The Dust Bowl that began in the United States during 1931, lasted about a
decade. After the blizzards during the winter of 1930-1931, a drought began in
the Midwestern states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. First
the Northern Plains felt the dry spell, but by July 1931, the Southern Plains
were in the drought. It was not until late September that the ground had enough
water to justify planting. Because of the late planting and early frost, much of
the wheat was small and weak when the spring winds of 1932 began to blow. The
wheat was also beaten by dirt from the abandoned fields. In March 1932, there
were twenty-two days of dirt storms and drifts began to build in the fence rows.
The impact of the Dust Bowl was most severe on the Southern Plains.
As the crops died, the ‘black blizzards” began. Dust from the over-plowed and
over-grazed land began to blow. The Northern Plains were not so badly affected,
but nonetheless, the drought, windblown dust and agricultural decline were no
strangers to the north. In fact the agricultural devastation helped to lengthen
the Depression whose effects were felt worldwide.
The movement of people from the Plains was also profound. As John Steinbeck
wrote in his novel The Grapes of Wrath:“And then the dispossessed were drawn
west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas,
families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and
hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two
hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless -
restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to
pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We
got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all
Poor agricultural practices and years of sustained drought caused the Dust
Bowl. Plains grasslands had been deeply plowed and planted to wheat.
During the years when there was adequate rainfall, the land produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early 1930s deepened, the farmers kept plowing and planting and nothing would grow. The ground cover that held the soil in place was gone. The Plains winds whipped across the fields raising billowing clouds of dust to the sky. The sky could darken for days, and even the most well sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on furniture. In some places the dust would drift like snow, covering farmsteads. US government programs which encouraged soil conservation practices such as contour farming and grassland preservation helped to reduce the blowing and drifting.