In their powerful new documentary The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan call the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.”
The great billowing black clouds that carried soil from the Great Plains to the East Coast were no accident. They were the natural result of the widespread plowing of native prairie that had held the soil in place for thousands of years and the drought that regularly visits the Great Plains.
The riveting stories of people who lived through the Dust Bowl years should remind us that we ignore the laws of nature at great peril.
Sadly, it seems the lessons learned by the Dust Bowl generation are being ignored by some in Congress, and some right here in Nebraska.
Congress should have passed a new five-year Farm Bill before Sept. 30, when most of the current Farm Bill expired. The Senate did its job, passing its version of a new Farm Bill in June. The House Agriculture Committee approved a new Farm Bill in July, but House leaders have refused to allow the full House of Representatives to take up the bill.
That leaves farmers unable to plan for next year. It also means Department of Agriculture conservation programs that help farmers protect wetlands and grasslands, reduce erosion and improve water quality are on hold.
The new Farm Bill is being written in the midst of a rush to break out native prairie and other grasslands. Across Nebraska, large fields of prairie are being destroyed, and grassed waterways, buffer strips and windbreaks are being torn out.
Highly erodible land that was planted to grass under the Conservation Reserve Program is going back into corn and beans as those CRP contracts expire. The mistakes from the 1970s when large corporations tore up miles and miles of native prairie in the Sandhills in an ill-fated attempt to turn them into cropland are being repeated.
It looks like the Great Plow-up of the 1930s all over again.
The rush is driven by high crop prices, new drought-tolerant crop varieties and herbicides like glyphosate that allow farmers to readily kill off grasslands without plowing.
Current Farm Bill policies also are fueling the rush. Farmers can get crop insurance subsidized by taxpayers which substantially reduces their financial risk should they get a poor crop on the newly-broken ground. Farmers can even get that subsidized crop insurance without agreeing to basic conservation measures like protecting wetlands and practicing soil conservation on erodible land.
And to add insult, if breaking out the marginal land results in excess erosion, they can apply to the Department of Agriculture for more taxpayer money to deal with the problem.
America needs a new five-year Farm Bill, one that will protect our natural resources while providing an effective safety net for farmers and ranchers. To do that, the new Farm Bill must:
* Restore the requirement that farmers first agree to protect wetlands (“Swampbuster”) and use soil conservation measures on highly erodible land broken out (“Sodbuster”) before being eligible for crop insurance subsidized by taxpayers;
* Include a strong nationwide SodSaver provision that would deny commodity payments, crop insurance, and other federal payments on native prairie converted to cropland, to eliminate the taxpayer-paid incentives to destroy rare native prairie;
* Provide funds to continue Department of Agriculture conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Conservation Stewardship Program.
Unfortunately, both the Senate and House Farm Bills would cut $6 billion in future years from these conservation programs that are critically important to protecting water quality, wetlands, wildlife and our other natural resources. In a time of fiscal austerity some cuts to conservation programs may be inevitable, but we cannot afford to gut conservation programs on one hand while encouraging poor practices with the other.
In the 1930s it took a dust storm delivering tons of soil from the Great Plains that blackened Washington, D.C., to get Congress to focus on the problem. With the lessons of history, it shouldn’t take another Dust Bowl to awaken Congress to the need to pass a responsible five-year Farm Bill.
Duane Hovorka is executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.