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 of 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).
Farm family, Sargent, Nebraska, 1886. Photograph by Solomon D. Butcher. (Image: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-16083)
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 and few 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 in the previous section) 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.