Farming the Dust

Historical photos of Oklahoma and Kansas offer iconic views of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, as the area was one of the hardest hit. Today, farmers in the region are harvesting 130 bu. to 140 bu. dryland milo. ( Arthur Rothstein, Colby Thrall, C.C. Morris Ranch )

Farmers in Cimarron County, Okla., where the land of this semi-arid climate is caught in the middle of a five-state collision, are working to bury a memory below the sandy surface. The memory is of the Dust Bowl — one of the worst ecological disasters in our nation’s history. It was here, just outside of Boise City, Okla., photographer Arthur Rothstein snapped the iconic picture from those dusty days: a father and his two young sons facing the blowing sand in April 1936.

“My goodness, that guy back in 1935 and 1936 was probably thinking, ‘How am I going to survive?” reflects Brad Niehues, a field sales agronomist for the area and rancher in nearby Hugoton, Kan. “Flash forward 80 years, and we’re farming corn and cutting an incredible crop.”

Today, thanks to better conservation practices, new hybrids and modern irrigation, the area renown for the dirty 30s is keeping pace with its Midwestern counterparts.

“We cut a corn plot within a few miles of that field and it made nearly 270 bu. to the acre,” Niehues says. “There was a lot of 100-bu. dryland wheat out here this year too.”

Lessons for Today

What can farmers learn from this historical farming era?

“History doesn’t repeat, but it certainly recycles,” says Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois. He is researching the Dust Bowl and looking for lessons that can be applied to today’s production systems.

“I think the ultimate lesson is we should never be too confident in what we think we can control when it comes to natural forces and cycles,” Coppess says.

The Dust Bowl affected a staggering 100 million acres and was the worst drought in North America during the past 1,000 years. Control for these drought-ravaged fields came in 1948, when a Nebraska farmer had the idea for a new type of sprinkler with a center pivot point. That access to irrigation water began the pivotal transformation of the Plains.

“What helped more than anything was the ability to pump water out of the Ogallala aquifer,” Coppess says. “Certainly, irrigation is important, but then we’re drawing levels down, and that becomes a resource that’s very slow to renew.”

Improved research, conservation practices and responsible farming techniques were also part of the solution. The incredible difference is helping to smooth the peaks and valleys of a region with marginal rainfall. Coppess is continuing to sift through the particles of the past to peg the main themes behind the Dust Bowl and how they can be avoided in the future.

A Path Forward

Niehues isn’t naive to the climate challenges this region faces. He says since 2012, the area has seen above normal rainfall, until just recently, and farming is finally fun again.

“This fall, a crew with two John Deere S790s, running 16-row heads, were out cutting 250-bu. corn in the area,” Niehues says. “That crew had nine semis running and cut 74,000 bu. of corn with two machines in one day.”

Next year could be a drastically different story, told from the same fields and still farmed by a resilient population that’s both determined and cautious about the future.

“We really can have a much bigger impact than we think, which is both frightening but also reassuring that maybe we can do things to help, fix, repair or improve,” Coppess says. “We’re going to need creativity, adaptability and some ingenuity to get through what’s likely to be some incredible challenges in the future for farming and frankly for civilization.”

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