Boom, Bust, Dust
Boom, bust and dust: That was the story of what my parents always referred to as the "dirty thirties," or the Dust Bowl. The Great American Dust Bowl steeled the resolve of a generation of Midwesterners. The hard-earned lessons they learned have been passed on to their baby-boomer prodigy but have been forgotten. Unlike the New Orleans floods, there was no FEMA to house the victims in trailer cities: only days on end of coating ones nostrils with Vaseline to filter the dust and try to breathe.
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath famously told the story of those who fled the Dust Bowl. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan tells the individual stories of a handful of families that stayed and endured America's worst environmental catastrophe in his masterful book, The Worst Hard Time.
Anyone who has made the drive through western Kansas, eastern Colorado and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas knows the eerie blankness of the land. Miles can be driven without seeing a tree. The occasional town encountered seems to be in a time warp.
This land was made for buffalo grazing and little else, with its 20-inch annual rainfall. But with the buffalo and Indian long gone by the turn of the century, immigrant families flocked to what Egan calls No Man's Land to homestead their share of the American dream. In 1914, 53,000 families staked their claims in the Great Plains, living in sod huts, often infested with centipedes and snakes. The government even provided free train rides to pilgrims who wished to settle on the harsh land.
The First World War then set off a series of events that would lead to disaster. The dry-land farmers had enjoyed prosperity, working the land and growing wheat with the benefit of new machinery that made them wondrously productive. Then the Turkish navy kept Russian wheat from making its way to Europe and the federal government told farmers to produce more wheat to win the war. And produce they did; from 1917 to 1919, the number of acres put into wheat production increased 70 percent. And why not: the government guaranteed a price of $2 per bushel.
But when the war ended, the price collapsed and there was no one to buy the mountains of grain left rotting in the sun. The debts incurred to buy equipment and property still had to be paid, so farmers continued to plow up the grassland in hopes that the price of wheat would rebound. By 1931, 33 million acres in the Great Plains had been plowed. But farmers could only sell the wheat for half what it cost to produce the golden grain, if they could find buyers at all. And then the winds came.
The black blizzards began in earnest in 1932 and would continue through the end of the decade. These storms would carry enough static electricity that people would avoid shaking hands because the shock would flatten a person. With no rain and temperatures exceeding more than 110 degrees for days on end, more and more bugs appeared. Grasshoppers swarmed over fields; centipedes by the bucketful infested houses, along with Black Widow spiders and Tarantulas. Rabbits multiplied while the people choked from the dust.
Egan's story of despair reaches a crescendo with the chapter chronicling Black Sunday April 14, 1935, a day that started out unusually calm and clear, but would turn into a nightmare that no horror movie could match. The author has accounts of this duster to end all dusters from cities all over the Great Plains: from Bismarck, North Dakota to Amarillo, Texas.
When the storm passed through Kansas, it was 200 miles wide with winds like a tornado. Daytime turned to night as the wall of dust blocked the sun.
A March 28th article in USA Today provides a reminder of Egan's book and the potential for another Dust Bowl. The War on Terror has set the Federal Reserve's money printing press on overdrive. The flood of dollars, combined with increased food demand from China and India, has led to soaring grain prices. "Wheat was $4 or $5 a bushel a couple years ago," South Dakota farmer-rancher Kevin Baloun told USA Today, "and now it's up to $10 or $12 a bushel." So, Baloun has plowed up virgin grassland to plant crops.
However, "Judged as a businessman, the typical farmer would make a good veterinarian," Bill Bonner wrote on LRC a year ago. "Over and over, he walks into the same trap. When prices go up, he borrows in order to expand his holdings. He buys more equipment. He leases more land. And he plants more crops to take advantage of the high prices."
And of course the big Ag boondoggle is ethanol. Just as when the federal government told farmers during WWI to grow wheat to win the war, a year ago Congress voted to double production of corn-based ethanol and so a "third of the U.S. corn crop could be dedicated to making fuel," the USA Today reports. "There are over 140 ethanol production plants throughout 22 states across the country," crows the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center website and another 61 plants are on the drawing board. No wonder the price of corn has soared from less than $2 per bushel in January 2005 to over $6 today.
To Bill Bonner's point: some of these plants may not get built. "Now, with corn prices well over $5 a bushel, corn ethanol economics have gone out the window," Michael Jackson, president and chairman of Vancouver-based ethanol maker Syntec Biofuel, told the Associated Press last week.
However, most of the decline in farmland has come from urban development, Doug Casey pointed out during the Casey Research's Crisis & Opportunity Summit recently. And native grasslands in America declined by 24 million acres in the two decades between 1982 and 2002 according to USA Today, not including the acres converted to new home subdivisions during the easy money Fed-induced housing boom from 2002 to 2007. All of America's cities have been built and are expanding on the nation's best farmland and grassland.
So government polices are crashing headlong into each other in the nation's heartland: High grain prices, spurred by ethanol production mandates, create the incentive for farmers to leave the Conservation Reserve Program (costing taxpayers $2 billion a year) that pays farmers not to farm.
Sue Kirchhoff and Jeff Martin, writing for the nation's daily newspaper, worry that there "would be about 1.8 million fewer sedge wrens, grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, bobolinks and western meadowlarks," if more fallow acres are plowed up to grow food and fuel for humans. But politicians are hearing the farmers sing, not the birds. The former vote, the later do not.
"Soybeans will pack a bigger punch than sub-prime," Casey Research economist Bud Conrad told the Casey Summit crowd in Scottsdale. "Agriculture has been left in the dust, but it won't stay there."
After the farmers have their day, the dust will come again.