The New Prairie Dust Bowl

May 20, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM FISHER: This is the way Southern Kansas is supposed to be this time of year, the winter wheat calf high, even taller, a verdant, rolling carpet, but not this year. This year drought, as they call it out here in the Southern Plains, has left only dirt and a few withered shoots, remnants of the expectation planted last September. Or these–newly plowed fields, the lost wheat already turned under that may raise a crop of beans or milo if the rains ever come.

The deepest fear, of course, are the images only a few now living remember–70 years ago black rollers of dirt brought darkness at noon, children died of dust pneumonia, and a whole generation of Americans called Oakies trekked West from half a dozen states. That probably won’t happen again, at least not this year. Ground is worked differently now.

Crop residue, such as this corn and stalk from last year, is left to hold the ground. The mold-board plow, which exposed the land so terribly, is an antique, and here and there on the Great Plains is an insurance policy, unknown fifty, sixty years ago, irrigation. Still, irrigation is the exception, rather than the rule. If the drought continues, count on dried-up streams, dust storms, fires, and empty ponds. Already cattle are going on the block. Last year’s feed has gone through the roof.

Hay and silage are almost impossible to find. Combines and tractors sit unsold on dealers’ lots. Crop failure means no money in this part of America. No one really knows if this is the beginning of another arid cycle like that of the Dust Bowl. If it is, it’s nothing new. Drought, sort of a climatic downsizing for farmers on the plains, has come this way before. In the 1860’s, 1890’s, 1930’s, and 1950’s.

BILL MOORE: I’ve got to decide what to do with this blown out wheat ground.

JIM FISHER: Things aren’t that bad, at least yet, for Bill and Landa Moore, who farmed 2,000 acres in South Central Kansas on land that’s been in their family for more than a hundred years. Nevertheless, weather is a constant, even to the point of having a computer-generated weather service in their home. What’s just an image on a video screen, though, is reality on a North quarter of the farm, a blow out where 70 mile an hour winds scattered the winter wheat away, leaving nothing but sand and a few weeds.

BILL MOORE: We planted this field three times, and we actually had wheat this tall that looks fairly good. When the wind started blowing, it looked good, but it was too small to hold the soil. The sandy soil blows easily when there’s not enough growth on it, so it blew and just blew the wheat out.

JIM FISHER: Weather, it something that gnaws at the resilient people here who seem to have an almost genetic acceptance of the hand life deals. It’s just there–every day the same, the weather forecast showing copious rains to the North and East but hardly any here. Most maddening of all is the wind, invisible, ceaseless, usually out of the Southwest, hotter each day as May moves towards June, combining with drought to parch the land even more. And what will July and August bring if the rains fail to come? Who knows. All one can do is watch the empty sky and wait.

I’m Jim Fisher.