"Dust Bowl" Viewers Deserve to Hear the Rest of the Story

Husker Home Place

Here is my open letter to Ken Burns, maker of the "The Dust Bowl." His film was compelling, but modern conservation innovations were left out.

Published on: January 24, 2013
Dear Mr. Burns,

I have thoroughly enjoyed your film making for years, especially your award-winning effort in “The Civil War.” As a long-time student of American history, I credit Sister Veronica, my wonderful history teacher at St. Rose School, and your film, “The Civil War,” with my passion for that particular historical period. Your recipe for films, including photos and film footage, experts of the period, eyewitness accounts and how you weave each piece together, is truly compelling, and has changed the way Americans see their past.

So, it was with great anticipation that I watched your recent effort, “The Dust Bowl,” not only because you made this film, but also because I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents and father about what it was like to farm in northeast Nebraska in the “Dirty Thirties.”

CONSERVING THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS: Working together with USDA, farmers have taken hundreds of thousands of acres from production to protect fragile lands like this farmable wetland through CRP.
CONSERVING THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS: Working together with USDA, farmers have taken hundreds of thousands of acres from production to protect fragile lands like this farmable wetland through CRP.

I was familiar with the stories about the black blizzards and swarms of grasshoppers plaguing the Plains. I grew up listening to my father talk about eating lard sandwiches, and walking to school in dust storms. Farmers in our area put up thistles in the spring for hay, because it was the only forage that grew. Here in Knox County, the high population point came in 1936, at the height of the drought years. Mass exodus took place from that point on, with many farming families leaving the land forever.

CROPS THAT COVER: Cover crops are the buzzwords of the day for no-till farmers and any producer with highly erodible land.
CROPS THAT COVER: Cover crops are the buzzwords of the day for no-till farmers and any producer with highly erodible land.

You ended the film by pointing out correctly that irrigation has changed how farmers operate on the Plains, particularly here in Nebraska. Watering crops has made it possible to grow corn and soybeans on land that would previously not support these crops. However, your final minutes were devoted to the perceived negative aspects of modern agriculture, and alarmist notions about the future of life on the Plains.

Unfortunately for your viewers, this part of your story-telling fell terribly short, because you completely neglected to mention thousands of conservation innovations being made on farms around the U.S. each and every day that help prevent the kind of soil destruction that took place in the 1930s. You fell into that same, worn out rut that blames the producers of food and those who actually live on the land, instead of holding them up as examples of good and faithful stewards who have learned a lot over the past 80 years.

As a farmer and a farm journalist, let me tell you a bit about the rest of the story, at least from my own perspective. Your story ended in the 1960s, without discussing the wide adaptation of conservation measures throughout the 1970s, like the massive planting of shelterbelts, contour farming, and construction of terraces and grass waterways, to protect the soil. How about all of the landowners who have taken part in USDA programs like the Soil Bank programs of the late 1950s, later set aside programs and the popular CRP programs of today?

You left out the wetland protection programs now offered by USDA, as well as other practices that take place on fragile acres each year, like the planting of buffer strips near waterways and protection of farmable wetlands under the continuous CRP programs. You didn’t mention the farmers who are participating in the Conservation Security Program, or those who have developed rotational grazing systems that protect grasslands, and increase beef production from the same land.

In my area, nearly 90% of farmers practice some kind of conservation tillage, with 50% practicing no-till on at least part of their crop ground. These farmers are planting cover crops in greater numbers every year, protecting precious crop residue and building organic matter and microbial activity as well.

Irrigation systems of today are more efficient than ever before, and because of GPS and remote technology, farmers can now utilize variable rate technology, to grow more crops and save money and resources at the same time.

Instead of blasting farmers, tractors, irrigation and plows of the past, I thought you had a unique opportunity to impart the good things that are going on around farms and ranches in the Great Plains today, as a result of lessons learned. It’s too bad that this opportunity was squandered, because the understanding of the conservation and production innovations of today is important as we move forward to feed a growing world population that will need farmers to be progressive and creative.

Are there bad actors in farming today? Of course there are, as there are in any occupation. Is there land in the Plains that has been cropped in recent years, that probably should have remained in grass? Absolutely. Have some farmers forgotten the mistakes of the past? Most likely. Is erosion still of great concern? Yes.

However, in my experience as a farmer, my neighbors and farming friends are the best kinds of stewards. What you may not understand fully, is that these folks actually live here. Their greatest desire is to pass on their land to the next generation. Because of this, they sacrifice deeply to protect and preserve the land and their farming way of life. They do not farm to get rich. They often scrape by, because they love this rural culture and farm life.

I thank you for another wonderful film of American culture and history. I just wish you had told a little more about the rest of the story.

Be sure to watch http://www.nebraskafarmer.com and read our February print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at http://www.DatelineDrought.com.