" (politics are less controversial in my family than organic farming) but they were ALL asking US.  My BIL even asked us to help set up test/trial plots!!! BIG farmers are switching back to non-GMO and going organic, and the other leading farmers can see the writing on the wall.  I finally got my BIL to watch a Gabe Brown video and now I can't keep up with the questions  Change is coming!!
 
pollinator
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How many thumbs-up can I give R Scott's post?

That is heartening to hear.
 
Eric Hanson
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A point I would make in favor of the AGAINST side is that there have been numerous droughts since the 30s but they did not turn into dust bowls.  The 50s had a particularly nasty drought period, and just about every decade since has had some experience with drought.  Also, ever since 1862 (Homestead Act) farmers have repeatedly reported droughts.  The 1880s had some terribly dry periods, but again, no dust bowl.

Historically speaking, the period from about 1905-1925 (ish) was a banner time for farming in the Midwest.  Firstly, the world's population was growing with hungry mouths to feed and the American Midwest was the last large arable portion of land to put to cultivation.  Its not like anyone was making any new land.  Secondly, WWI virtually eliminated harvests for much of Europe and what harvests they did have went straight to the war effort.  By the end of WWI, Russia was going through its own civil war.  Some of the policies were terrible.  The Bolshevik revolution unfolded in ways unanticipated by Lenin.  Theoretically it was supposed to be a workers paradise, but there was a power struggle between the urban, factory based working class and the landowners in rural regions of Russia (including Ukraine).  Tragically, the centralized planning approach was to confiscate ALL grain harvested by Russian farmers, including the seed grain.  The net result was pretty obvious, there was precious little new planting in the spring and Russian grain production (a major producer of grain) declined drastically.  These are some historical facts and I am not trying to provoke a debate about communism.  The point is that due to WWI and the Russian Revolution, grain production in Europe declined drastically.  There were other factors that made this worse.  Due to the enormous loss of life (almost all of it young men) during WWI, there was a deficit of farmers in places like France and Germany that exacerbated the grain shortage.  Further, the period from roughly 1905-1925(ish) was a time of nice, steady rains for the Midwest.  There had been an old, flawed slogan "Rain follows the plow" suggesting that cultivation by itself would actually alter climate in such a way that rainfall would increase.  At the time this flawed notion appeared accurate.

The net effect was that North American farmers reaped the benefits.  There were still hungry mouths to feed and other important grain producers were out of business, thus American farmers found it desirable and profitable to put every inch of land under cultivation that they possibly could.  And they did.  By the late 20's, the price of grain was dropping as other producers (notably Russia) were coming back online.  This combined with the Depression made ag prices plummet.  One complicating factor that worsened the picture even more is that many farmers knew that straight grain production was not sustainable.  Many were taking advantage of temporary high prices.  Many farmers wanted to diversify their production.  Sadly, diversification almost always involves major capital expenses (new equipment, buildings, livestock, etc.).  In other times, this would have been possible via farm loans from farm banks.  But the Great Depression, was at its roots, a banking depression and there just was not enough capital available to fund these efforts.  Farmers could not make the change so they continued planting grain.  When the drought hit, there were no shelter belts, conservation tillage, much in the way of crop diversity, and fields were typically burned in fall in an effort to control weeds.  The drought plus human intervention gave us the dust bowl years which lasted till around the year 1940.

The history I am putting in here is for context alone and in no way an attempt to provoke nasty political discussion.  I am not saying that I am a subject matter expert or that I have included all relevant factors, I just wanted to give a background as to why the drought of the 30s turned into a dust bowl unlike the numerous droughts before and since.

I look forward to fruitful discussion,

Eric
 
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Ruth Meyers wrote:How many thumbs-up can I give R Scott's post?

That is heartening to hear.


Ruth: i gave him an apple from me, and two more from you :D
 
Eric Hanson
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R Scott,

Really, Really pleased to know that the Gabe Brown approach is spreading.  I stated in another thread that if I had Gabe Brown’ present knowledge 25 years ago I would have been extremely tempted to take over my family’s farming operation in Minnesota.  I really hope his approach spreads far and wide.

Eric
 
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We call it mining through agriculture where farmers plant the same crops for manny years until the soil becomes a desert.
Sunflower its particularly dangerous iet 2 miles from me there is a field that has growing sunflowers on it for over 30 years,every year.It became a sandy desert.
Greed,monney and not thinking about tomorrow,ignorance can lead to this.
 
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From a layman's POV, irrigation looks to be key. As long as the aquifers last, huge, flat, windy farms can dodge the bullet by keeping something on/in the soil. After that maybe it gets much more risky and real smarts would be needed to avoid drought disaster.


Rufus
 
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We are still having Dust Storms on the High Plains of Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma and in Western Oklahoma! 2011 - 2014 were drought years and pastures took 2 -3 years after that to recover. There have been many 'Dust Bowls' in this area that may not have happened in the Midwest. There were Dust Storms in the 1940s and 1950s too - my grandmother in Amarillo had to put wet sheets over the doors and windows to keep the dust out.

Don't be too optimistic about 'modern' farmers learning not to clean till their fields - see the picture I took from February of 2019 in Western Oklahoma. Here is a National Geographic article from 2014 about the drought. Parched: A New Dust Bowl Forms in the Heartland

Also from this year near Lubbock TX. Dust Storm Pile-up

When I am in Oklahoma I attend pretty much any presentation by the NRCS or anyone elsa about 'modern' farming and ranching techniques. There are very few attendees in comparison to the number of farms and ranches.
Blowing-Farmland-Beckham-County-OK.jpg
Blowing Farmland Beckham County OK Feb 2019
Blowing Farmland Beckham County OK Feb 2019
 
Eric Hanson
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Denise,

That was a very good article and goes right to the heart of what I was thinking.  

Dust storms have always been a part of the western plains, and West Texas is especially noteworthy for them.  

But in the 30s the dust storms not only reached the East Coast But even deposited significant quantities of dust on the decks of ships 200 miles out into the ocean.  I don’t want to minimize the plight of farmers in the panhandle region but those storms are just (thankfully) not on the scale of what happened in the 30s.

I will say for my own part that I find it sad that hedgerows and shelter belts are being ripped out of fields.  Some die back was inevitable as many were constructed of fast growing but short lived species.  But it really is too bad that they are not being replaced.  I can only hope that Gabe Brownian type of agriculture spreads rapidly.

Anyhow, these are just my thoughts,

Eric
 
Marco Banks
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There were a number of factors at play in 1929 and 1930 that are no longer the case.

The first was the homestead act, where any person who merely pounded a stake in the ground would qualify for 160 acres of land (a quarter).  Over the next 7 decades or so (from 1862 until the dustbowl in 1929), millions of these new farmsteads were created by people who had never farmed before.  Many of them were immigrants or the landless poor from eastern cities.  They were planting crops like corn in places where they had no business even breaking the ground.  Often they would plow under the prairie, have a couple of failed crops, and then move on to another stretch of land where they would repeat the cycle.  There were no shelter belts planted.  Farmers would often deliberately start prairie fires to "clear" the land, and after harvest would once again burn the crop residues.  There was no long-standing commitment to the land; it was seen as disposable in some respects.  Use it up, move on, much like tobacco farmers had done in the east for 150 years prior.  Those dust bowl farmers (Okies) packed up and headed for California and Oregon.

Second, in the 1920's, wheat prices in spiked due to shortages in Europe following WW1.  Millions of acres were put into cultivation.  This was occurring exactly at the same time that a severe multi-year drought hit.  It was a perfect storm, fueled by greed, ignorance and bad public policy.

Today, most of the farmland of that region (Texas, up through Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, eastern Colorado, parts of Missouri and Iowa) is farmed by 3rd, 4th, or even 5th generation families.  They are deeply committed to the preservation of their land.  There have been numerous drought cycles since 1930.  We've never seen anything close to what happened that year.
 
Eric Hanson
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Very well put Marco
 
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with climate changing so rapidly now there is no telling what the future drought situation might be, look what is happening in Australia and California. I saw something recently about how farmers in Midwest were removing forested areas between fields to gain acreage. those tree lines are what helped prevent a dustbowl for the past 80+ years according to the report I saw. but I'm no expert.
 
Marco Banks
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One last thought on this thread:

Four years ago I did a cross-country drive from California to Maryland with a friend.  It had been decades since I'd seen some of those wide-open spaces across the midwest.  I was blown away (figuratively, and a little bit literally) by the windmills that go on and on and on for about 200 miles in West Texas and then again in Oklahoma.  The biggest crop that grows out there on those wind-swept flatlands is electricity.  People are realizing that the primary environmental contributor to the dust bowl (the unrelenting strong winds) are an asset that can be harnessed for good.  BILLIONS of dollars of investment in wind power is now providing clean energy to millions of people.

But what really impressed me was how forested Oklahoma is.  I expected bleak orange clay fields studded with oil-wells.  Yes, we saw fields with oil wells, but nothing looked bleak.  Wheat, hay and soy beans were growing well, many of those fields being irrigated.  But what surprised me was that there was also mile after mile of second growth forest.  Trees, trees and more trees, particularly on the eastern side of the state.  Again, I don't know what I expected to see, but I didn't think I'd see such lush forests of pine, dogwood, oak and cypress.  I later looked it up: almost a third of Oklahoma is covered by forests.

Many of those abandoned dust-bowl farms of 1929 and 1930 returned to forests in the decades that followed.  90 years is a long time in terms of forestry succession.  Some of that land is what they used to call "Indian Territory" -- Native American reserves, but the majority of it is privately held.  In other words, the descendants of those old homesteaders still hold title to the land.  The Federal Government never came back and re-took the land after it was abandoned.  Those lush forests of Oklahoma are evidence of nature's tremendous capacity to regenerate and heal.  While billions of tons of soil was blown away in 29 and 30, billions and billions more tons have been created by nature in the 90 years since.  
 
Eric Hanson
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That is a fascinating observation Marco!  I would have had the same preconceptions and I am kinda blown away by your response!  And I guess I should anticipate a green landscape as Oklahoma is directly adjacent to Arkansas which I think of as a “green” state.

Thanks for sharing this!

Eric
 
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bruce Fine wrote: with climate changing so rapidly now there is no telling what the future drought situation might be, look what is happening in Australia and California. I saw something recently about how farmers in Midwest were removing forested areas between fields to gain acreage. those tree lines are what helped prevent a dustbowl for the past 80+ years according to the report I saw. but I'm no expert.



I'm no expert either, but it certainly seems to me a simple concept to leave a few hedge rows around and through your land to keep the wind from blowing all the soil away.  The amount of land lost seems a very small concern for the benefits gained.  Nice, calm areas to grow plants, an enormous increase in diversity, the cooling effect from continuous plant cover, leaf litter, bird poop, the list goes on and on.  What a waste to get a few more rows of corn planted.  Food forest type planting is much closer to ideal, but adding hedge rows even to a conventional farm would seem to add huge benefits.
 
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Especially if those hedgerows could be edible shrubs and trees.  
 
Marco Banks
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A lot of the old hedgerows planted in the 40's (in response to 1929/30) have died of natural causes.  In Kansas where I grew up, the old timers talked about hitching up the team and running the single bottom plow down the property line so they could drop a "hedge apple" every 15 feet or so—osage orange—before walking back over the furrow and kicking some dirt over the seed.  The life span of an osage orange is about 75 years—they started dying in mass around the turn of the century.  There were other trees used for shelter belts as well, but osage orange (Maclura pomifera) was most common.

Many of these shelter belts were planted on the quarter (every half mile).  Now most of those sections are farmed by one farmer using a GPS-steered tractor/combine.  They don't want to touch the wheel and don't want to repeatedly have to make those turns every half-mile.  So a section used to be divided into 4 quarters by the trees, like a big plus sign in the middle of a square.  Sometimes you'd even have a shelter belt along the side of the road.  Not any more.  When those trees died, they were not replanted;  Many of the old fences that divided the fields were also pulled up and taken away.

This corresponds with the diminishing population of farmers across the midwest.  When one tractor or combine does the work of 5 of those tiny machines back in then 50's, and when farmers now have 2 children rather than 6 or more like they used to, there is a need for efficiency.  Times change.  Rural schools closed throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's due to the collapsing population.  Farms got much bigger even as families got smaller.  And over the years, the need for the shelter belts was eliminated as well.

If farmers leave a field fallow and graze it, today they'll use electrified poly wire and a solar charger instead of barbed wire.  Inexpensive and easy to relocate.  Since other conservation techniques eliminated the possibility of another dust bowl, the classic shelter belt of Oklahoma, Kansas, eastern Colorado, etc., have gone the way of the old team and the single bottom plow.  But regarding habitat for wildlife, many of the old farmsteads that were planted on marginal land have been converted back to range land.  The hilly, rocky soil in central Kansas and elsewhere is now lush green pasture land.  The pheasant population of South Dakota and Nebraska have never been healthier, even as quail hunting in Texas and Oklahoma are as popular and abundant as they've been in decades.  So while we may miss the classic shelter belt of the midwest that we knew in the 20th century, it's loss does not correspond to a crash in wildlife.  There are more deer now than there have been in 75 years and the restricted use of pesticides (DDT among others) have brought native bird populations back (meadowlarks, redwing black birds, robins and so many others).

I grew up walking those shelter belts in Kansas during hunting season carrying a single-shot 20 gauge and wearing an orange vest with my dad and the farmers from our church.  Good memories.  There are still plenty of hunters and plenty of birds.  I suppose that if I went back today for pheasant season, we'd be walking a pasture or creek bottom instead of a shelter belt on the edge of a wheat field.
 
Pearl Sutton
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I think the odds of a new dust bowl are higher than I would like, quite a bit due to water use. I have flown and driven from NM to MO, and CO to MO many times, and what you see is miles of circular aquifer run sprinkler systems. All it takes to stop those is is a power outage, or the water running out, both very likely.
A random google maps link somewhere in Kansas shows a bunch of dark green, irrigated off the aquifer, circles. That's standard, to tap the aquifer, because the rainfall will not grow the crops they plant.

The Ogallala aquifer is being drawn down at an alarming rate, and it looks a lot like where they circle irrigate.



In my eyes, there are too many factors that can stop that irrigating, then all that soil starts blowing, as it can't grow what was planted, and effort has been made to eradicate anything else growing there. The topsoil losses in this country are already horrifying, and adding more to it is a long term problem.



I'd love to think that more people are leaving stubble in the ground, but when the ground between the rows is bare, the roots are only holding so much. And I know if I drive in this area, the fields are now (early Dec) sitting there with naked soil showing.

The tornado pattern is shifting, due, in part, to drier conditions in the plains. ‘Tornado Alley’ may be moving east I personally think that hedgerow removal and monocropping expanding heavily in that area is quite a bit to blame, as there are fewer obstructions to break up the wind pattern. As the older farmers die off, the big companies are buying the land, clearing and leveling it, and expanding their reach. It would take very little to make that area start blowing too.

I would LOVE to think that things are not ripe for it again, but I know how fast it accelerates once the process starts.

I'd love to see more permaculture running, to break this whole pattern up. Plant what can grow with ambient water, add back hedgerows, trees, use smaller fields and solid crop rotation that keeps the soil deeply covered.
 
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One thing that the prairie needs in order to be fully restored is fire. The Great Plains burned frequently for thousands of years, probably even more often as soon as the first people came into the land and used fire to drive game and improve it for grazing animals. The ecosystem as encountered by white settlers and homesteaders was as much a manmade permaculture landscape as a "natural" one. A major factor in the fertility of prairie soils comes from the pyrogenic carbon added over the millenia by the fire regime, and it serves as one of the best examples for how we can heal these landscapes by burning them, or in cases where that just won't fly due to population density, by adding biochar. The long term benefits aren't just confined to the plains, either: 12% of the carbon converted in wildfire becomes the stable, durable form that all biochar advocates know and love...and this will stay safe in the ground, contributing to CO2 drawdown.
 
denise ra
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Many of those abandoned dust-bowl farms of 1929 and 1930 returned to forests in the decades that followed.  90 years is a long time in terms of forestry succession.  Some of that land is what they used to call "Indian Territory" -- Native American reserves, but the majority of it is privately held.  In other words, the descendants of those old homesteaders still hold title to the land.  The Federal Government never came back and re-took the land after it was abandoned.  Those lush forests of Oklahoma are evidence of nature's tremendous capacity to regenerate and heal.  While billions of tons of soil was blown away in 29 and 30, billions and billions more tons have been created by nature in the 90 years since.  



Marcos, The above is incorrect in two ways as far as Western Oklahoma and the epicenter of the Dust Bowl is concerned. The High Plains is a plain (prairie), not a forest, hence the name Plains. The federal government took title to much of the abandoned dust bowl farms and ranches which is why we have 4 million acres of National Grasslands mostly on the Plains. I was surprised when I visited Cimmaron National Grassland and found it to be a patchwork of sections, not one great big area like a National Forest. The same is true of the Black Kettle National Grassland in Western Oklahoma - where my land is - it is a patchwork made of tax sale and homesteads abandoned during the Dust Bowl.

The land is rather poor as the topsoil truly and literally blew away in the dust storms. On my 400 acres I have seen one small patch of brown topsoil. All the rest that I have seen is orange subsoil. The 'A' horizon is gone. My land is in good to fair condition for the area as the tenant of the last 20 years just runs a few cattle and horses on it most of the time, so it is not overstocked. He has not actively managed the grass except to destock it in the worst of the drought of 2011-2014. See the photos below to see what good to fair looks like on the plains 90 years after the Dust Bowl.
Typical-short-grass-soil-coverage.jpg
Typical short grass soil coverage
Typical short grass soil coverage
 
snakes are really good at eating slugs. And you wouldn't think it, but so are tiny ads:
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https://permies.com/wiki/135969/Daily-ish-Email
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