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Dust Bowl Analogies

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The point in this New York Times op-ed is a good one–the state of farming in California is highly tenuous. Given that a huge percentage of the fruits and veggies you are eating in the cold, cold month of February come from The Golden State, the potential to see this decline quite rapidly in the face of long-term drought and aquifer depletion by those seeking short-term solutions to it is very real and very scary to the American diet.

But I do have to take objection to the constant use of the Dust Bowl any time there’s a drought or farming crisis that leads to shuttered farms. The Dust Bowl was a very specific set of circumstances that could repeat themselves, but probably won’t. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the western Great Plains (worth noting that the conflation of Okies migrating to California because of the Dust Bowl is largely false. Most of those people were sharecroppers kicked off their land due to other conditions of the Great Depression and the consolidation of land under AAA policies. They were mostly from central and eastern Oklahoma or further east and south, which was well outside of the Dust Bowl range.) happened because a naturally occurring drought combined with the winds of the Plains to blow dirt away after decades of horrible agricultural practices that stripped the land of its native grasses and sod. That led to this, in Haskell County, Kansas in 1941 (which was itself after the Dust Bowl ended):

We’ve seen drought before and since but we’ve never seen another Dust Bowl. That’s because droughts happen in different places under different conditions and because agricultural practices, while still quite unsustainable (such as in California today) have changed to limit such an event today. This isn’t to take attention away from the very real crisis in California, but it is to ask that we stop invoking the Dust Bowl without context every time there’s a drought where people grow crops, which is basically everywhere.

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