One theory in Jared Diamond s Collapse is that soil degradation and erosion leads to insufficient agriculture and a society s demise. In Timothy Egan s The Worst Hard Time, he sets forth in specific and excruciating detail exactly what Diamond outlines in Collapse. Only Egan s book isn t theoretical. It isn t a survey of what s happened in other countries. It s about the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It s about what happens, right here in the heart of America, when the land is misused, mistreated, and turns on those who depend on it. Centered in the panhandle of Oklahoma and extending south into the panhandle of Texas, north into half of Kansas and a quadrant of Colorado, the Dust Bowl despoiled 100 million acres. For thousands of years this land had been well suited for grass, bison, wind, and regular droughts, but the lack of wheat fromRussia in World War I caused a world-wide shortage, inflating prices so high that growing wheat on the southern plains became a gold lottery. While wheat cost 35 cents a bushel to grow and sold for 80 cents a bushel in 1910, by 1917 it sold for two dollars a bushel. As Egan says, back then, this was a fortune. And the money was so good and so easy that, between 1917 and 1919, Americans pushed their harvest of wheat from 45 million to 75 million acres, almost a 70 percent increase. As the roaring twenties turned into the greatest, gaudiest spree in history, dry land wheat farming became a get rich quick scheme. The self-described wheat queen of Kansas, Ida Watkins, told everyone she made a profit of $75,000 on her two thousand acres of bony soil in 1926 bigger than the salary of any baseball player but Babe Ruth, more money that the president of the United States made.
Ripping up the soil became easier with tractors doing the work of 10 horses. While in the 1830s it took 58 hours to plant and harvest one acre, by 1930 it took a mere three hours. And while old timers from the droughts of the 1870s and 1890s knew the grass should not be plowed and turned, the government encouraged the break up of the sod, the Federal Farm Loan Act allowed low interest loans, the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed the grasslands as a resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up, and the railroads promoted settlement by promising that rain followed the plow. None of this would have mattered but for the engine of capitalism self-interest and profit. Suitcase farmers had no intention of settling on the high plains but sought only to rent ground, rent a tractor, turn the dirt, drop in winter wheat seed in the fall, and come back next summer for the payoff. It was a game of chance called trying to hit a crop. One suitcase farmer broke thirty-two thousand acres in southeast Kansas in 1921. Four years later, he plowed twice that amount.
Rain came steadily in 1926-29, instilling a belief that the weather had changed for the better, and permanently so. From 1925-30, an additional 5.2 million acres were plowed up, twice the size ofYellowstone. But by 1929, Russia had resumed exporting wheat, and along the rail lines in every town in the southern plains there stood towers of unsold wheat. Prices dropped to 75 cents a bushel, and to pay off the debt incurred in the prosperous years, farmers tore up more ground to plant more wheat with the hope that more volume would produce the same amount of profit as before, resulting in 50,000 acres a day being plowed up despite the falling price of wheat. What had been prairie turf for thirty-five thousand years was peeled off in a swift de-carpeting that remade the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, big parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and southeast Colorado.
And this was done in the fall, to plant winter wheat, leaving the land naked and ready to blow all winter and into spring. At the same time came the stock market crash, and with the wheat harvest up 50 percent, the price fell to 40 cents per bushel, barely covering costs, and the surplus wheat was burned for heat in...
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