I’ve been to the Oklahoma panhandle to visit family more times than I can remember. Driving through those plains, I often wonder what Native Americans and pioneers thought when they entered this land for the first time and beheld a sea of grass stretching to the horizon in every direction. Today, the land offers few hints that it was ground zero for an environmental disaster that at its peak spanned 100 million acres in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado – an area the size of Pennsylvania. Timothy Egan tells the story in grim detail in his book, “The Worst Hard Time”.
The region has a bit of an image problem. Zebulon Pike toured the Great Plains in 1806, comparing it to the Sahara Desert. In 1820, Stephen Long, U.S. Army officer and explorer, called it the “Great American Desert”, a term that persisted on maps until after the Civil War.
A catalyst for settling the area occurred in Texas. The young state longed for a capitol building to rival any other, but there was no money to build it. The state offered land in the present-day Texas panhandle to anyone willing to fund construction. So in 1882, a Chicago-based syndicate formed to exploit the opportunity, drawing in some big British investors, including an Earl and members of Parliament. The XIT Ranch was born on the three million acres of grassland now owned by the syndicate, and by 1887 it boasted a herd of cattle 150,000 strong. With the economic activity of the XIT came people, some pockets of civilization and the railroad.
The XIT backers wanted a better return than ranching provided, so they decided to turn the ranch into real estate. The problem was that the land was already serving the purpose for which it was best suited – grazing – having formerly provided sustenance to 30 million bison before the ranch was formed. It was short on scenery and water was scarce. But land for farming – the ticket to prosperity for many Americans eager to get ahead – would move some acreage when promoted through aggressive sales tactics and creatively written marketing literature.
Promoters had to overcome the troubling fact that 20 inches of annual rainfall were needed to grow crops without irrigation, and the region averaged less than that. Hardy Campbell, a dry land farmer from Nebraska, provided the hook. According to Campbell, the very act of plowing causes atmospheric disturbances that create rainfall. The government agricultural office in the panhandle endorsed “Campbell’s Soil Culture Manual” and the people came to bust the sod. By 1926, only 450,000 acres of the original 3 million that comprised the XIT were unplowed.
The early 1920s was good to the panhandle farmers. Above average rainfall and wheat selling for $2.00 per bushel seemed to validate the flawed assumptions about dry land farming in the region. But by 1928, the nation had a surplus of wheat and prices were $1.00 per bushel. Then came October 29, 1929 and the crash that changed the economic landscape for everyone. The average Oklahoma or Texas panhandle farmer taking grain to market in 1930 was shocked by $.24 per bushel wheat. This provided the average family with just $400 in annual income to cover every expense they had. Many wouldn’t make it and the banks came to foreclose. But the economic disaster was not the only hardship these people would face – the rain stopped falling as well.
The first “duster” occurred on September 14, 1930, blowing through Kansas and Oklahoma. It was a curious thing and the locals considered it an anomaly. They were soon to discover these storms, or black blizzards as they were called, were not an incident but a nasty trend. The dry ground yielded dirt as fine as sifted flour to the relentless winds. Blowing dirt ravaged the region, piling up drifts like snow, making the necessary act of breathing a hazard. The folks back east had no sympathy, because it was too fantastic to believe. Until a storm in May 1934 carried and dropped twelve million tons of dirt on Chicago, then more on New York. Even ships 300 miles off the Atlantic coast were dusted in panhandle dirt.
The most infamous storm visited on Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, carrying twice the dirt in just one afternoon as was excavated during seven years of Panama Canal construction. With the economy and the land in ruins, the voice of Hugh Bennett, crusader for soil conservation, was heard. By the time the eight-year drought ended, Bennett’s vision for soil conservation was providing some hedge of protection against Dust Bowl II. But there are no guarantees, because memories fade, fortunes improve and people believe it will never happen again. A complete recovery is not assured either. While dirt storms don’t threaten the region today, the population in some places is half what it was pre-Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl shows us the catastrophic result of mixing ignorance with arrogance and separating the profit motive from a set of guiding principles. I didn’t live through the Dust Bowl, but we are living through a corporate Dust Bowl, also manmade: the subprime mortgage economic meltdown, the first domino that fell in our recent economic recession. These disasters will probably happen again for these reasons:
• Arrogance. The syndicate that promoted panhandle land for farming ignored the facts about growing crops in the region because they got in the way of ROI. They apparently had no ethical reservations about their real estate liquidation, and no principles or values guided them in the disposal of their investment. It was simply arrogance and greed. Making a profit is a good thing, but when the profit motive is unhitched from a system of values, bad things happen. We saw the same result in the subprime mortgage mess.
• Ignorance. I wonder if the poor souls who tried to make a go of farming and then saw the Dust Bowl winds carry their hopes away asked at the start, “is this a good idea?” Were they, and are we, just content to believe what we’re being told because we like what we hear? If something seems too good to be true, like cheap land or a subprime mortgage, shouldn’t we exercise some caution before making a very high stakes bet? I guess it all comes down to how much you’re willing to risk, and lose.
The cocktail of ignorance mixed with arrogance always creates heartburn and leaves those who consume it with a hangover that lasts a long time.