When the drought hit the Great Plains, roughly one-third of the farmers left their homes and headed to the mild climate of California in search of migrant work. Known as the Okies — the nickname referred to any poor migrant from the American Southwest since only about 20 percent were from Oklahoma — they left behind the parched lands and economic despair. Many were used to financial stability and home amenities such as indoor plumbing, but had become financially indebted after purchasing mechanized farming equipment and suffering crop failures. They faced foreclosure on home and farm.
California didn’t welcome the influx of Okies. Since the number of migrant workers outnumbered the available jobs, tensions grew between Californians and laborers, and public health concerns rose as California’s infrastructure became overtaxed.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the first of several mortgage and farming relief acts under the New Deal aimed to reduce foreclosures and keep farms afloat during the drought. But by the end of 1934, roughly 35 million acres (14 million hectares) of farmland were ruined, and the topsoil covering 100 million acres (40 million hectares) had blown away [source: Dyer].
Under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the government reserved 140 million acres (57 million hectares) as protected federal lands. Grazing and planting would be monitored to encourage land rehabilitation and conservation. Additionally, in the early 1930s, the government launched the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most successful New Deal programs. Three million young men volunteered for forestry and conservation work for the CCC. They were called Roosevelt’s “Forest Army,” and they planted trees, dug ditches and built reservoirs — work that would contribute to flood control, water conservation and prevent further soil erosion.
Additionally, between 1933 and 1935 many more programs and agencies were introduced specifically to help people affected by the Dust Bowl, including efforts like the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, the Land Utilization Program and the Drought Relief Service.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program started under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, is one of the best-known New Deal programs. The WPA was a work relief program that employed more than 8.5 million people to build roads, bridges, airports, public parks and buildings.
It took millions of tons of dirt and debris blowing from the Plains all the way into Washington D.C., known as “Black Sunday,” to move Congress to pass the Soil Conservation Act and establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) under the Department of Agriculture.
The SCS (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) promoted healthy soil management and farming practices, and paid farmers to put such practices to work on their farms. The legacy of the Service’s practices such as irrigation, crop diversity and no-till farming continue in the Plains today.
The 1930s Dust Bowl didn’t inoculate the United States from another such ecological disaster, though. More than 30 percent of North America is arid or semi-arid land, with about 40 percent of the continental United States (17 Western states) vulnerable to desertification [source: Alexander]. Sustainable agriculture and soil conservation practices could help avoid another dust bowl, but experts aren’t sure that such measures will be enough if extended and severe drought revisits the Great Plains.
Originally Published: Sep 17, 2008