Two of the many families that migrated away from the Great Plains in the mid-1930s.(Image: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Digital Archives)
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).