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Allbee: The Dust Bowl

09/05/12 5:55PM By Roger Allbee
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(Host) News of the new documentary by Ken Burns and company about the Dust Bowl, scheduled to air soon on PBS, has reminded former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee that some of its effects were even felt here in the Green Mountains.

(Allbee) Surrounded by the lush, green landscape of Vermont in the spring and summer, it's hard to imagine what the Dust Bowl was like.

The Green Mountains sloping down to the green river valleys is in stark contrast to images of barren land with no grass or trees, but what took place in 1935 on that so called "black Sunday" in the region known as the Great Plains had a long term impact on Vermont and other states that continues to this day.

When early white settlers began migrating across the country in the middle 1800's looking for cheap and productive land, native grass six feet tall is said to have covered the Great Plains from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to Texas. The American Indians knew the value of the native grass and the herds of roaming American Bison that fed upon it. What was unknown to the early settlers was that grass and trees of the Plains nourished and held the soil in place.

The steel plow and the demand for wheat changed all that. By 1930 much of the Plains had been plowed up as wheat cropping expanded westward. While natural prairie grasses could survive drought, the wheat could not. It took nature a thousand years to build an inch of topsoil on these Plains, but only a minute for one good blow to sweep it away, and it did that over and over again in the drought of the 1930's. It's been called one of the worst man-made disasters to ever hit the United States. In just nine years, i t destroyed farmland, blackened skies, and left millions homeless. Some 3 million abandoned their farms on the Great Plains and half of them migrated to other states, mainly in the West. By 1940 it was estimated that Western Kansas had lost twice the amount of dirt removed in building the Panama Canal.

The Dust Bowl got its name after the Black Sunday on April 14, 1935 when more than 100 million acres of topsoil was lost to the wind. The resulting dust storm reached all the way to Washington, D.C. There was black rain in New York, and the snowfall in Vermont was brown.

This man made crisis gave impetus to the soil conservation movement in the United States. In 1935, Congress declared soil erosion a national menace. Farming techniques such as strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing, and cover crops were advocated. Farmers in Vermont and across the country were provided the tools for conserving the soil through local conservation districts. They did this by working with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, now called the National Resource and Conservation Service, or NRCS.

As we look over our lush working landscape today , we should remember that current farm tillage practices were brought about by society's concern for environmental quality and reflect a new focus on land conservation and environmental stewardship that were direct results of the Dust Bowl.
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