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84  From Dryland to Dustbowl Not a Good Place to Farm On a small corner of the leeward side of a field, a particle of soil, broken loose by the wind, struck a cluster of soil particles like a cue ball striking the racked balls. The avalanching effect of soil erosion gathered force as it moved across the field. By the time the effects of one tiny wind-driven soil particle reached the opposite side of the field, a mighty force was assembled to assault the neighboring abandoned field. Soon a dirt storm was burning any living plant, while the soil around the plant’s roots were joining the race across the stricken land. | Dust Bowl historian Paul Bonnifield It is useless to single out any one set . . . the farmers, the bankers, the land speculators, the agricultural teacher or scientist—and blame one group or all of them for what has happened. We have all had a hand in it. . . . We wound our country and threaten its future by thoughtless actions which are . . . an inherited way of thinking—not thinking—about the land. | Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace in the 1930s Without Irrigation: The Case for Dryland Farming In his magisterial 1931 history of the plains, Walter Prescott Webb concluded that region’s future did not belong to irrigation. Neither Webb, nor John Wesley Powell fifty years earlier, anticipated the remarkable technological breakthroughs that by the 1960s gave plains farmers access to large amounts of Ogallala groundwater. Nor did they foresee the enormous capacity of the aquifer. Webb recognized that large-scale irrigation projects were underway in California and in irrigation communities like Greeley, Colorado, but he correctly concluded that these did not suit the widely spaced independent farms of the plains. Individual plains farmers fended for themselves (and they often insisted from dryland to dustbowl 85 on their independence at any price) in an environment rigidly controlled by less than twenty inches of rain annually. More than half of the precious water was evaporated away by hot winds and bright sunshine . Fortunately, most rains came in the spring. Under these conditions, despite the rash of failures, Webb urged “dry farming . . . where men sought to carry on agriculture in spite of insuf- ficient rainfall: the conservation of soil moisture during dry weather by special methods of tillage.”¹ Dryland farming was not no-rain farming but low-rain farming in which certain soils, like the common Dalhart sandy loam of the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, held some of the rainfall underneath plant levels ready to be tapped. When a midwestern corn farmer showed up to try his luck on the plains, he turned the sod deep with a moldboard plow and tilled the fields smooth. But neighboring dryland farmers warned him that this hard work would only lead to soil blowing. The new settler learned to prepare the land by listing— “cutting the stubble with a double plow that split the slice”—and to leave untilled ridges as barriers against the wind. Always keeping the wind and moisture-holding in mind, the farmer learned to plant his corn or wheat or sorghum in the shelter of the furrow. The rough fields offended the traditional sense of good farming, and “critics regarded the trashy seedbed as careless farming,” but it worked in the windy and droughty region.² Frequent harrowing and disking turned the soil and kept it moist. Besides drought-resistant crops, deep plowing, and frequent cultivation, farmers learned the critical importance of timing . A field had to be cultivated within a few hours after a rain to limit rapid evaporation in the low-humidity atmosphere. Using dry farming’s careful balance of resources, early twentieth-century farmers in southwestern Kansas turned the corner toward prosperity without tapping the hidden and unknown waters of the Ogallala. Like so many solutions to the severe problems of the plains, it was a temporary victory. Webb adds, “Successful dry farming also depended upon plant adaptation .” The first settlers experimented with hard winter Turkey Red wheat, the sorghums, and Kaffir corn, the fodder crop “that never failed—that is, almost never.”³ The U.S. Department of Agriculture, while it cautiously played down dryland farming as the salvation of the plains, identified drought-resistant grains, particularly durum wheats 86 from dryland to dustbowl for use in macaroni and spaghetti. The agency also encouraged mixed farming in wheat, sorghums, and millets so that farmers might not go down if one crop failed...


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