The Dust Bowl was an ecological phenomenon which affected the some of the South-Central United States and parts of Canada during the 1930s. The loss of arable farmland during the Dust Bowl led to a mass migration of many families who searched for work and a new lease on life in states like California. Many authors and artists documented the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and 1940s, since it was one of the more memorable events of the Great Depression.
The groundwork for the Dust Bowl was laid during the First World War, when demand for food began to rise rapidly. As a result, farmers in states like Colorado, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma accelerated their farming practices to meet the demand. Crops were planted without rotation, and the ground was heavily tilled and worked to yield a higher crop volume. By the mid-1920s, many of these farming efforts were paying off, in the sense that huge crops were being generated, but the ground paid a hidden toll which only became apparent in the 1930s.
In the early 1930s, a severe drought struck the region, drying the upper layers of already extremely loose topsoil. Heavy windstorms descended, transporting the dust in dense black clouds. These “black blizzards” were so dark that livestock were sometimes fooled into thinking that night had fallen. The dust accumulated in huge drifts, sometimes burying homes and farms, and once-fertile farmland became arid.
Citizens of the affected regions started referring to their home as the “Dust Bowl,”and they rapidly began to experience serious economic problems. The Depression economy had already caused serious problems for many farmers, and the lack of a viable crop led to mass foreclosures by banks. Conditions drove many groups of farmers to become migrant workers, as documented by photographers like Dorothea Lange and authors like John Steinbeck. The impoverished migrant workers from the Dust Bowl became a symbol of the Depression for many people, illustrating how a combination of bad luck and unsustainable farming practices could radically change a formerly profitable pursuit like farming.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he recognized the Dust Bowl as a serious problem for the United States, and he founded the Soil Conservation Services to address the issue. The government agency was one of many public works agencies founded during President Roosevelt's term, and it focused on restoring the formerly fertile conditions across the central American states. By planting windbreaks and cultivating native plants, the Service began to slowly rebuild the topsoil while preserving what was left. In 1994, the name of the organization was changed to the Natural Resources Conversation Service, reflecting its broader scope.