PBS recently aired an interesting two-part series on the Dust Bowl, and I found myself intrigued by the stubborn perseverance of the families who endured the horrific hand dealt to them by Mother Nature.
For the regional economy of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado, it was the perfect storm. High wheat prices encouraged settlers to move west and stake their claim on a piece of land, plow it up and plant their crops. When wheat prices dropped to unsustainable lows, farmers — in true farmer fashion — just worked harder. They plowed up more ground and planted more wheat to make up for the shortfall. The oversupply, dismal prices and onset of the Great Depression brought farmers to their knees. The complete absence of rain, the unplanted fields and the winds that continually blew across the plains conspired to whip up enormous storms that literally moved the earth.
The balance had been upset and the unsuspecting settlers would pay dearly. Many of those settlers held on for a decade, desperately waiting for the rains to come while digging out from the constant layers of dust deposited by storms that rolled over the plains and transformed the light of day into pitch black.
In Routt County, the winter of 2011-12 was unusually dry. The extended dry spell thus far this winter has allowed local ranchers to squeeze in a little more work before the snow flies and feed less hay to their livestock, but we’re paying close attention to the weather. Just like the local economies of the communities around the Dust Bowl region, our local economy depends on moisture.
Lessons learned from the Dust Bowl have taught landowners not to plow fields in certain areas of the country, but no lessons learned offset the potential harmful impacts of extended drought. A common theme from those who were interviewed for the Dust Bowl series was that “next year will be better; the rain will come and we’ll recover.” And they did. Not only do I hold that same sentiment, I hear it all across the community.
We have all experienced beautiful Indian summers followed by nonstop, headline-forming January snows. We are fortunate here in Northwest Colorado that we can depend on some amount of snow. It may not be enough to sustain the rivers into a long irrigation season, but we will get snow. Even if Mother Nature again proves to be stingy with her distribution of moisture, next year will be better. The general mindset of the farmer and rancher, who is ultimately held hostage by even the most minor swings in weather, has not changed in 80 years. Regardless of the weather, commodity prices and the economy, that stubborn perseverance and hope prevail.
Christy Belton is a Routt County rancher. Christy, Matt and Tell Belton recently were named Routt County’s “Ranchers of the Year” by the Routt County Conservation District for their conservation and agriculture efforts.