One of the biggest problems on the Great Plains during the drought was the power of wind erosion that decimated exposed soil. In some places wind blew away three to four inches of topsoil, sending it into the air in dust storms that darkened the sky, drifted against barns and houses, choked people and caused dust pneumonia.
On the plains there was nothing to stop the terrible wind. Walter Schmitt says that when the crops didn’t grow, there were many tumbleweeds. “When the winds came along, they blew the tumbleweeds,” he says. “And the fencerow would be the place it would stop.”
In 1935 federal and state governments teamed up to encourage farmers to re-seed large areas of the plains back to grass and to plant long rows of native trees. The idea was that the trees would help break the wind. By 1938 nearly 80 million trees had been planted in shelterbelts in Great Plains states. The government used emergency funds to pay farmers to plant trees as a crop and instructed farmers how to care for and manage the trees.
Clifford Peterson agrees that the shelterbelts worked, but many of them are now being torn out. He remembers when the federal government supplied the trees and farmers planted “several rows of trees on one side of your farm or wherever you wanted the protection. Usually on the south side of the barn … because it wasn’t so much for the winds from the north in the wintertime as it was from the hot winds and the dry dust from the south in the summertime.”
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.