The Great Plow-Up

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the 1930s, farmers rapidly plowed-up the grasslands of the southern Plains and planted wheat in its place
  • With millions of acres of plowed fields and a chronic drought, winds picked up the soil creating thick clouds of dust called “black blizzards,” which covered the region in an unprecedented years-long “storm”
  • The Dust Bowl film chronicles the events of this manmade disaster, including interviews with 26 survivors who describe in vivid detail how the dust-filled winds could easily blister your face and carried with them an indescribable feeling of evil
  • As we once again struggle with droughts and the laws of nature continue to be manipulated by poor farming practices, we could once again be brewing a dust storm of epic proportions… or another manmade ecological disaster that has never before been seen

By Dr. Mercola

In the early 1900s, the grasslands of the southern US Plains were rapidly plowed up and turned into wheat fields.

The ramifications of this wheat boom can still be felt today, as wheat (along with corn and soybeans) remains one of the most common crops grown in the US. In fact, wheat, along with corn and rice, make up 60 percent of human caloric intake1 -- a dietary shift that is contributing to the rising rates of insulin resistance and its related chronic degenerative diseases now plaguing many developed countries.

These "amber waves of grain" had another unforeseen effect as well, an almost "other worldly" manmade disaster known as The Dust Bowl, which is chronicled in the PBS film.

The Worst Manmade Ecological Disaster in American History

In the early 1900s, farmers swarmed the southern Plains to take advantage of cheap land offers, even though the area – with its high winds, hot summers and frequent droughts – was not well suited for agriculture. During World War I, in particular, wheat was a sought-after commodity. With wheat prices soaring, and promises from land developers that "rain follows the plow," farmers quickly turned millions of acres of grasslands into wheat fields, paving the way for what would be one of the worst manmade disasters ever recorded.

As History reported:2

"When the drought and Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, the wheat market collapsed. Once the oceans of wheat, which replaced the sea of prairie grass that anchored the topsoil into place, dried up, the land was defenseless against the winds that buffeted the Plains."

'Black Blizzards' Crossed the Plains

As the natural winds that cross the Plains picked up the dry, plowed-up soil, dense clouds of dust called "black blizzards" covered the region in an unprecedented years-long "storm."

The Dust Bowl film includes interviews with 26 survivors of these black blizzards, who describe in vivid detail how the dust-filled winds could easily blister your face and carried with them an indescribable feeling of evil.

The dust killed crops and livestock and led to dust pneumonia (called the "brown plague"), bronchitis, coughing, asthma and shortness of breath in those living in the region. With no way to farm and conditions that at times made it treacherous to even venture outside, many were forced to abandon their homes and flee to safety. The worst of the storms reportedly occurred on April 14, 1935, dubbed "Black Sunday." On that day, a cloud of dust crossed the region that literally turned day into night.

According to the film:3

"Once the winds began picking up dust from the open fields, they grew into dust storms of biblical proportions. Each year the storms grew more ferocious and more frequent, sweeping up millions of tons of earth, covering farms and homes across the Plains with sand, and spreading the dust across the country. Children developed often fatal 'dust pneumonia,' business owners unable to cope with the financial ruin committed suicide, and thousands of desperate Americans were torn from their homes and forced on the road in an exodus unlike anything the United States has ever seen."

Static Electricity, Plagues of Grasshoppers and Jackrabbits

The dust clouds themselves weren't the only hurdles faced by those living in the Dust Bowl. Static electricity also became a major problem in the region, such that "blue flames leapt from barbed wire fences and well-wishers shaking hands could generate a spark so powerful it could knock them to the ground."4 People driving through the region had to resort to dragging chains from their cars so the static electricity wouldn't short out their engines.

The ecological disruption, meanwhile, impacted other species as well, unleashing plagues of jackrabbits and grasshoppers across the Plains. History reported:5

"If the dust storms that turned daylight to darkness weren't apocalyptic enough, seemingly biblical plagues of jackrabbits and grasshoppers descended on the Plains and destroyed whatever meager crops could grow… Thick clouds of grasshoppers — as large as 23,000 insects per acre, according to one estimate — also swept over farms and consumed everything in their wakes."

About eight years went by before the drought finally ended, saving the Plains from turning into an arid desert, and by the 1940s wheat prices were once again on the rise. A drought in the 1950s once again brought back dust storms to the region, but the damage was minimized by farmers using conservation techniques, as well as 4 million acres of government-owned land that had been restored to grasslands.

Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again?

As we once again struggle with droughts and the laws of nature continue to be manipulated by industrial farms and genetic modification, we could once again be brewing a dust storm of epic proportions… or another manmade ecological disaster that has never before been seen.

While many farmers in the Plains states now rely on irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer to water their crops in times of drought, this underground water reserve is in danger from overuse and, by some estimates, may only be able to keep up with water demands for another 25 years. There are many other warning signs that the poor farming practices being used today could backfire in the form of major environmental disasters as well…

Soil is actually depleting 13% faster than it can be replaced, and we've lost 75% of the world's crop varieties in just the last 100 years. Over a billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water, while 80% of the world's fresh water supply is used for agriculture.

The Dust Storm May Be One of the First Consequences of Monoculture

Monoculture (or monocropping) is defined as the high-yield agricultural practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, in the absence of rotation through other crops. Corn, soybeans, wheat, and to some degree rice are the most common crops grown with monocropping techniques. Monocultures are detrimental to the environment for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • It damages soil ecology by depleting and reducing the diversity of soil nutrients
  • It creates an unbuffered niche for parasitic species to take over, making crops more vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens that can quickly wipe out an entire crop
  • It increases dependency on chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • It increases reliance on expensive specialized farm equipment and machinery that require heavy use of fossil fuels
  • It destroys biodiversity

Monoculture also was responsible for creating the Dust Storm, as wiping out the natural grasslands of the Plains to plant unprecedented amounts of wheat disrupted the entire ecosystem of the region, with disastrous consequences.

It's imperative to understand that agriculture is a complete 'system' based on inter-related factors, and in order to maintain ecological balance and health, you must understand how that system works as a whole. Any time you change one part of that system, you change the interaction of all the other components, because they work together. It is simply impossible to change just one minor aspect without altering the entire system, which is exactly what happened during the Dust Storm.

Farming Destruction Is Occurring Around the World

Areas around the globe have already experienced their own versions of the Dust Storm, fueled by similar assaults on the land. For instance, several thousand years of relentless grazing of domestic animals on mountainous slopes in China left nothing but barren ground. Rains that may have restored the land erode it instead, carrying fertile topsoil down the hillsides, effectively removing any chance for new growth to emerge. On the Loess Plateau in North-Central China, millions of tons of powder-fine silt were swept down into the Yellow River, not only obstructing its flow, but causing massive flooding and the river's new name: China's Sorrow.

Likewise, centuries of over-intensive farming in Ethiopia have destroyed nearly every inch of vegetation, leaving wide swaths of bone-dry desert. Heavy flooding has etched deep gullies into the land, sweeping topsoil downward and away with nothing to halt its progress. With not even a drop left for farmers to water their crops, their animals or themselves, the ensuing drought and famine has been catastrophic.

What is encouraging, however, is that both of these regions can give us hope, as they serve as models of how whole ecosystems can be restored through sustainable agricultural practices.

By allowing the land to rest, grasses and other plant species thought to be extinct have re-emerged. In Ethiopia, villagers have planted indigenous trees and vegetation, transforming the severely eroded terrain. Rainfall now absorbs into the ground, feeding a clear stream that flows year-round, aided by the cover of dense vegetation. This has saved the region from desert-induced annihilation and instilled hope for a future of continued sustainability, a lesson that needs to be learned around the globe.

Grazing Livestock to the Rescue?

I was so inspired by the video that I will actually be visiting the Allan Savory Institute in Boulder at his annual conference next month and very much look forward to it. In the TED Talk above, Allan explains how we're currently encouraging desertification, similar to what nearly occurred during the Dust Bowl. Savory believes the best way to not only stop desertification, but also reverse it, by dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock.

According to Savory, rising population, land turning into desert at a steady clip (known as desertification), converge to create a "perfect storm" that threatens life on Earth. Desertification has long been thought to be caused by livestock, such as sheep and cattle overgrazing and giving off methane. But, according to Savory, we have completely misunderstood the causes of desertification. We've failed to realize that in seasonal humidity environments, the soil and vegetation developed with very large numbers of grazing animals meandering through. Along with these herds came ferocious pack-hunting predators. The primary defense against these predators was the herd size.

The larger the herd, the safer the individual animal within the herd. These large herds deposited dung and urine all over the grasses (their food), and so they would keep moving from one area to the next.

This constant movement of large herds naturally prevented overgrazing of plants, while periodic trampling ensured protective covering of the soil. As explained by Savory, grasses must degrade biologically before the next growing season. This easily occurs if the grass is trampled into the ground. If it does not decay biologically, it shifts into oxidation — a very slow process that results in bare soil, which then ends up releasing carbon.

Savory has developed a holistic management and planned grazing system that is now being implemented in select areas on five continents. In one area, increasing grazing cattle numbers by 400 percent, planning the grazing to mimic nature, and integrating the cattle with local elephants, buffalo and giraffes, has achieved remarkable results. I encourage you to view the video, because seeing is believing.

In the US, where corn and soy — much of which are genetically engineered — are rapidly overtaking native grasslands, a return to smaller-scale agriculture, complete with grazing herds, may be necessary for creating a more sustainable food system. Following Savory's strategy, large herds could be moved across areas in planned grazing patterns, which would be beneficial for the environment, the health of the animals, and subsequently the health of humans consuming those animals.

Permaculture: Working With Nature to Prevent a 21st-Century Dust Storm

Geoff Lawton introduced the permaculture concept in Australia, where rebuilding functional ecosystems from the ground up restores them to their fullest potential. It can create an agricultural heartland even in the desert in as little as 3.5 years, including being fully self-sufficient year-round, cycling its own nutrients without the need for irrigation or artificial fertilizer.

"Permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how to design natural homes and abundant food production systems, regenerate degraded landscapes and ecosystems, develop ethical economies and communities, and much more. As an ecological design system, permaculture focuses on the interconnections between things more than individual parts."6

Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is a living example of how incredibly successful and sustainable natural farming can be. He produces beef, chicken, eggs, turkey, rabbits and vegetables. Yet, Joel calls himself a grass-farmer, for it is the grass that transforms the sun into energy that his animals then feed on. By closely observing nature, Joel created a rotational grazing system that not only allows the land to heal but also allows the animals to behave the way the were meant to — expressing their "chicken-ness" or "pig-ness," as Joel would say.

Cows are moved every day, which mimics their natural patterns and promotes revegetation. Sanitation is accomplished by birds. The birds (chickens and turkeys) arrive three days after the cows leave — via the Eggmobile — and scratch around in the pasture, doing what chickens do best.

No pesticides. No herbicides. No antibiotics. No seed spreading. Salatin hasn't planted a seed or purchased a chemical fertilizer in 50 years. He just lets herbivores be herbivores and cooperates with nature, instead of fighting it. It's a different and refreshing philosophy.

Instead of making $150 per acre per year from a crop that produces food for three months, but lays fallow for the rest of the year, he's making $3,000 per acre by rotating crops throughout the year, thereby making use of his land all 12 months — and maintaining its ecological balance at the same time. This generates complementary income streams while protecting the land from ecological disasters like that felt by the southern Plains.

You Can Start in Your Own Backyard!

If we learn just one thing from the Dust Bowl disaster of the '30s, it should be that humans can only push nature so far before it pushes back with a vengeance. Wayne Lewis, one of the Dust Bowl survivors, speaking from experience, said:7

"We want it now – and if it makes money now it's a good idea. But if the things we're doing are going to mess up the future it wasn't a good idea. Don't deal on the moment. Take the long-term look at things. It's important that we do the right thing by the soil and the climate. History, is of value only if you learn from it."

You might not be able to singlehandedly prevent history from repeating itself, but you can make a difference now for yourself, for your family and for your community that might have residual effects by:

  • Growing your own vegetables is an increasingly popular concept for thousands of Americans. It can help you save money, involve everyone in the family and help create a store that can last through the winter.
  • Organic gardening isn't something extra you do – in fact it's quite the opposite. It's what you don't do that makes the difference: no toxic chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides on your plate! When you take control of what you eat, you'll naturally enjoy better health, ensure and protecting future generations.
  • Composting is another way to make what you already have work for you in the future. Save those scraps, from eggshells to coffee filters, and use them to feed your vegetable garden.