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Home > Feature Articles > Agriculture & Organic Production

Drought + Poor Practices = Dust Bowl

Sustainable natural systems are essential to our country's survival and thriving. But another Dust Bowl could happen in California...

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I spoke last week with a state official and in our conversation we covered a number of sustainability issues. Among them was "biofuel" and "biomass"... the current focus of a lot of money and research to find new sources for energy.

Having lived in Oklahoma, the conversation stirred a couple cultural memories ... Oil Wildcatting...and the Dust Bowl. We think of the Dust Bowl as an Oklahoma problem...but it was more than that.

California is poised for a very similar timeline. Energy and soil -- two ends to a teeter totter. I found the following website this morning and thought we might be able to lean from the history of Oklahoma's rough and tumble history. What we learn might prevent the disastrous pathway that can happen when energy and soil abuse collide.

Lessons from the Dust Bowl that Impacted Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas

Abused land, a prolonged drought, overgrazing, and little use of cultural, structural, and vegetative conservation practices produced barren rangelands that were highly susceptible to wind and water erosion in the 1930s. Dust storms captured national attention. The term "Dust Bowl" was coined to describe the conditions of the land in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Many farmers migrated elsewhere. The dust storms were taken seriously by the rest of the nation on May 11, 1934, and April 14, 1935, when they reached the eastern seaboard. SOURCE:

The cause of the Dust Bowl had a significant human component that built on cyclical natural conditions.

Cultural, structural, and vegetative conservation practices include practices such as returning vegetative and animal manure to the soil to replenish the nutritive value and water retention capacity to the soil. And the ability to grow the next year' crops.

But intensive wheat farming and beef ranching spurred on by distant owners and investors who knew nothing about farming and ranching pushed hired hands to maximize profits. Grow! Grow! Grow! The world needed the food...and they wanted maximum profits. (Sound familiar?)

Over plowing, over fertilizing, overgrazing and under-conserving became epidemic. The focus was on food. Much like today's focus is on energy. And distant investors. And growth. And profits.

California's fertile lands could also face abuse. Southern California's excessive water demands. Biomass burned instead of being composted and returned to the soil. Multiple growing seasons every year. All these "cultural, structural, and vegetative practices" need to be balanced with what the land needs to remain viable. And productive. And in one place.

Barren lands result from abuse...and once again, an entire, rich fertile region could be impacted by the natural consequence...wind and water erosion.

After dust storms come floods.

Floods, another means of soil loss, led to the destruction of crops, productive land, fences, livestock, homes, and human lives.

Water conservation is essential. For every Californian, and every community leader.

Farmers signed five-year agreements to install grassed outlets and grassed waterways, to vegetate gully areas, to build grade stabilization structures and contour terraces, to practice pasture management, strip-cropping under longer rotation, and reforestation, to grow hay crops into crop rotations, and to fence off woodland from grazing.

Biomass that burns precious organic materials needs to be limited and seriously replaced. Energy conservation and non-destructive generation of energy is essential to reduce the amount of impact on our natural systems.

Those forms of non-destructive energy sourcing include solar, wind and geothermal. They do NOT include hydroelectric or biomass.

Now is the time to rethink the massive conversion of organic materials to heat. Heat? Emissions? Loss of soil quality?

We don't need dust storms and dried lakebeds and incursions of salt water into our fertile fields to connect the dots.

...the Great Plains Conservation Program (GPCP) developed conservation methods in Oklahoma. Later adopted nationwide, the practices included stripcropping, windbreaks, waterways, terraces, diversions, erosion control dams, grade stabilization structures, and water-spreading systems. Let's learn from our nation's history. Let's focus on conservation first. And natural system balance forever.

The GPCP stabilized American agriculture. Grain exports doubled when the grain price quadrupled between 1970 and 1974. Farmers removed wide windbreaks, established center-pivot irrigation systems and narrower windbreaks, and put large tracts of land into production. However, wind erosion increased, and the government was advised to stop payments to those who farmed fragile lands.

Greed continues to rear its head...and the price of survival is eternal vigilance. If we take from the land, we must return an equal share to it -- it's nature's law.

Solutions for Land Abuse

Farmers and ranchers need to develop sustainable land management practices. And discipline their business goals to maintain the integrity of the natural resources on which they depend. Many do. Some don't. Corporate agriculture brings in managerial influences that can override sustainable practices. Current issues include chemical additives such as pesticides, herbicides and even fertilizers. And bioengineered seeds.

Investors need to learn that agriculture, energy and other businesses centered on natural resources carry much broader consequences than urban investments. In just a few years of abuse, they can crash an entire region's ecosystem for decades to come.

Buyers, consumers and industrial buyers, also need to understand that waste, greed and abuse have consequences. Natural consequences. Nature's systems affect us all and we must all learn how adults are responsible for their own food, air quality, and impact on their community's sustainability. We all affect nature's systems.

We can learn from chapters of our history such as the Dust Bowl and New Orleans and the Arctic ... and make more sustainable choices.

Careers in Sustainability

Green careers are popular right now. People are looking for alternative energy jobs and training. They are looking all "all" renewable energy sectors in much the same way -- as a ticket to the future.

But even new technologies need to pass the test of sustainability for them to survive. Destructive feedstocks are not sustainable. Ethanol, biodiesel, etc. that depend on row crops are not sustainable, or renewable if they deplete the very soil on which they grow.

Careers are made up of choices. And quality choices require research, integrity and a growing awareness of the impact of one's choices.

Green careers are not synonymous with "energy" careers. Beware the tides of dust! :-)

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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