During World War I about one million acres of grassland in western Nebraska, better suited to grazing than to crops, was plowed under and planted. In the 1920s farmers were so desperate to increase income that they over plowed, over planted, and over grazed the land on the Great Plains.
Then in the 1930s, drought, heat, wind and low agriculture prices combined to cause disaster. The federal government responded with a variety of programs that encouraged Great Plains farmers to use soil conservation methods that would help conserve soil fertility and stop erosion. People who rented the acreage they farmed didn’t want to invest in land that wasn’t theirs. And times were so bad during the Great Depression that some landowners couldn’t afford to use soil conservation methods that might not pay for several years.
Federal agricultural programs launched during the 1930s changed how and what Nebraska farmers planted by paying them to plant certain crops or paying them not to produce a crop at all – letting the land lie idle (fallow). LeRoy Hankel says Roosevelt’s farm programs “helped us get back on our feet… When I came to York, this one time they was giving us about $50 or $60 on 80 acres” to leave a little ground idle. “I stood in line for an hour or two to get $50-some dollars payment. And that’s the way it started.”
Other government programs encouraged farmers to rotate crops and renew soil nutrients, to follow the contour of the land when plowing, to terrace sloping land to prevent erosion, and to plant rows of trees in “shelter belts” to slow wind erosion. By the late 1930s, the conservation began paying off. Rainfall started to return to normal. Farmers started planting hybrid seeds, and crop yields began to rise.
Today, conservation techniques and equipment have advanced to the point that many farmers plant right through last year’s crop stubble. “No till” techniques leave crop residue on the field to preserve moisture and protect the soil from wind erosion until the next crop can sprout and push up through. The stubble will also decompose, providing partial nutrients for the new plants.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.