I just finished reading “Dust Bowl Blues,” by Sasha Abramsky, in The Nation magazine; the most depressing article I have read in some time.
I spent my first 28 years out there. My parents and aunts and uncles were irrigated farmers around Lubbock, the home of Texas Tech. My parents also owned a lumber yard and hardware store and a well service business in Wolfforth, Texas, ten miles southwest of Lubbock, which they sold in 1963. I used to pull and set submersible pumps on farms around Wolfforth. The water was playing out then. It’s almost amazing it has held out this long.
I discussed the problem of the Ogallala Aquifer being drained in my doctoral dissertation at Texas Tech, “An Analysis of Rural Manpower Migration Patterns in the South Plains Region of Texas,” which was funded with a $6,500 grant from the US Department of Labor, published in the National Technical Information Service in 1969. Most kids like me growing up around Lubbock in the 1960s who did not inherit farmland wound up migrating to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Mack Davis, about my age who grew up in Lubbock and became a country and western singer, recorded a famous song, “Happiness is Lubbock, Texas, in a Rearview Mirror.”
On the other hand, a lot of people stayed. Many of them still farm land that has been in their families for generations, and they are the ones with the most to lose. They loved their land and their lives as cotton farmers.
My parents grew up in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, and it’s scary to think about another Dust Bowl. I went back to Wolfforth three years ago for the first time in 20 or so years for my 50th high school class reunion. I walked around our old farm 5 miles west of Wolfforth, saw the small frame house my father built when I was 4 years old. The soil was so dry and hot I could not believe it could grow anything. The whole country seemed much hotter than it used to. The sun in July bore down like a heat lamp.
A woman friend of my mother in Wolfforth, Nelda Henderson, told me people around there almost did not expect to make a crop anymore; they only planted to get the crop insurance money.
Abramsky discussed this process in her Nation article. What with the recent prolonged drought the economics are worse now than they have been in recent memory, and push is coming to shove. A new crop of out-migrants could be produced, and like the Joads in Steinbeck’s 1930s novel “Grapes of Wrath,” there won’t be easy answers about where to go.
As a farmer at Ralls pointed out in The Nation article, let’s hope it starts raining again. Some of the farmers interviewed in the article are about my age. We used to play basketball against Ralls.
Following is a passage starting on page 78 of my book “Business Voyages”:
For a fuller discussion of ecological problems of the Plains states from an historical perspective, read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (2006). According to Egan, the Dust Bowl days in the 1930s were basically caused by high wheat prices in 1917 when Russia produced less wheat for the world market because of World War I. Wheat sold for 80 cents a bushel in 1910 and $2 a bushel in 1917, which was a lot of money in those days, which caused many millions of acres growing buffalo grass on the Plains states to be plowed up and planted in wheat, setting in motion an ecological chain of events resulting in the droughts, sandstorms, and grinding poverty of the 1930s. Buffalo grass didn’t require much water and its roots were dense and shallow keeping soil from blowing away during high winds in dry times. Wheat required more water and had a different root system causing the land and moisture to blow away in high winds when the wheat was not growing, creating increasingly dryer soil, more sandstorms, and greater soil erosion from year to year. According to Egan (2006), the resulting horrendous sandstorms, one of them a monster two miles high and 200 miles wide, would create the equivalent of blizzards blotting out the sky and coating everything in their paths with sand and grit. Sand dunes piled up against fences and buildings, and people got sick because of breathing dust. One tractor in 1930 could do the work of 10 horses and this made it easier to plow up 5.2 million acres of buffalo grass during 1925–1930.
According to Egan (2006), Russia started exporting wheat again and after the stock market crash of 1929 wheat was selling for 40 cents a bushel. Worse, it stopped raining; and thousands of farmers were bankrupted. The sandstorms got worse and many of the inhabitants some called Okies moved to California. It started raining again in the 1940s and farmers began to mine water for irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer and the sandstorms got less severe. Things got better in the ’50s and ’60s and worsened in the ’70s and have held on up to now. According to Timothy Egan in The Worst Hard Time, the Ogallala Aquifer will generally dry up within 100 years at present rates of usage; but he says according to hydrologists water in the aquifer under parts of the Texas Panhandle will dry up by 2010. Buffalo grass and buffaloes may once again cover and roam the Plains.