The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl was a period from the summer of 1931 to the fall of 1939 of severe drought in the Midwest and Central Plains regions of the US. This environmental disaster affected 19 states, but the effects were most severe in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. Many farmers, most inexperienced, lived in this area, in large part because of Congress’s passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, which had granted land to settlers to farm. After World War I, millions of acres in the Great Plains had been used for growing wheat.

In the 1930s, a combination of multiple factors – the overuse of the land for growing wheat and grazing livestock, poor land management practices, and severe waves of drought that lasted for 8 years – led to the Dust Bowl. Heavy winds eroded the topsoil of the region, resulting in large black blizzards of dust that blocked out the sun, covered everything in feet of dust, and sometimes blew dust all the way to the East Coast. The large amounts of dust in the air also killed livestock and caused children to develop pneumonia. Due to the lack of rain, farmers weren’t able to grow much on their farms.

Additionally, the Great Depression was suppressing prices for agricultural goods. Banks began foreclosing on farmers and auctioning off their farms and farming equipment. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent emergency aid to the affected areas. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up drought relief programs, such as the Prairie States Forestry Project which employed local farmers to grow trees as a way to block some of the wind erosion.

Unable to farm in these conditions, approximately 2.5 million people, known pejoratively as “Okies,” migrated away from regions affected by the Dust Bowl, with most of them trekking to California. By 1941, many of the affected areas were getting normal levels of rainfall. More importantly, the US learned many lessons about agricultural practices that made it ready for the next drought.