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Farmers On Colorado's Plains Work Through Modern Day Dust Bowl

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

When the wind picked up from the south on John Schweiser’s farm outside Rocky Ford, Colorado, the sky would go black. A charging wall of dust would force the 80-year-old farmer and his wife to hunker down in their ranch-style farmhouse.

“You’d look up and here’d come this big ol’ rolling dirt,” Schweiser said. “You couldn’t see how high it was.”

The dust storms looked eerily similar to the ones you’d see on the pages of a history textbook. But it’s 2014, not the 1930s, and many of the same stretches of prairie once devastated by the Dust Bowl are once again dealing with terrible drought and massive dust storms. Some areas are technically drier now than they were when thousands of families abandoned their farms. Still, many farmers have managed to avoid tragedy.

While big swathes of the Great Plains have partially recovered from the extreme 2012 drought, some sections are still desperately dry. The drought has settled in what historians consider to be ground zero for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: southeast Colorado, western Kansas, northeast New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.

Credit Michael Brashier / Flickr
A dust storm rolls through the plains outside Boone, Colo., in June 2013.

Portions of southeast Colorado haven’t seen a lack of moisture like this since we started keeping weather records. Farmers have seen some relief with the summer’s monsoonal rains, but moisture deep in the soil will take longer to recover. The cracked, dusty ground has been sapped by heat.

“When you put water on it, after it’s been that dry, it won’t absorb any,” Schweiser said. “It’s been bad as I ever remember seeing.”

How, then, is a farmer like Schweiser making a living? None of his neighbors have skipped town like Dust Bowl refugees. 2013 was a rough year, but he made it through. Farmers aren’t marching on Washington demanding relief.

“Most of them have been around to know that you have to take the good with the bad, and most people just accept that,” Schweiser said. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be farming in the first place.”

The reason more farmers haven’t gone bankrupt, even in Dust Bowl conditions, is far more than sheer persistence. It’s the culmination of decades of agricultural research, technological advances and changing practices.

“The 2012 drought was -- is -- severe. And very comparable to what we saw in the Dust Bowl,” said Eugene Kelly, a soil science professor at Colorado State University.

Farmers like Schweiser are able to keep their farms up and running even in Dust Bowl conditions, Kelly said, largely due to adaptations and adoptions of new technology. Farms in the 1930s relied on primitive horse-drawn plows. Now, large-scale crop farmers are testing conservation practices like planting cover crops, limiting tillage and updating irrigation, with financial benefits.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Schweiser raises several hundred head of cattle and grows corn, wheat and alfalfa at his farm in Rocky Ford, Colo.

“I think they’re able to sustain the production in some of these areas,” Kelly said. “But that came from a lot of research and a lot of work in developing cropping systems and farming systems and learning a lot about the damage a plow can do.”

That damaging plow made the Dust Bowl one of the largest and most destructive human-caused ecological disasters in history. Homesteaders dug up marginal lands to plant row crops like wheat. Without rain, the soil dried out and sprung into dust clouds miles long whenever the wind kicked up.

In the decades since, former U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationist John Knapp says a suite of conservation programs has gone into effect. Those programs pull sensitive grasslands out of agricultural production and keep the soil intact.

“That really changed what was the Dust Bowl,” Knapp said. “Because those lands are in grass now. And that’s some of the most highly erodible anywhere in Colorado.”

Though some farmers have been able to adapt to a harsh environment, the economics of such a transition can wreak havoc on the small communities involved, Knapp said. Even though farmers like John Schweiser are able to keep their heads above water, times are tough. Selling off cattle or relying on insurance is taxing on farmers and on the surrounding towns.

“Even prior to this particular drought, we have been on kind of a slide in terms of the economics. Just because we weren’t able to sustain some of the higher value crops,” Knapp said.

When irrigation water was easier to come by, farmers grew high value crops like onions and melons along the Arkansas River in Colorado. But as drought persisted and worsened, packing sheds have closed, Knapp said. Farms then need fewer workers.

Some farmers are selling out completely. Mirroring a national trend, Otero County, Colorado, where John Schweiser grows corn and wheat, saw a 5 percent drop in the number of farms from 2007 to 2012 and a 19 percent increase in the average farm size. Those are larger economic issues not necessarily caused by drought, but certainly exacerbated by it, Knapp said. And playing out in many of the hardest hit areas.

Life in the modern Dust Bowl isn’t easy. But it’s certainly easier than the other epic droughts farmer John Schweiser has lived through. He grew up as a child of the Dust Bowl having been born in 1934. He says at the time he was relatively unaware of the historic event taking place on the family farm. He remembers speaking to his mother about the tough times.

“She said, ‘You kids never went to bed hungry, but your dad and I did.’ That’s how tough it was,” Schweiser said. “But I’ve never known any bad times in comparison.”

The current drought will leave a mark on those who live through it. It remains to be seen whether the next generation of farmers in this region will be able to adapt quickly enough to survive even more extreme conditions in the future.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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