Settling the Dust

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Dee Ann Littlefield Natural Resources Conservation Service

Texas Man Recalls Farmboy Memories of Depression-Era Drought, Clouds of Soil

“You couldn’t see. You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t go outside for days,” Eugene Littlefield recalled. “It was awful.”

Littlefield is referring to the giant black clouds of soil that would blot out the sun and swallow the countryside.

Born in Wayside, Texas, in 1934, he was welcomed into the world by the Dust Bowl — an era in the 1930s when the most massive, brutal dust storms ever known to our nation repeatedly ravaged the Panhandle and Great Plains regions.

Littlefield was the only child of parents who raised cattle, wheat and sorghum on their farm 20 miles east of Happy, in the now-extinct community of Wayside.

“We could see those storms coming over the horizon,” he said. “The dirt would blow in your face and hit your skin so hard it hurt. Dad would get our animals in the best shelter he could, while my mom started packing the windows with rolled wet towels and hung sheets to try to keep dirt out.

“It still didn’t work,” he said, shaking his head at the fury and intensity of the storms. “Fine sand would get in our food no matter how well we protected it. It would get behind the wallpaper in our house. Our white sheets on the bed would turn brown.

“Mother would light kerosene lamps, and you could barely see them for the brown haze around them,” he said.

Littlefield remembers his family having to use a bucket for the bathroom because no one could go outside to the outhouse. His dad had a rope tied from the house to the barn so if there was even the slightest reprieve in the raging storm he could go check on the animals.

He said no matter how hard people tried to protect their equipment or vehicles, the fine sand would penetrate the carburetors and wind up in fuel lines, rendering equipment inoperable until it could be repaired.

“I remember coming outside after the storms and you couldn’t find things,” he said.”You could see, but you still felt disoriented because the landscape would look so different. Tumbleweeds would blow against the fences and get trapped, then the dirt would just pile up in them to the point it would bury the fence so deep in dirt you couldn’t see it. Entire plows could get buried and only the levers would be visible.”

Plowing up of native grasslands across the Great Plains left vast stretches of soil exposed to drought and wind. The 1930s mark a decade of the worst drought in U.S. history. Planted seeds would shrivel and die in the ground before they could ever sprout. With no plants to trap the soil or moisture, the parched dirt turned to a powder that was easily carried away by wind.

This loss of land and crops further deepened the effects of the Great Depression, to the point that by 1933 more than 11,000 of the nation’s 25,000 banks had failed and unemployment was at a record high 25 percent.

The Dust Bowl affected 100 million acres, centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.

In December 1935, experts estimated that 850 million tons of topsoil had been blown off the plains that year alone. The drought would linger four more years until rain finally brought relief in the fall of 1941.

Hard work preparing the land and planting the crops was met with years of crop failure. With no crops to harvest and no grass for livestock to eat on their Swisher County farm, the Littlefields struggled along with so many, just desperate to survive.

“We were excited when my dad got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps to help build a road across Palo Duro Canyon,” Littlefield recalled. “But when they found out he was selling milk from our milk cow to the neighbors, they considered that a job and let him go so they could hire someone else that was unemployed.”

During this time, there was one man who was strongly convinced he had a plan to keep America’s top soil from blowing away.

In 1928, while working for the USDA as a chemist with the Bureau of Soils, Hugh Hammond Bennett wrote about the soil erosion issue in a government report.

“To visualize the full enormity of land impairment and devastation brought about by this ruthless agent is beyond the possibility of the mind,” he wrote. “An era of land wreckage destined to weigh heavily upon the welfare of the next generation is at hand.”

Through his experience with soil surveys, Bennett realized the effects of soil erosion and the negative impacts it had on agriculture. His persistent admonition about the devastation of farmland that was occurring across the nation’s landscape led Congress to establish the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service, now known as Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The establishment of the SCS marked the beginning of federal funding and natural resource education to landowners, especially farmers. States established state soil conservation agencies and procedures whereby local soil and water conservation districts could be formed in counties across the U.S. Federal assistance was delivered at the direction of the local board, made up of five landowners from across the county.

Agency employees would hold workshops and in some cases go door to door to educate farmers on soil conservation and anti-erosion techniques, including crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing, terracing and other beneficial farming practices.

The agency provided financial incentives to help farmers offset the costs of adopting some of these practices.

Littlefield remembers the local conservation district presenting a film about soil erosion at his Wayside Grade School.

“I remember the conservation service men coming by to teach us how to put nutrients back in the soil by rotating our crops,” Littlefield said. “We planted rows of trees, a shelterbelt, to act as a windbreak for our fields. We started terracing our fields to hold the water better. It made a big difference.”

The lessons his family and others received in the 1930s paid off in the 1950s when another historic drought had America’s farmland in its grip.

“The SCS helped us know how to take care of our land, even in hard times,” Littlefield said. “They taught us about strip till farming and the equipment we needed to have to farm in better ways. I really feel like the Graham-Hoeme chisel plow saved this country from blowing completely away.”

The plow featured reversible chisel points that were used for erosion control and primary tillage. Special “low-crown” 16-inch-wide sweeps were developed for shallow weed control before planting. The sweeps left about three-quarters of the stubble covering the soil surface, reducing the soil dryness and preventing wind erosion. This was one of the first tools available to perform “stubble-mulch” throughout the Great Plains.

Littlefield still owns farmland in Swisher County. As an impressionable young child, experiencing first-hand the largest man-made ecological disaster our nation has ever seen made a lasting impression on Littlefield.

He said he wants to do everything he can to save the soil on his land. He enrolled his farmland, most of it with highly erodible soil, in the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Participating as a conservation district cooperator, he worked with the NRCS to develop a conservation plan and proper management for his CRP.

When his CRP contract expired in 2011, Littlefield immediately enrolled it in the USDA’s State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, or SAFE program, administered by FSA with NRCS providing technical assistance and conservation planning advice.

In the SAFE program, Littlefield relies on NRCS to help him remove the existing introduced bluestem grass to prepare the acres for planting native plants to improve wildlife habitat for such threatened and endangered candidate species as the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

“Seeing what I saw growing up as a boy on our farm, I have witnessed the positive effects over 70 years of conservation efforts have had on our land,” Littlefield said. “I am now proud to say I am a landowner that is making a difference for the environment, and in the process, I hope to be able to help the prairie chicken populations.”

Bennett, known as the Father of Conservation, perhaps said it best: “Farmers have only temporary control over their land. It can be theirs for a lifetime and no longer. The public’s interest, however, goes on and on, endlessly, if nations are to endure.”

Dee Ann Littlefield is a state public affairs specialist for NRCS in Texas. Eugene Littlefield is a distant cousin of her husband.


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