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Avoiding Another Dust Bowl

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
August 2, 2011

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July went down as the hottest month on record, and one of the driest. Yet there’s been no sign of a Dust Bowl blowing through, and only the usual handful of dust storms have hit the Panhandle. But thanks to a combination of practices put into place in the 30′s, the blackout conditions have not returned.

To start, there are fewer acres getting farmed, helping to prevent another Dust Bowl. Producers plowed, planted, and fertilized 20 million acres during the 1930’s – compared to just 10 million acres today.

“If we were still farming that today, even with the disc and the chisel plow, we would see a lot more dust in the air. It’s as simple as that. It wouldn’t be that bad, but it wouldn’t be as good either,” said Oklahoma State University Precision Nutrient Professor Brian Arnall.

Old plows would take the soil from 6 or 12 inches deep and put it on the top, essentially turning it over. But with either the disc or chisel plow, the soil is just loosened up.

“One pass with the disc, you still have a lot of residue left on the surface. And so that’s the biggest thing,” said Arnall.

With less acres to farm, and better technology, conditions really need to deteriorate to get a replay of the Dust Bowl of the 30′s. That is still the case when you factor in a dry spell.

“This year is worse than normal. The producers call it a three generation drought is what I hear commonly,” said Arnall. “That only every third or fourth generation is ever going to see something like this or experience it.”

After the Dust Bowl, the federal government stepped in and started paying farmers to set aside land for conservation. The payouts aren’t enough to offset the financial loss if they had planted crops, but enough to make it close. The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, has paid off in preventing a repeat of the early 30’s. Eighty- seven conservation districts cover every inch of Oklahoma, insuring against another Dust Bowl.

“I can’t imagine anything that would bring it up. We’ve had too much, the reduction in total acres, the implementation of wind rows, tree rows, wind blows, the implementation of CRP, and the conservation practices that NRCS and the government are still supporting today,” said Arnall.

Clay Pope, the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, oversees the conservation districts that blanket the state.

“If it was not from those programs, we would see the beginnings of what would be a new Dust Bow,” said Pope.

Even with the outcome already determined and federal help to steer farmers away from overuse, it’s still a balance.

“You’re looking at it for the long term, obviously if you have an acre of say highly erodible ground, you say well I don’t want to hurt this land. And like you said, you want it available for future generations but you also want your kids to go to college. You know, you also want to make sure you’re not stuck in a situation where you can’t make your farm payment,” said Pope.

“They know darn well that if they worked the ground and took the ground out of the conservation practices, they’d lose it. And every producer out there wants to leave something for his children and his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. They learned from their grandparents, they learned from their parents, they know what’s going to happen if they do it,” said Arnall.

If people had farmed that land continuously, Pope is convinced western Oklahoma would have a drastically different appearance.

“You would hit something that would start to be comparable to the Sahara Desert. And you would get down into the West, you’d get out into the Oklahoma Panhandle, the Texas Panhandle, eastern New Mexico, southwest Kansas, that area out there would be a badlands that it would be comparable to what you see in the desert regions of say Arizona,” said Pope.

With the heat expected to hang around over the next month, and a rain forecast that favors a teenager anxious for a tan over a farmer anxious for some rain, conditions will likely only get worse. The test just gets more difficult. But because the tough decisions have already been made, the Dirty Thirties appear to be a memory, not something that will be experienced again.

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