Apr. 15, 2013 at 12:35pmThe Great Plow Up

The Dust Bowl

Airing on Tuesday, April 23, "Dust Bowl: The Great Plow Up," a film by Ken Burns, is one of the best researched and informative historical documentaries I've ever seen.

This is episode one of three, and chronicles the worst manmade environmental disaster in American history.

The Dust Bowl was both the result of bad weather as well as human actions that made the drought much, much worse. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, farmers converged upon the plains and tore up vegetation on millions of acres with new gasoline tractors which allowed them to plow faster than ever before. Some were intent upon changing the fields into row-crop agriculture and some overstocked the land with cattle. They were rewarded with a period of good weather and high market demand for the wheat they planted. Wheat production soared 300 percent and by 1931, there was a severe glut.

The economic depression began that began in 1929 coincided with the downfall of what had been done to the land and prolonged drought, which occurs regularly on the plains, became deadly since there was no longer any native grass holding the dirt in place.

By the latter half of the 1930s the areas most affected were western Texas, eastern New Mexico, western Kansas and eastern Colorado. The Dust Bowl covered 100 million acres. Unusually high temperatures combined with strong winds caused the region to become a veritable desert. During those years dirt and sand not only destroyed crops and property, but the mental and physical health of the people trying to make a living off the land. The misery of the era was captured by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath among others.

In 1935, the Soil Conservation Service set about to limit the worst effects of wind erosion. Between 1935 and 1937 more than 34 percent of farmers left the area. Under the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, several federal agencies were tasked with trying to diminish the complex problems. Farmers were educated on soil conservation, 200 million trees were planted, anti erosion techniques were encouraged among a plethora of other activities including payment for cattle in counties designated as emergency areas. Reluctant farmers were even paid a dollar an acre to practice new methods of planting and plowing.

In the fall of 1939, the nearly decade-long drought ended and the programs implemented during the Dust Bowl helped to end the plight of the farmers.

Burns is at his best in this series using interviews of 30 survivors, narration, comments by historians, restored photographs as well as film and music from the period.

The second in the series, "Dust Bowl: Reaping the Whirlwind" airs on Tuesday, April 30, on KSPS Spokane from 7-9p.m.

A great series!

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