Friday, January 22, 2010

Dust to Eat: Homesteaders Pioneer No-Till

As we move from the reds, oranges, and yellows of fall to the glittering fairy dust of blowing snow across winter fields, it’s important to look back at how far agriculture has come. As with most things, Mother Nature did not want to cooperate with the farmers this year and the harvest was later than years past. But thanks to ‘no-till’ which is supposed to be economically sound, agronomically superior, and environmentally safer, farmers will pass this test of Mother Nature smoothly because they don’t need to get back into the fields to plow everything under before spring.

But why is no-till such an issue today? What happened to America that the farmers have gone to no-till? What was it like for the hard working men and women who did not use no-till? The answers to those questions lies in exploring William Vaughn Moody’s figure of speech, “Dust to Eat,” coined during the Dust Bowl from 1933-1939.

Caroline Henderson described the Dust Bowl in the book Letter from the Dust Bowl (p. 140-141) as: There were days when for hours at a time we cannot see the windmill fifty feet from the kitchen door. There are days when for briefer periods one cannot distinguish the windows from the solid wall because of the solid blackness of the raging storm. Only in some Inferno-like dream could anyone visualize the terrifying lurid red light overspreading the sky when portions of Texas are “on the air.” This wind-driven dust, fine as the finest flour, penetrates wherever air can go. . . “Dust to eat,” and dust to breathe and dust to drink. Dust in the beds and in the flour bin, on dishes and walls and windows, in hair and eyes and ears and teeth and throats, to say nothing of the heaped up accumulation on floors and window sills after one of the bad days.

Caroline’s description of what it was like during the dust bowl echoes Moody’s expression “Dust to Eat” as this was the reality of daily life. Daily life became even more bitter with each passing day and trying to describe it to those who did not experience it was a futile exercise, because who can really fathom ‘“Dust to eat,” and dust to breathe and dust to drink’ (Henderson, p. 141)?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered programs in his New Deal that would address the problems of the Great Depression and help farmers such as Caroline Henderson. The Soil Conservation Service created Soil Conservation Districts and encouraged new farming methods to conserve the land and reduce the impact of practices that had contributed to the dust bowl. Caroline Henderson describes those practices:

The almost unbroken buffalo grass sod has given way to cultivated fields. . . In one limited respect we realize that some farmers have themselves contributed to this reaping whirlwind. Under the stimulus of war time prices and the humanizing of agriculture through the use of tractors and improved machinery, large areas of buffalo grass and blue-stem pasture lands were broken out for wheat raising. The reduction in the proportionate area of permanent grazing grounds has helped intensify the serious effect of the long drought and violent winds. (p. 141)

So the breaking of the land by homesteaders proved to be too much for the soil. In addition, many homesteads were abandoned for various reasons, one of which was the lack of moisture. Although the Soil Conservation Service tried to reduce the impacts of the practices leading to the dust bowl, there was no one to implement these practices on the abandoned homesteads, further adding to the problem.

But it is through these lessons, learned the hard way by homesteaders such as Caroline Henderson that agriculture has advanced to our current economically sound, agronomically superior, and environmentally safer way of growing crops by using the no-till system.

So enjoy the fairy dusting of snow over no-till fields and thank the homesteaders who pioneered our current ways of agriculture.

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