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Will Another Dust Bowl Hit the U.S. Great Plains?

Some dust storms during the 1930s left parts of the Plains -- and everything on them -- under 6 feet of dust . . . dust from soil that nurtured the lifeblood of this region.

"My great uncle would talk about one morning when a dust storm rolled in while he was eating pancakes. When he finished, there was a white spot on his plate where the pancakes had been," recalls Doug Norris of Dallas, Texas. "The rest of the plate was black with dirt."

The '30s brought agricultural and cultural disaster to the central and southern Plains. Farmers plowed up native sod to plant the era's boom crop, hard red winter wheat. That opportunity, however, fell in line with severe drought, a combination that ultimately led to the Dust Bowl. Farmers and their families were forced out of the region in droves, and those who stayed struggled through complete destitution brought on by an environmental and human catastrophe that hasn't been replicated in the 80 years since.

But could it happen again?

Three to five years of severe drought from the Plains to the West Coast have turned many once-fertile fields and pastures to places where some farmers and ranchers speculate it could take years to restore the soil structure that once supported more bountiful crop yields.

"Let me make a simple statement that encompasses the reality we face. In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, we had only three years below 15 inches of rain, the lowest being 13, and they were not consecutive. We just finished a year at 12 inches, which followed a year at 8 inches behind a year at 6.5 inches. That is three years without a dryland crop for cover to hold the ground," says Hugoton, Kansas, farmer Richard James. "Our normal is 20, and in the '30s, there were three years above normal. We have been nearly 12 years since we have seen 'normal.'"

Short-term worries

So, what lies ahead? In the short-term, things look fairly bleak. The 2014 HRW wheat crop is, in some spots, for all intents and purposes, fried. A recent Kansas Wheat Tour shows while parts of that state's crop will likely yield near average, other areas -- namely western and southwest Kansas -- will see another crop failure. It's months and years in the making.

"We are losing the fallow ground first because last year's wheat stubble was so poor it will not stand the wind that is a part of the climate of the area. We are productive in spite of it because of the development of no-till and chemical fallow. We save every stitch of stubble we can to handle the wind," James says. "There are native pastures in the area that have not had a cow on them in over three years, and the grass continues to deteriorate."

The drought's damage does vary in severity. Some parts of Kansas will likely see a wheat crop closer to "normal" yield this year. But there isn't a part of the state -- much like the vast majority of the central and southern Plains -- that isn't touched by the drought.

"One thing that really stood out about this crop is the extent of the drought damage. It wasn’t just a portion of the state, or just one region, but rather was affecting the entire crop,” Kansas Wheat director Justin Gilpin said after a tour of the state's wheat crop this spring. And the prognosis is even worse for other crops in addition to the usually drought-hardy HRW wheat crop.

"Corn? Only if you're nuts or have irrigation and still have available water. Soybeans: Kind of like corn, or the select few who farm for an insurance check might be in business this year," Otis, Kansas, wheat and sorghum farmer Darrin Steinert says of the crop prospects in his area this year, adding his area's wheat crop will likely yield 10% to 20% of normal, while pasture conditions will support cattle numbers that are "the lowest in my lifetime."

Adds James: "We have been in a dust bowl the last few years, only saved by great farming practices and irrigation on 30% of the area."

The data back up these farmers' observations, including James' that just shy of 27 inches of rain has fallen over the last three years in his area; Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center says he's watched rainfall totals hover at historically low levels for quite some time in the Plains, and as of right now, there's not much in the form of immediate relief on the horizon for the region.

"Soil moisture and groundwater levels are hurting well in front of the peak demand season as the cumulative impacts of such an intense multiyear drought are already glaringly evident, and it’s only early May. Precipitation totals for the year are running just 25% to 50% of normal, or worse, for many locales across southern Kansas," says Svoboda, one of the moderators of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor that tracks drought conditions around the nation. "The story is even bleaker in the southern Plains, where the heat and drought described above for Kansas are even more pronounced and entrenched across western Oklahoma and much of Texas as well."

And the worst part of this weather pattern is this: It's early in the growing season. Very early.

"We've had some dust storms, no question. Nothing's been as bad as the Dust Bowl, but we are talking about this in May," says Oklahoma Conservation Commission executive director Mike Thralls. "We've got a whole summer to go. That's what's scary."

The human element

Just as a seed in the ground won't germinate without at least some water, all the conservation practices in the world don't work if there's nothing to conserve, Steinert says. But efforts on the conservation front -- for both soil and water -- are essentially what's keeping the central U.S. from lapsing into another Dust Bowl, experts agree. Though the recent years' runup in grain prices has encouraged many farmers to put some highly erodible acres into production -- a move that sometimes endangers decades-old conservation structures and creates more soil loss through wind and water erosion -- there are more conservation tools and practices at farmers' disposal now than there were 80-plus years ago. And, that's why what happened then hasn't yet happened now despite the fact that moisture conditions are actually worse than they were during the '30s. Farmers have to use the tools and practices, and the best way to make that happen is by making it financially attractive to do so. Farming is a business, after all. However, as Thralls says, it's a business that's got more than just money in its balance.

"I believe that farmers are the folks that have closest to their heart the stewardship ethic that says we have to protect this land and be able to pass it along to our kids. They're thinking, 'I've got to make it this year, but what am I going to have to do to make it to the next generation?'" Thralls says. "It's an issue that isn't an easy one. People are always going to trump crops. We've got to have water and food to live."

Making that happen entails a keen attention to long-term weather data but more importantly taking advantage of tools and practices. Thralls says his commission and other bodies like it around the country offer farmers ways to not just bolster conservation efforts, but more importantly, to do so without affecting profitability.

"Our job at the NRCS and state agencies is to give the best technical information available to farmers and consider the bottom line. If it doesn't make money, I can't do it. I have a farm, too. That's the reason we have incentives, and why we're able to show that these are the things to do," Thralls says. "I think that human nature does not change. Greed does not change." 

What can be done?

So what specifically is being done? Right now, it starts with what's being planted. Staying away from more thirsty crops that need irrigation to even stay alive, like in some parts of the Plains, is a start. Right now, research at Oklahoma State University is looking at improving sorghum yields, for example, to get that crop on par from a profit standpoint with corn when taking irrigation costs into account. Though that research has yet to glean fully conclusive results, the passage of time is only aiding the cause for sorghum profitability vs. corn.

"One of the things we've done in this state is establish irrigation studies for corn vs. milo or sorghum. We're in the third year of that research," Thralls says. "We'll eventually be able to show folks the economic comparison. Very quickly, water is becoming the limiting factor in those areas depending on irrigation. It's becoming too expensive to pump. And, that's not going to improve over the next two decades."

Yet it's not just individual crops; Thralls says he's encouraging other farmers to implement crop rotations that keep the ground covered with some sort of plant material year-round, if that's possible. It's a simple concept, he admits. But it can be a tough sell for some farmers.

"If the weather trends continue, maybe the Cotton Belt is going to move into northern Oklahoma. Clean-till cotton isn't a very good idea in these situations, though," Thralls says. "We've got to be thinking about how to do a rotational crop, what it is, and how we'll keep cover on the ground. With the moisture we have, we've got to do the very best we can to keep it there, whether it's from rain or irrigation."

Down the road, the soil in which those crops are planted will become the focus of water conservation research and federal conservation incentive programs, Thralls adds.

"Soil health and cover crops are huge right now. With soil biology, we have a lot to learn. We're still learning how we best care for the soil," he says, adding that soil biology will remain a high priority in NRCS conservation research for the next two decades. "You do have to have a little rain now and then, but if you've got soil with organic matter in it and it's properly protected, you've got so much better a chance of making a crop."

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