Without a doubt, the drought in Texas and the southern Great Plains will be one for the history books. But it’s not the first time it’s been dry in Texas. Many around here remember the drought in the mid-1950s. History tells of droughts that caused Indian tribes to migrate to other areas, causing massive declines in their populations. The one that we all think of, though, is the “Dust Bowl” or as it’s referred to around here, the “Dirty Thirties.”
As the story is told in The Grapes of Wrath, many farmers left the High Plains in search of more than just a better life, but of life itself – a job where a person could feed his family.
There is also the story of the ones who stayed on the Plains. Growing conditions were tough. Most people lost what money they saved when the banks went under. I asked my great Aunt Pearl, who was a girl of nine at the time, what she remembered. She said when the storms blew in, you couldn’t see the back fence from the house. After the dirt storm passed, they would haul buckets of dirt out of the house.
We still have dirt storms in West Texas, but why not a repeat of the “Dirty Thirties?” The main reason is technology. The first was the Hoeme plow. By using sweeps instead of a one-way disc, trash was left on top of the ground. With the invention of herbicides, we didn’t rely so much on the plow to control weeds, thus increasing organic matter in the soil. Overuse of the plow breaks down soil structure, making powdery soil that blows. I wonder what our 30 mph-plus winds would have looked like in the “Dirty Thirties?”
Sure, the dirt storms weren’t pretty this year, but they could have been a lot worse.
Today, we have even better tools – crops over the tops of which we can spray herbicide that kills weeds without killing the crop. This is certainly the greatest invention in my farming career, allowing me to leave all the organic matter on top of the soil, which decreases dirt storms and, at the same time, captures every drop of rain that falls.
But how about when the rain doesn’t fall? I can use the best methods possible, but if it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter. I have to remember why other producers and I do what we do. What keeps farmers on the land? What keeps stability in agriculture? With this kind of risk, who’s going to grow the crops when things change? Those are questions answered from lessons learned from the Dust Bowl.
I am grateful that I can buy crop insurance at a reasonable cost, and that we have agriculture programs that help smooth out this risk. The events of this year, although unfortunate for many on the High Plains, highlight the importance of these programs and their necessity to keep this industry running at the pace needed to meet future global demand.
I hope that my children will never have to see a time like this again, but I can’t promise that. What I can promise is that I, as a producer, am committed to this land and the fruit that comes from it, through the good times and the bad. I can’t get down on this year and tell future generations that it’s not worth it, because it is. And not only is it worth it, it is vital. Nothing worth having comes easy, and I have been and continue to be blessed. As the Robert Schuller book title says, Tough Times Never Last, Tough People Do.
The settlers who came to the Great Plains were a hardy breed – tough and independent. When I look at what they went through, I realize that Aunt Pearl is right: “The good old days are right now.” We are indeed fortunate that agriculture has changed with the times, and producers have adopted technologies that will keep us from experiencing what Aunt Pearl and those early settlers lived through in the 1930s. We have learned lessons from the past. Let’s not forget them.
– Barry Evans, Kress, Texas