It probably sounds too obvious to say it – when rainfall in a region drops, crops won’t grow, animals that are fed by the crops will suffer, and the economy of a region or an entire country will suffer as well. Everyone knows that plants need water to grow – as well as nutrients, sun and air.
But the drought years of the 1930s forced individual farmers and lawmakers at all levels of government to face fundamental questions. What kind of agriculture can be practiced in a semi-arid environment? And how can we restore land that farming practices had damaged and avoid damaging the land in the future?
The statistics tell the story.
- Normally, the state of Nebraska averages around 20 inches of rainfall a year.
- In 1930, Nebraska got 22 inches of rain, and the state’s corn crop averaged 25 bushels per acre.
- In 1934, Nebraska saw the driest year on record with only 14.5 inches of rainfall. The state’s corn crop dropped even more to only 6.2 bushels per acre.
In other words, between 1930 and 1934 rainfall dropped 27.5 percent, and as a result corn crop yields dropped over 75 percent.
Those living on the Great Plains saw the effects of the drought first hand. LeRoy Hankel can tell you how his crops did each year during the Depression, even after all these years.
These dramatic effects caused the leaders of agricultural planning in the U.S. to consider fundamental changes in farming on the plains. The heads of all of the New Deal agricultural and relief agencies issued a “Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee” in August 1936.
In the report, they said that the dust bowl was caused not just by the dry weather but also by unwise farming practices. Earlier settlers plowed under the natural tall grasses that covered the plains and planted crops they had planted in the wetter East. When the drought came, the crops failed, the ground was uncovered and the incessant winds produced the dust storms.
Government planners wrote that periods of drought like the 1930s were likely to occur again and that “the agricultural economy of the Great Plains will become increasingly unstable and unsafe … unless over-cropping, over-grazing and improper farm methods are prevented… The future of the region must depend, therefore, on the degree to which farming practices conform to natural conditions.”
Helen Bolton (left) remembers how their corn was fine one day and dried out the next. She and her husband used their anticipated crop yields to buy a tractor. When the crops failed, they were in trouble.>Birdie Farr (right) remembers when her husband’s father lost his horse and cattle ranch in the Nebraska sand hills. With little rain, there was no grass in the pastures for livestock.
Farmers are optimistic. It’s natural for them to push the limits, to try to raise a crop where crops haven’t been raised before. But they can’t control nature. They can’t make it rain. And so the challenge is to find crops that are adapted to the specific region they live in, whether that’s in the humid East or the dry places of the Plains and the West.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.