What is Drought?

 Drought in the Dust Bowl Years


Introduction

The Great Depression and Overcapitalization
Poor Land Management Practices
Drought Duration and Extent
Coping with and Recovering from Drought
1930s Drought Costs
Lessons Learned: The Legacy of the 1930s Drought
References
Other Resources

 

Introduction
In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.

Effects of the Plains drought sent economic and social ripples throughout the country. For example, millions of people migrated from the drought areas, often heading west, in search of work. These newcomers were often in direct competition for jobs with longer-established residents, which created conflict between the groups. In addition, because of poverty and high unemployment, migrants added to local relief efforts, sometimes overburdening relief and health agencies.

Many circumstances exacerbated the effects of the drought, among them the Great Depression and economic overexpansion before the drought, poor land management practices, and the areal extent and duration of the drought. (Warrick et al., 1975, and Hurt, 1981, discuss these issues in greater detail; see the reference section at the end of this article for the full citations.) The peculiar combination of these circumstances and the severity and areal coverage of the event played a part in making the 1930s drought the widely accepted drought of record for the United States. To cope with and recover from the drought, people relied on ingenuity and resilience, as well as relief programs from state and federal governments. Despite all efforts, many people were not able to make a living in drought-stricken regions and were forced to migrate to other areas in search of a new livelihood. It is not possible to count all the costs associated with the drought of the 1930s drought, but one estimate by Warrick et al. (1980) claims that financial assistance from the government may have been as high as $1 billion (in 1930s dollars) by the end of the drought. Fortunately, several lessons were learned that were used in reducing the vulnerability of the regions to future droughts.

The Great Depression and Overcapitalization
In the early 1920s, farmers saw several opportunities for increasing their production. New technology and crop varieties were reducing the time and costs-per-acre of farming, which provided a great incentive for agricultural expansion. This expansion was also necessary to pay for expensive, newly developed equipment (such as listers and plows) that was often purchased on credit, and to offset low crop prices after World War I.

When the national economy went into decline in the late 1920s because of the Great Depression, agriculture was even more adversely affected. In addition, a record wheat crop in 1931 sent crop prices even lower. These lower prices meant that farmers needed to cultivate more acreage, including poorer farmlands, or change crop varieties to produce enough grain to meet their required equipment and farm payments.

When drought began in the early 1930s, it worsened these poor economic conditions. The depression and drought hit farmers on the Great Plains the hardest. Many of these farmers were forced to seek government assistance. A 1937 bulletin by the Works Progress Administration reported that 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains were receiving federal emergency relief (Link et al., 1937). However, even with government help, many farmers could not maintain their operations and were forced to leave their land. Some voluntarily deeded their farms to creditors, others faced foreclosure by banks, and still others had to leave temporarily to search for work to provide for their families. In fact, at the peak of farm transfers in 1933–34, nearly 1 in 10 farms changed possession, with half of those being involuntary (from a combination of the depression and drought).

Poor Land Management Practices
A number of poor land management practices in the Great Plains region increased the vulnerability of the area before the 1930s drought. Some of the land use patterns and methods cultivation in the region can be traced back to the settlement of the Great Plains nearly 100 years earlier. At that time, little was known of the region’s climate. Several expeditions had explored the region, but they were not studying the region for its agricultural potential, and, furthermore, their findings went into government reports that were not readily available to the general public (Fite, 1966). Misleading information, however, was plentiful. “Boosters” of the region, hoping to promote settlement, put forth glowing but inaccurate accounts of the Great Plains’ agricultural potential. In addition to this inaccurate information, most settlers had little money or other assets, and their farming experience was based on conditions in the more humid eastern United States, so the crops and cultivation practices they chose often were not suitable for the Great Plains. But the earliest settlements occurred during a wet cycle, and the first crops flourished, so settlers were encouraged to continue practices that would later have to be abandoned. When droughts and harsh winters inevitably occurred, there was widespread economic hardship and human suffering, but the early settlers put these episodes behind them once the rains returned. Although adverse conditions forced many settlers to return to the eastern United States, even more continued to come west. The idea that the climate of the Great Plains was changing, particularly in response to human settlement, was popularly accepted in the last half of the 19th century. It was reflected in legislative acts such as the Timber Culture Act of 1873, which was based on the belief that if settlers planted trees they would be encouraging rainfall, and it was not until the 1890s that this idea was finally abandoned (White, 1991). Although repeated droughts tested settlers and local/state governments, the recurrence of periods of plentiful rainfall seemed to delay recognition of the need for changes in cultivation and land use practices.

Several actions in the 1920s also increased the region’s vulnerability to drought. Low crop prices and high machinery costs (discussed above) meant that farmers needed to cultivate more land to produce enough to meet their required payments. Since most of the best farming areas were already being used, poorer farmlands were increasingly used. Farming submarginal lands often had negative results, such as soil erosion and nutrient leaching. By using these areas, farmers were increasing the likelihood of crop failures, which increased their vulnerability to drought.

These economic conditions also created pressure on farmers to abandon soil conservation practices to reduce expenditures. Furthermore, during the 1920s, many farmers switched from the lister to the more efficient one-way disc plow, which also greatly increased the risk of blowing soil. Basically, reductions in soil conservation measures and the encroachment onto poorer lands made the farming community more vulnerable to wind erosion, soil moisture depletion, depleted soil nutrients, and drought.

Drought Duration and Extent
Although the 1930s drought is often referred to as if it were one episode, there were at least 4 distinct drought events: 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40 (Riebsame et al., 1991). These events occurred in such rapid succession that affected regions were not able to recover adequately before another drought began. Historical maps of U.S. climate divisions and graphs of U.S. river basins reflect this situation.

Coping with and Recovering from Drought
During the 1930s, many measures were undertaken to relieve the direct impacts of droughts and to reduce the region’s vulnerability to the dry conditions. Many of these measures were initiated by the federal government, a relatively new practice. Before the 1930s drought, federal aid had generally been withheld in emergency situations in favor of individual and self-reliant approaches. This began to change with the development of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and the 1933 inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The depression helped “soften deep-rooted, hard-line attitudes of free enterprise, individualism, and the passive role of the government”, thus paving the way for Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which in turn provided a framework for drought relief programs for the Great Plains (Warrick, 1980).

Warrick et al. (1975) describe these drought relief programs, which are credited with saving many livelihoods throughout the drought periods. The programs had a variety of goals, all of which were aimed at the reduction of drought impacts and vulnerability:

  • Providing emergency supplies, cash, and livestock feed and transport to maintain the basic functioning of livelihoods and farms/ranches.
  • Establishing health care facilities and supplies to meet emergency medical needs.
  • Establishing government-based markets for farm goods, higher tariffs, and loan funds for farm market maintenance and business rehabilitation.
  • Providing the supplies, technology, and technical advice necessary to research, implement, and promote appropriate land management strategies.

As important as these programs may have been, the survival of a majority of the families and enterprises undoubtedly rested solely with their perseverance and integrity. Whether they stayed or moved into the drought regions or migrated to other areas in hopes of a better life, families encountered new hardships and obstacles that would require ingenuity, resilience, and humility. Those who remained in the drought regions were forced to endure severe dust storms and their health effects, diminished incomes, animal infestations, and the physical and emotional stress over their uncertain futures. Humor helped; tales about birds flying backward to keep from getting sand in their eyes, housewives scouring pots and pans by holding them up to keyholes for a sandblasting, and children who had never seen rain were among the favorite stories of Dust Bowl inhabitants. In the end, it was a combination of willpower, stamina, humor, pride, and, above all, optimism that enabled many to survive the Dust Bowl. These qualities are succinctly expressed in the comments of one contemporary Kansan: “We have faith in the future. We are here to stay” (quoted in Hurt, 1981).

The 1930s drought and its associated impacts finally began to abate during spring 1938. By 1941, most areas of the country were receiving near-normal rainfalls. These rains, along with the outbreak of World War II, alleviated many of the domestic economic problems associated with the 1930s. In fact, the new production demands and positive climatic conditions brought the United States into a rapid economic boom.

Even though short-term conditions seemed to be relatively stable, there were some drawbacks to this production growth. One drawback (described by Hurt, 1981) was that the start of World War II shifted remaining funds and priorities away from drought-related programs. Men were taken off work programs to enter the armed forces and to produce for the war effort. Moreover, items such as gasoline and replacement parts were redirected from federal drought and conservation programs to the war efforts. This meant that conservation programs and research were significantly reduced during this period. Another drawback was that with the return of the rains, many people soon forgot about conservation programs and measures implemented during the 1930s droughts. This led to a return to some of the inappropriate farming and grazing practices that made many regions so vulnerable to drought in the 1930s.

1930s Drought Costs
Although the 1988–89 drought was the most economically devastating natural disaster in the history of the United States (Riebsame et al., 1991), a close second is undoubtedly the series of droughts that affected large portions of the United States in the 1930s. Determining the direct and indirect costs associated with this period of droughts is a difficult task because of the broad impacts of drought, the event’s close association with the Great Depression, the fast revival of the economy with the start of World War II, and the lack of adequate economic models for evaluating losses at that time. However, broad calculations and estimates can provide valuable generalizations of the economic impact of the 1930s drought.

Overall Drought Costs
In 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) reported that drought was the principal reason for economic relief assistance in the Great Plains region during the 1930s (Link et al., 1937). Federal aid to the drought-affected states was first given in 1932, but the first funds marked specifically for drought relief were not released until the fall of 1933. In all, assistance may have reached $1 billion (in 1930s dollars) by the end of the drought (Warrick et al., 1980).

According to the WPA, three-fifths of all first-time rural relief cases in the Great Plains area were directly related to drought, with a disproportionate amount of cases being farmers (68%) and especially tenant farmers (70% of the 68%). However, it is not known how many of the remaining cases (32%) were indirectly affected by drought. The WPA report also noted that 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains area were receiving federal emergency relief by 1936 (Link et al., 1937); the number was as high as 90% in hard-hit counties (Warrick, 1980). Thus, even though the exact economic losses are not known for this time period, they were substantial enough to cause widespread economic disruption that affected the entire nation.

Lessons Learned: The Legacy of the 1930s Drought
The magnitude of the droughts of the 1930s, combined with the Great Depression, led to unprecedented government relief efforts. Congressional actions in 1934 alone accounted for relief expenditures of $525 million (U.S. House of Representatives, 1934); the total cost (social, economic, and environmental) would be impossible to determine.

If the Roosevelt era marked the beginning of large-scale aid, it also ushered in some of the first long-term, proactive programs to reduce future vulnerability to drought. It was in these years, for example, that the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service—began to stress soil conservation measures. Through their efforts, the first soil conservation districts came into being, and demonstration projects were carried out to show the benefits of practices such as terracing and contouring (for a discussion of the activities of the SCS during this period, see Hurt, 1981).

Warrick et al. (1975) note that the proactive measures continued in the years following the drought: conservation practices and irrigation increased, farm sizes grew larger, crop diversity increased, federal crop insurance was established, and the regional economy was diversified. Many other proactive measures taken after the 1930s drought also reduced rural and urban vulnerability to drought, including new or enlarged reservoirs, improved domestic water systems, changes in farm policies, new insurance and aid programs, and removal of some of the most sensitive agricultural lands from production (Riebsame et al., 1991).

Problems remained, but these programs and activities would play a fundamental role in reducing the vulnerability of the nation to the forthcoming 1950s drought. Although a larger area was affected during the 1950s drought, the conservation techniques that many farmers implemented in the intervening years helped prevent conditions from reaching the severity of the 1930s drought.

References
Fite, G.C. 1966. The Farmer’s Frontier, 1865–1900. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
Hurt, D.R. 1981. An Agricultural and Social History of the Dust Bowl. Nelson Hall, Chicago.
Link, I.; T.J. Woofter, Jr.; and C.C. Taylor.1937. Research Bulletin: Relief and Rehabilitation in the Drought Area. Works Progress Administration, Washington, D.C.
Riebsame, W.E.; S.A. Changnon, Jr.; and T.R. Carl. 1991. Drought and Natural Resources Management in the United States: Impacts and Implications of the 1987–89 Drought. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
United States House of Representatives. 1934. Relief of the drought area. Communication from the President of the United States, 73d Congress, 2d Session, Document No. 398, Washington, D.C.
Warrick, R.A. 1980. Drought in the Great Plains: A Case Study of Research on Climate and Society in the USA. In J. Ausubel and A.K. Biswas (eds.). Climatic Constraints and Human Activities, pp. 93–123. IIASA Proceedings Series, Vol. 10. Pergamon Press, New York.
Warrick, R.A.; P.B. Trainer; E.J. Baker; and W. Brinkman. 1975. Drought Hazard in the United States: A Research Assessment. Program on Technology, Environment and Man Monograph #NSF-RA-E-75-004, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder.
White, R. 1991. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Other Resources
Dust Storms and Their Damage Photos from the collection of the Wind Erosion Research Unit of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Kansas State University.
The Dust Bowl (photos) A collection of 20 photos for sale from The Social Studies Web.
American Memory from the Library of Congress A multi-format look at daily life in Farm Security Administration migrant work camps in central California, 1940 and 1941.
Weedpatch Camp The story of the Arvin Federal Government Camp, immortalized as “Weedpatch Camp” in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Dust storm footage A short film clip of a dust storm during the 1930s. From the website of the USDA/ARS Wind Erosion Research Unit at Kansas State University.
Surviving the Dust Bowl The website of the 1998 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) film “Surviving the Dust Bowl”. Provides a good background on the people and events of the 1930s Dust Bowl.
1930s Dust Bowl Excerpts from “The Dust Bowl, Men, Dirt and Depression” by Paul Bonnifield. On the Cimarron Heritage Center (Boise City, Oklahoma) website.
Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads Discussion and analysis of Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads” recording.
America from the Great Depression to World War II Photos from the Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information Collection, 1935–1945.
The Plow that Broke the Plains The story behind the 1936 documentary made for the Farm Security Administration on the destruction and suffering associated with drought in the early 1930s.

 

 

 

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