An Illustrated History (2012)
In the late-1800s, the region that became known as the Dust Bowl (Western Oklahoma, North Texas, Northeastern New Mexico, Eastern Colorado, and the Western-half of Kansas), was the location of the last great area of public land opened up to Homesteaders. By 1907, 32,000 new settlers had arrived in the region, with 16,000 of them in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
During World War I, the Southern Plains entered a relatively wet period, and settlement increased even further. Settlers were lured to the region by predictions of increased rain and less wind . . . in other words, they were promised positive climate change. Those promises were so overblown that some promoters were actually convicted of real estate fraud.
mechanized agriculture made one dollar a bushel for wheat profitable. Gasoline-powered tractors pulled disc plows, almost entirely replacing the lister plow. The lister split the soil in two directions, and created deep furrows, which caught and held blowing soil. The disc plow pulverized the soil, and didn't create nearly deep-enough furrows. But the disc plow made it faster and cheaper to plow; labor time was reduced by 75%.
Winter wheat was especially profitable: it was planted in the fall, and harvested in the early summer. Assuming that there was enough moisture during those months, one winter wheat crop equaled ten years of raising livestock on the same land. So, the more land that farmers in the five-state region dedicated to growing wheat, more potential profit could be gained (One farmer in the Southern Plains in the 1920s earned $75,000 with one wheat crop, earning more than the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge).
Below: A farmer in North Texas pulls six disc plows in one of his fields
Cattlemen were very suspicious of the resident farmers in the region, since so much grassland was plowed up to grow wheat. To the cattlemen, grassland should NEVER be plowed under any circumstances, but with adequate rainfall leading to an average of 13 bushels an acre, these doubters were easily ignored.
(Pictured: A wheat harvest in the Southern Plains)
But the cattlemen were right: a complex ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years was being destroyed in less than a generation. The federal government acted as a cheerleader, encouraging more plowing in the region; they too were caught up in the "Spell of Transformation" in the Southern Plains. As far as the region's farmers were concerned (and the government as well), soil was an indestructible natural resource.
The good news was that there was a large crop of winter wheat, but the bad news was that there was no one to buy it; only 40% of the winter wheat crop reached the market. The market price for wheat fell to .25 cents/bushel, half what it cost to raise the crop. Farmers that were in debt were hit the hardest in 1931, and would suffer the most. But optimism was still in the air: the "Next Year People" (a nickname of they're own choosing) believed that everything would return to normal in 1932. So, even more land was plowed, from North Dakota all the way to Texas . . . all this land was plowed up, despite the general knowledge that grassland held down the soil during a drought.
On 21 January, 1932, a dust cloud appeared outside of Amarillo, Texas (it was the only city in the Dust Bowl, with a population of 50,000); it rose 10,000 feet in the air with winds reaching 60 mph as it moved through the Texas Panhandle; the region's Old-Timers had never seen anything like it in their lives.
(The most famous photograph from the Dust Bowl taken by Arthur Rothstein)
The Winter of 1931-1932 was uncommonly dry, as was the Spring of 1932, but the winds were normal. Those winds moved the disc-plowed soil across the region's landscape. A double-disaster occurred in the Spring of 1932, in that the winter wheat harvest was less-than-stellar, and the market price for wheat had plunged to .17 cents/bushel. By then, unemployment in the U.S. had reached 25% (that was the official gov't figure; some historians suspect the actual percentage was closer to 33%, or more), and 25% of US farmers had lost their land and their homes.
all the way through 1938, the frequency and intensity of the dust storms increased with each year. Those that lived in the five-state region started to call it "No Man's Land" (It wasn't given the name "The Dust Bowl" until an Eastern journalist used the phrase in a 1936 article). In terms of loss-of-life, livestock was by far hit the hardest by the dust storms; most died due to suffocation. With the coyote mostly gone from the area, rabbits were far-more prevalent, and they were also very hungry. Thousands of rabbits would descend on a garden, eating everything, even the cedar posts.
Community "Rabbit Drives" were organized, and the citizens of "No Man's Land" would use "Attila the Hun" encirclement tactics to herd thousands of rabbits into some kind of enclosure, where they were killed mostly with baseball bats and clubs.
The "Next Year People" would endure years in which the following year was worse than the previous year, all the way to 1938, when the rain finally started to fall. And then, when it seemed they had reached the end of disaster, the grasshoppers came, destroying what had been grown with the rainfall and improved soil conservation techniques.
(Below: Part of a grasshopper swarm in Kansas, 1938. Grasshopper swarms can occur fairly often in the Plains, especially in during a drought. Grasshopper swarms occurred in the Plains in 1874, and in the beginning of the Dust Bowl in 1931, and to varying degrees of intensity during the 1930s)
Video Segments from the Ken Burns documentary: "The Dust Bowl"