Watching a documentary on the Dust Bowl tonight reminded me that it was also an economic boom that went bust. Can we learn anything? How does the current situation compare?
|One of the pioneer women of the
Oklahoma Panhandle dust bowl.
By Arthur Rothstein, April 1938.
First, a bit of history. Wheat prices ran up in the 1910’s and 1920’s, more than tripling over the course of a decade. At the high point, wheat approached $4 per bushel. With the 1929 market crash, wheat prices dropped to 40 cents. The price continued down. And then it quit raining. After two years with drastically reduced or maybe even no income because of the price drop, wheat farmers missed first one crop, then another, and another because of the drought. And then the dust began to blow. And a vicious cycle of misery continued for a decade. A decade. My grandmother, and many thousands of others, lived through this. Two-thirds of them stuck it out, and didn’t give up. Their stories can break your heart.
Now, how does our current situation compare?
I’ll let you anwer that question. I’m asking a new one.
What can we learn?
Commonly accepted beliefs at the time included:
- “Rain follows the plow.” Plowing the surface was said to release moisture and cause rain. That’s only half right; it does release soil moisture.
- “The soil is the one resource that can never be exhausted.” This really was printed in farming instruction manuals of the day. Really.
- “Anybody can make money in this boom.” At the time, suitcase farmers began showing up to plant the ground, then leaving until time to harvest the crop and hopefully rake in the profits. When the price crashed, they disappeared, leaving the ground plowed up and exposed.
- “New technology makes things better.” Tractors changed the game, making it possible for one person to work 10 times as much ground. This magnified everything: profits in the boom, and devastation in the bust.
What assumptions are you not questioning? From the examples above, you might wonder:
- Is what you are looking at really cause and effect?
- Can anything last forever?
- Are you where you belong in business?
- Are you focused more on doing the right thing, or on the shiny new technology?
Maybe those sound like harsh or pessimistic questions. They aren’t meant to be. It’s more like, we are so focused on what we are doing, that it is incredibly difficult to to change our pattern.
I heard a farmer face this challenge, in 1992. An expert advised him to skip fertilizing in order to achieve what he wanted. The farmer said, incredulously, “But what would I do if I didn’t fertilize?”
What would you do, if you questioned assumptions?
My grandmother still has a drawer full of bread wrappers. There’s a whole generation of people here who do the same. You might need that. You can’t afford to throw anything away.
What could you conserve today?
Life Goes On
As horrific as it was, it passed. Yes, people suffered and died. Fortunes were lost. It was terrible. But it passed. My grandmother spent her teen years in an unbelievably difficult period. She survived, raised a family, had a career, and has lived an amazing life. She’s still here, and she’s a wonder.
How will today look to you after 70 years have passed?
Read the Dust Bowl story as written by Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time. It is riveting, personal, and wrenching.
Photo of me and Mema, ca. 2004 by me.
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