The Dust Bowl

The First World War severely disrupted agriculture in Europe. This worked to the advantage of farmers in America who were able to use new machines such as the combine harvester to dramatically increase production. During the war American farmers were able to export the food that was surplus to requirements of the home market.

By the 1920s, European agriculture had recovered and American farmers found it more difficult to find export markets for their goods. Farmers continued to produce more food than could be consumed and consequently prices began to fall. The decline in agricultural profits meant that many farmers had difficulty paying the heavy mortgages on their farms. By the 1930s many American farmers were in serious financial difficulties.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as president, he asked Congress to pass the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933). The AAA paid farmers not to grow crops and not to produce dairy produce such as milk and butter. It also paid them not to raise pigs and lambs. The money to pay the farmers for cutting back production of about 30% was raised by a tax on companies that bought the farm products and processed them into food and clothing.

A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma (April 1936)
A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma (April 1936)

Farmers in the Mid-West faced another serious problem. During the First World War, farmers grew wheat on land normally used for grazing animals. This intensive farming destroyed the protective cover of vegetation and the hot dry summers began to turn the soil into dust. High winds in 1934 turned an area of some 50 million acres into a giant dust bowl.

Milo Reno, the head of Farmers' Holiday Association and Floyd Olson, the Governor of Minnesota, insisted on compulsory production control and price-fixing, with a guaranteed cost of production. Henry Wallace argued this was against the idea as it would mean licensing every ploughed field in the country. Reno responded by calling a strike. According to William E. Leuchtenburg: "Strikers dumped kerosene in cream, broke churns, and dynamited dairies and cheese factories."

Primary Sources

(1) President Herbert Hoover, statement (8th August, 1930)

As a result of conferences of the last few days, which embrace the Cabinet, members of the Farm Board, together with Presidents Thompson, Tabor and Huff of the farm organizations, I have decided to ask the governors of the states most acutely affected by the drought to meet with us in Washington next Thursday in order to consider definite plans for organization of relief. Such organization will need first to be undertaken by the states, and through them the counties, with whom the various Federal agencies can cooperate.

I now have the preliminary survey of the Department of Agriculture of the situation as of August 1st. It shows that the shortage of animal feed crops is most acute in southeastern Missouri, northern Arkansas, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, southern Ohio, Kentucky, northern West Virginia, and northern Virginia with spots of less dimensions in Montana, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska - the latter three states being the less acutely affected. I shall ask the governors of those states to attend. The feed crops in some other states are also reduced, the amount of ultimate reduction depending upon rain during the next two weeks. It may develop that we shall need to ask the governors of one or two other states also to attend. In any event, in the most acute areas we should now lay the foundation for effective local and state organization, the object of which is to prevent suffering amongst farm families deprived of support, and to prevent the sacrifice of livestock more than is necessary.

In the acutely affected area which I have mentioned there are approximately one million farm families who possess approximately 2¼ million horses and mules, 6 million cattle, and 12 million hogs and sheep. This represents approximately 12% of the animals in the country. Obviously the individual farmers in the the acute area are differently affected. Their losses run all the way from a few percent up to their entire animal feed crops. The actual numbers who are in distress will, therefore, be less than those gross figures.

Secretary Hyde has instructed the county agents to make a further more searching and definite report on the later progress of the drought and the nature of the relief that will be necessary in the different counties. We are in hopes that we shall have this information in hand ready for the meeting of the governors.

The situation is one to cause a great deal of concern, but it must be borne in mind that the drought has many affected animal feed, the bulk of the direct human food production of the country being abundantly in hand. Nevertheless, there will be a great deal of privation among families in the drought areas due to the loss of income and the financial difficulties imposed on them to carry their animals over the winter. The American people will proudly take care of the necessities of their countrymen in time of stress or difficulty. Our first duty is to assure our suffering countrymen that this will be done, that their courage and spirit shall be maintained, and our second duty is to assure an effective organization for its consummation.

(2) Herbert Hoover, statement (14th August, 1930)

We have canvassed the information secured by state and national surveys as to drought conditions. While the extent of the damage cannot yet be determined, it is certain that there are at least 250 counties most acutely affected where some degree of relief must be provided. It was the view of the conference that the burden of effective organization to meet the situation over the winter in the acutely affected counties rests primarily upon the counties and the states themselves, supplemented by such cooperation and assistance as may be found necessary on the part of the Federal Government.

The objective of such relief is: To assist families over the winter who are deprived of means of support for failure of their crops. To prevent unnecessary sacrifice of livestock. Protection to public health.

This is to be accomplished by: Placing of loans privately or where necessary with assistance of State or national agencies. Red Cross assistance. Employment. Reduced railway rates for food, feed and livestock to the distressed districts. This relief can be achieved justly and effectively only upon first determination of the counties where such assistance is required, and second, upon an accurate determination of the needs of each family. In order that such determinations may be made and assistant supplied as each case may require, the following organization is agreed upon:

1. Each governor who considers that a situation requiring emergency relief exists within the state shall create a Drought Relief Committee under the chairmanship of a leading citizen, and embracing in its membership a state agricultural official, a leading banker, a Red Cross representative, a railway representative, and such farmers and others as the situation may require. This committee to take general charge of relief measures within the state.

2. The State Committee to determine the drought counties where there is need for organized relief and to organize a committee in each county, likewise under the chairmanship of a leading citizen, and embracing the county agricultural agent, a leading banker, county Red Cross leader, farmers and others.

3. The county committees will receive individual applications for relief and recommend the method of treatment, and coordinate the various agencies in service thereto by way of loans, Red Cross assistance, employment, etc. The state committees, in cooperation with the county committees, to determine which counties are in need beyond the resources of the people of the county and in what direction, i. e. whether loans are required beyond the ability of the local banks, or Red Cross assistance beyond the resources of the county chapter; what quantities of imports of feed or food are required, etc. The State Committee to cooperate with national agencies if these requirements are beyond the state resources.

4. The President will set up a committee comprising representatives of the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Farm Board, the Federal Farm Loan Board, the Red Cross, the American Railway Association, the Public Health Service. This committee, through its chairman, will coordinate national activities and national support to the state and county committee.

5. The methods for provision of credit beyond local or state resources for the purchase of feed, seed, movement of livestock, or support of families over the winter will be developed by state committees in cooperation with the Federal Farm Board, the Federal Farm Loan Board, the Intermediate Credit System, and other Federal agencies.

6. The Red Cross will organize its own committees in each drought county, the chairman of which will be a member of the County Drought Relief Committee. The National Red Cross has made a preliminary allocation of $5,000,000 pending determination of the aggregate need.

7. The railways have already generously reduced rates by 50% on food and feed inward to the drought counties and livestock movement outward, to dealers and persons who are entitled to relief and so designated by the county agents or the committees created above.

8. The Department of Agriculture will secure and disseminate information as to sources of feed supply and localities to which livestock may be shipped. It will examine the possibilities of advancing state road allotments to drought areas in order to increase employment.

9. In the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and others having a surplus of feed, it is recommended that a state committee be set up to cooperate with the committees in the states of surplus livestock.

(3) New Republic Magazine (1932)

Beginning in the Carolinas and extending clear into New Mexico are fields of unpicked cotton that tell a mute story of more cotton than could be sold for enough, even to pay the cost of picking. Vineyards with grapes still unpicked, orchards of olive trees hanging full of rotting fruits and oranges being sold at less than the cost of production.

(4) Oscar Heline, farmer from Iowa, interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times (1970)

Grain was being burned. It was cheaper than coal. In South Dakota, the county elevator listed corn as minus three cents a bushel. If you wanted to sell them a bushel of corn, you had to bring in three cents. We had lots of trouble on the highway, people were determined to withhold produce from the market - livestock, cream, butter, eggs, what not. If they would dump the produce, they would force the market to a higher level. The farmers would man the highways and cream cans were emptied in ditches and eggs dumped out. They burned the Trestie Bridge, so the trains wouln't be able to haul grain.

(5) C. B. Baldwin, was assistant to Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in 1933.

The New Deal was an ineasy coalition. Fights developed very early between two factions: one, representing the big farmers, and the other, the little farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) came into being shortly after I got to Washington. Its purpose was to increase farm prices, which were pitifully low. All the farmers were in trouble, even the big ones.

Hog prices had just gone to hell. They were four, five cents a pound? The farmers were starving to death. It was decided to slaughter piggy sows (a pregnant pig). The AAA decided to pay the farmers to kill them and the little pigs. Lot of them went into fertilizer. Then a great cry went up from the press, particularly the Chicago Tribune, about Henry Wallace slaughtering these little pigs. You'd think they were precious babies.

You had a similar situation on cotton. Prices were down to four cents a pound and the cost of producing was probably ten. So a program was initiated to plow up cotton. A third of the crop, if I remember. Cotton prices went up to ten cents, maybe eleven.

(6) Franklin D. Roosevelt, radio broadcast, Fireside Chat (6th September, 1936)

I have been on a journey of husbandry. I went primarily to see at first hand conditions in the drought states; to see how effectively Federal and local authorities are taking care of pressing problems of relief and also how they are to work together to defend the people of this country against the effects of future droughts.

I saw drought devastation in nine states.

I talked with families who had lost their wheat crop, lost their corn crop, lost their livestock, lost the water in their well, lost their garden and come through to the end of the summer without one dollar of cash resources, facing a winter without feed or food -- facing a planting season without seed to put in the ground.

That was the extreme case, but there are thousands and thousands of families on western farms who share the same difficulties.

I saw cattlemen who because of lack of grass or lack of winter feed have been compelled to sell all but their breeding stock and will need help to carry even these through the coming winter. I saw livestock kept alive only because water had been brought to them long distances in tank cars. I saw other farm families who have not lost everything but who, because they have made only partial crops, must have some form of help if they are to continue farming next spring.

I shall never forget the fields of wheat so blasted by heat that they cannot be harvested. I shall never forget field after field of corn stunted, earless and stripped of leaves, for what the sun left the grasshoppers took. I saw brown pastures which would not keep a cow on fifty acres.

Yet I would not have you think for a single minute that there is permanent disaster in these drought regions, or that the picture I saw meant depopulating these areas. No cracked earth, no blistering sun, no burning wind, no grasshoppers, are a permanent match for the indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days, and inspire us with their self-reliance, their tenacity and their courage. It was their fathers' task to make homes; it is their task to keep those homes; it is our task to help them with their fight.