Current Weather
The Spy FM

Soaked In Drought: Lessons From The Dust Bowl

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
August 4, 2012

This summer’s drought continues to wilt and bake crops from Ohio to the Great Plains and beyond. Under a baking, late-afternoon sun just outside of the tiny East Central Illinois town of Thawville, John Hildenbrand walks down his dusty, gravel driveway toward one of his corn fields.

“You can see on the outer edge, these are a lot better looking ears on the outside rows. Of course, it’s not near as hot as it is inside the field,” he says.

Walking deeper into the 7-foot-high corn stalks, the temperature — already in the 90s — becomes stifling. Here, the ears are smaller. Peeling back the husks on an undersized ear of corn, Hildenbrand exposes kernels that are drying up.

“It just never really matured. And [if] we got out in there farther, it’s gonna be just that much less,” he says.

More than 63 percent of the country in the lower 48 states is experiencing drought, leading some to compare the summer of 2012 to the droughts of the 1950s and even the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

A More Resilient Corn

John’s father, Charles Hildenbrand, was born and raised on this land and farmed these very fields for decades, as did his father before him. The 84-year-old was too young to remember much about the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s — other than he and his father dragged their mattresses outdoors to sleep at night.

But he says even though this year’s drought is the worst he’s ever seen, today’s hybrid corn is surviving better than the corn he and his father planted ever could.

“If this would’ve been open pollinated, it would have been all brown, probably. And there probably wouldn’t be any kernels on these ears,” he says. “The cobs is about all that would be there, I’m afraid.”

The development of hybrid crops that are better able to withstand heat and drought is one of the only reasons the Hildenbrands have a chance of a small crop this year. And it’s one of the most important developments in farming since those devastating droughts of yore.

How To Compare

In the ’30s and ’40s, Charles Hildenbrand used horses, replaced today by tractors, combines and planters with high-tech gadgets and computers. So is it even fair to compare this summer’s drought to the devastating droughts on the 1950s, or even the Dust Bowl years?

“Certainly from a geographical footprint, it’s right up there with the ’50s and ’30s at over 60 percent,” says climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“But the ’30s and ’50s were multi-year droughts,” he says, “and this drought, so far for the majority of the country, is not a multi-year drought yet.”

In those exceptionally dry years of the 1930s, farmers and ranchers plowed up the Great Plains to plant wheat. They ended up losing not just their crops but their top soil too, as winds blew it into giant dust clouds that darkened the skies for hundreds of miles.

That spurred the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which paid farmers to not farm some land and to replant the native prairie grasses to keep soil in place. Svoboda says the USDA agency also encouraged farmers to change their tillage practices.

“Instead of tilling the soil over, they use what they call no-till drilling or low-till … which doesn’t disturb the soil. It plants directly into a residue-covered soil that retains a lot of soil moisture in that upper part of the profile,” he says.

In addition to being better able to preserve what little moisture is in the soil, hybrid crops send roots deeper to find moisture.

Praying For Rain

Still, University Of Illinois agronomist Emerson Nafziger says there is one constant and critical truth to farming.

“The hybrids and so on are improved now, but we certainly don’t have hybrids that can do without water,” he says.

Back on the Hildenbrand farm, looking over his withering crops, John Hildenbrand couldn’t agree more.

“I was reading the crop watchers in the Farm Bureau paper, he said, ‘We’re no longer crop watchers — we’re deterioration watchers.’ And that’s really what we’re doing; we’re watching our crops deteriorate in front our eyes,” he says.

Hildenbrand estimates his yields already will be less than half of normal, and if there isn’t some rain and cooler temperatures soon, he may lose it all. Then he’ll rely on maybe the most significant development since the 1930s in helping farmers deal with losses: crop insurance. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

10AM to 11PM On Point

On Point

On Point unites distinct and provocative voices with passionate discussion as it confronts the stories that are at the center of what is important in the world today. Leaving no perspective unchallenged, On Point digs past the surface and into the core of a subject, exposing each of its real world implications.

Listen Live Now!

11AM to 12PM The Story

The Story

The Story with Dick Gordon brings the news home through first-person accounts. The live weekday program is passionate, personal, immediate and relevant to listeners, focusing on the news where it changes our lives, causes us to stop and rethink, inspires us.

View the program guide!

12PM to 1PM Fresh Air

Fresh Air

This one-hour program features Terry Gross' in-depth interviews with prominent cultural and entertainment figures, as well as distinguished experts on current affairs and news.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center