Chapter 2

Lessons from the Great Plains

Droughts are beyond our control, but what people do still goes a long way in determining the severity their effects. Few stories typify this more than the story of the Great Plains. The region that lies roughly between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in the east extending to the Rocky Mountains in the west underwent a boom in settlement and development in the mid-19th century. But two different droughts—one in the 1890s and the Dirty Thirties in the 20th century—demonstrated to the people of the Great Plains how planning and coordination could help them survive difficult times. 

Background: Deaf Smith Country, Texas, from the Great Plains Committee’s report, 1936. Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange.

The roots of the Dust Bowl

When drought struck North America in the 1930s, the hardest-hit places hadn’t been used for modern farming for very long at all. Except for Texas, the Great Plains states had been states, on average, for only about 40 years. No one with the technology to compile long-term weather records had lived in the region long enough to compile them. And members of Plains Indian tribes, people who could describe the climate of the Great Plains in detail, were ignored almost entirely—and not just on matters of weather.

Decisions weren’t based on either scientific data or the knowledge and experience of the people who had lived there for centuries. And that gap between knowledge and action was key to turning the droughts of the 1930s into the full-fledged Dust Bowl. Anyone in a position to make decisions hadn’t been living on the Great Plains long enough to know what to expect over the long term, so people made a lot of investments based on a lot of speculation. The disaster that followed was inevitable.

‘Rain follows the plow’

As strange as this may sound in the 21st century, there was an incredibly popular idea in the 19th century that “rain follows the plow.” That is, many people—perhaps most—believed wherever humans built towns and established farms, rain would fall. To be fair, springs and summers were wetter than average on the Great Plains from about 1875 to about 1885, and those were the years when permanent settlement and modern agriculture first took root on the Plains. “Rain follows the plow” didn’t start out as wishful thinking, but as a tragic misinterpretation of otherwise reliable data. While human structures and farms can change weather, it can only do so at extremely local levels. For example, temperatures are higher in cities than in surrounding farmland because concrete absorbs and retains heat better than open fields. Long-term rainfall patterns, however, do not shift to supply human settlements with adequate amounts of rain.

But in time, “rain follows the plow” came to embody the strong sense of certainty Americans in the late 19th century had about the inevitability of never-ending prosperity fueled by an uninterrupted expansion West. People trusted that nature itself would change to accommodate America’s expanding borders and population. As Charles Dana Wilber wrote in 1881, “[M]an can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling.” In other words, Americans believed that as long as they were willing to work, all endeavors they undertook were guaranteed to be successful.

Because it promised success to all comers, “rain follows the plow” became more than a specious weather hypothesis: it quickly became an advertising slogan for real estate speculators and railroads. It was an exceptionally persuasive sales pitch. Both native-born Americans from the eastern U.S. and newly arrived immigrants from northern and central Europe were eager to spend their savings—and borrow what they didn’t have—to buy land and go west into freedom and prosperity. There were a lot of people who wanted to spend a lot of money to secure the promise of a better life.

The history of the Great Plains

Vernon Evans and his family, originally from Lemmon, South Dakota, en route to Washington or Oregon. Taken near Missoula, Montana, July 1936. Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein.

The other side of the Great Plains

Few events in American history mirror one another as precisely as the droughts of the 1890s and 1930s. From a climatic standpoint, the era between the end of the Civil War and 1880s was a relatively stable time. In the 1890s, however, a combination of economic crisis and drought simultaneously descended on the Great Plains. At the time, political leaders at the state and federal levels were intensely opposed to government intervention. Although the government had been generously subsidizing railroads and land speculation companies for several decades, expanding government’s role to include managing the drought and economic crises was unthinkable for most.

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Population of select Great Plains States (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota) since 1870.

The solution in the eyes of most of America’s political and business leadership was to simply let the crises run their course. Land lost its value and farmers who wished to sell could find no one to buy. In 1893, most crops in Nebraska failed and a local newspaper reported that 2,000 people were homeless and living on the streets of Omaha at Thanksgiving. However, there were not many calls for government aid. That newspaper went on to encourage its readers to “give at least one of these unfortunates a place to sleep and enough to eat to sustain life without actual misery.” In the absence of coordinated legal protection and relief efforts, many people lost their land, racked up debt and were otherwise uprooted.

But the drought and worldwide economic slump sparked something new in Americans’ political consciousness: for many of the farmers and workers who bore the brunt of the suffering, new ideas began to develop. Many people viewed the government’s inaction not as good laissez-faire economics but as indifference toward some of its most vulnerable citizens. More and more Americans in rural and urban areas began to call for collective action through government. Many Americans began to work toward establishing rules to limit risk, decentralize power and provide a basic safety net for everyone.

When drought and depression returned again

The drought of the 1890s slowed the population growth of the Great Plains states but it did not stop it. By the 1930s, the population of the Great Plains was larger than ever. North Dakota’s population increased from 2,405 in 1870 to 680,845 in 1930. During that same period, Kansas boomed from 364,399 residents to 1,880,999. And Oklahoma went from having about a quarter million people in 1890 to 2.3 million only four decades later. These are enormous gains in population and, historically speaking, they happened overnight.

Farmers continued to make up a big percentage of new settlers. And, with time, the memories of the drought of the 1890s faded. The overconfidence felt before the drought of the 1890s—confidence in perpetual economic growth not restrained by the limitations of the natural world—returned for many.

The economic decisions leading up to the 1930s were strikingly similar to those of the 1890s, as well as the early 2000s. Bubbles had developed in stock markets, speculation had driven the price of land well beyond its worth and credit was extended to increasingly risky ventures. Families were making financial decisions based on slick advertising and easy credit, not on what they could realistically expect to earn.

When international markets crashed, prices dropped and farmers, desperate to maintain income, ramped up production. When the excess crops hit the market, the supply further decreased prices, and many farmers were unable to stay on their land.

Although there had been some refinement in agricultural practices since the 1890s, they were still based on extracting as much product out of the land as possible, rather than striking a balance between production and conservation. When farms were established, they swapped out the native plants that had kept the topsoil in place with crops. But when those farms dried up and were abandoned, the crops disappeared, too. With no cover, the topsoil eroded, blew away and transformed into the massive dust storms that are the powerful icons of the era.

The relief of the New Deal

In 1932, Americans went to the polls and, by one of the largest margins in U.S. history, elected Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency. The Democratic Party won big majorities in both houses of Congress. Roosevelt had promised to provide economic relief to millions of Americans, through direct employment, aid and management of the economy. With Congress, he enacted the New Deal, an ambitious collection of new laws, regulations and programs to stimulate the economy and provide greater security to poor and working-class Americans.

Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933)

AAA addressed overproduction in U.S. commodities—originally corn, cotton, hogs, rice, milk, tobacco and wheat—by providing incentives to farmers to reduce production and, through agreements with processors, by market regulation. Through amendments and reorganization, AAA eventually evolved into the Farm Bill.

Civilian Conservation Corps (1933)

CCC provided housing, food, clothing and a monthly wage to unemployed young men in exchange for labor on projects ranging from constructing fire lookout towers to mosquito control. Due primarily to the mobilization of World War II, CCC ended in 1942, but lives on through some state programs.

Farm Security Administration (1935 and 1937)

While AAA provided relief to farm owners, FSA directly tackled rural poverty, particularly for tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Historically, FSA is perhaps best known for its photography program, which vividly documented the poverty of rural Americans. FSA lives on in the Farmers Home Administration.

Soil Conservation Service (1935)

SCS was the New Deal office responsible for directly combatting the Dust Bowl through soil conservation and erosion control. Although the office survives to this day, in 1994, it was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service to reflect a broader mission.

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Rural Electrification Administration

REA provided loans to local cooperatives to bring electricity to rural areas, increasing the number of electrified farms from around 10% in 1934 to 50% by 1942. Today, the program is called the Rural Utilities Service. A Postal Service stamp (left) celebrated the administration’s 50th anniversary in 1985.

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A participant in the Farm Security Administration program. Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

The success of the New Deal

These days, we tend to think of the New Deal primarily as an expansion of the social contract and government safety net, but these measures didn’t come until later in Roosevelt’s tenure. The first goal of the New Deal was to reverse the effects of years of drought, economic nonintervention and corporate mismanagement. Using the rhetoric of free trade and free markets, corporations and financial barons had created a network of monopolies, oligopoly and legalized cartels. The New Deal stabilized the economy and brought the chaos to heel.

Opponents of government regulation—both now and in the 1930s—often characterize the New Deal as a give-away program. Although reducing hunger and poverty were certainly goals of the era, few New Deal provisions could be classified as charity programs. They were, above all, meant to secure the country’s economy with careful regulations. Farmers and small businesspeople who applied to loan programs, for example, were screened for risk viability and, when credit was extended, it was in prudent amounts.

The New Deal steadied the economy and demonstrated that democratic management by public institutions could make systems from agriculture to the economy more resilient and sustainable.

The return of risk

While the New Deal’s farm policies remained intact for twenty years, by the mid-1950s they began to be dismantled. Memories of the Depression had faded and, with it, appreciation for the public sector’s accomplishment of salvaging the U.S. economy. In the Eisenhower era, mechanical efficiency and industrialization replaced farmers and rural communities as the foundation of American society. People began to think of agriculture as just another industry.

This was an incredible transformation of American attitudes toward farming. Jefferson’s ideal of an enlightened, agrarian society and the 19th century’s ideal of the self-sufficient gentleman farmer had no place in a country fretting over quarterly earnings reports. But farmers, keenly aware of the benefits of sticking together in a political fight, were remarkably adept at resisting the policy changes that would threaten their livelihoods and lifestyles.

By the 1960s and ’70s, however, the Nixon and Ford administrations took a different approach. Instead of dismantling farm programs, they expanded them beyond what was prudent. The spirit of the New Deal was to manage the agricultural sector and economic stability was the goal, and that had meant keeping family farmers in business by managing prices. But the Nixon-era philosophy was to expand loan programs and encourage farmers to take risks.

Unfortunately, the return of corporate and capitalist principles to farming only meant the return of speculation, instability and failure. In 1977-78, a financial crisis led to a rise in interest rates just as commodity prices dropped. Overextended farmers couldn’t make their payments. As happened before, many farmers were driven off the land. The farm crisis of the 1980s and 1990s had begun.

The echoes of the New Deal

The New Deal was such a success that many of its provisions are still in place—and popular—today. Indeed, many New Deal programs for rural Americans still existed in some form in 2015. The Agricultural Adjustment Act eventually evolved into the Farm Bill, the set of laws that govern much of our agricultural sector. The Rural Electric Administration became the Rural Utilities Service in 1994 and provides much-needed services to rural Americans through public-private partnerships. The Soil Conservation Service was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (also in 1994); its 12,000 employees continue to conserve land and water and educate local officials and farmers on the importance of good land management. Social Security is a central part of the United States government.

Perhaps the greatest change the New Deal brought was to the political culture of the United States. Americans saw how acting through the government to create public good could be effective and successful. By planning, researching, educating themselves and rethinking economic and agricultural systems, they had taken significant steps toward making their communities much more resilient and, arguably, avoided repeats of the Dust Bowl when drought struck again in the 1950s and 1980s.