In the past week I have been from North Eastern Kansas to South Central Kansas and my official diagnosis is that it is really, really dry. I think that astute observation might be enough to get me a job as a weatherman. All kidding aside, this drought is getting to levels that most of us if not all of us have never seen before. On top of that there seems to be no relief in sight.
I have also seen in recent days that the local PBS station has been showing a documentary about the Dust Bowl. I would really like to have seen the program but I just haven’t been able to watch TV when it was on and I cannot seem to program the DVR to record it. It would be interesting to see how close we are coming to being in the same weather pattern.
My guess is that we are fairly close to having another Dust Bowl. I know temperature levels have reached all time sustained records and we are somewhere around 11 inches short of rain for the year. I also know that my friends in Western Kansas have been mired in this drought for a couple of years longer than we have. All of this leaves people wondering if we are headed into another Dust Bowl. I would contend that we may be right in the middle of it.
Oh there have been some pretty bad dust storms recently in Western Kansas but nothing like they had in the 1930s. So if we are in the second, third or even fourth year of record highs coupled with drought like conditions why are we not seeing Dust Bowl conditions? The answer is because we learned from our mistakes in the thirties and modern agriculture does an incredible job of conserving top soil.
Agriculture in the thirties viewed the topsoil as a never ending commodity; the soils were too deep and rich to ever disappear. We were also in an era of needing to increase our agricultural output, so we plowed every available acre. Little thought was given to soil conservation, after all, why conserve a never ending resource.
Well, we found out why. Years of not worrying about leaving residue on the top of the soil led to soil erosion from wind and water. Soon the less productive sub-soil was left exposed and it did not allow the crops to grow as well and leave as much residue. Without the residue the exposed soil was more at risk. A series of dry years exasperated the situation and the Dust Bowl was born.
Fast forward to now. We are just as dry and the drought has lasted just as long. What is the difference? We have adopted no-till and reduced till farming practices. We leave residue on top of the soil to buffer the wind and absorb the rainfall. The resulting organic matter leaves the soil healthier. We have learned how to preserve our precious top soil and even build it back to levels near that of the unplowed prairie. We have been able to do all of this because of the new technology developed in the past couple of decades. New technology like the much maligned genetically modified organisms or GMOs coupled with a better knowledge of the soils. In short, round-up ready crops maybe what has prevented a Dust Bowl this time around.
GMOs have allowed us to control weeds while not disturbing the soil and leaving organic matter and residue in place. I know we all know that, but this is the time that we all need to be telling the public about gmo crops and how they save our soil. Instead we allow other people to speculate about problems gmo crops might create sometime in the future when the reality is that they are saving our environment and helping us feed a growing world population. The truth is that all of us in agriculture from the scientists to the farmers have prevented a Dust Bowl.
The only group of people that I can see that gmo crops causing problems are the documentary film makers who will not get to produce a film about the second Dust Bowl. To them, I apologize. However, we are facing a never before seen combination of record heat and terrible drought conditions without the terrible dust storms of the thirties. All the while we are still producing a crop (yes, a reduced crop, but still a crop), that is just another reason I am so proud to be one of the many proud farmers and ranchers raising the food we all need.