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Soaked In Drought: Lessons From The Dust Bowl

Aug 4, 2012
Originally published on August 5, 2012 11:43 am

This summer's drought continues to wilt and bake crops from Ohio to the Great Plains and beyond. Under a baking, late-afternoon sun just outside of the tiny east-central Illinois town of Thawville, John Hildenbrand walks down his dusty, gravel driveway toward one of his corn fields.

"You can see on the outer edge, these are a lot better-looking ears on the outside rows. Of course, it's not near as hot as it is inside the field," he says.

Walking deeper into the 7-foot-high corn stalks, the temperature — already in the 90s — becomes stifling. Here, the ears are smaller. Peeling back the husks on an undersized ear of corn, Hildenbrand exposes kernels that are drying up.

"It just never really matured," he says. "And [if] we got out in there farther, it's gonna be just that much less."

More than 63 percent of the country in the lower 48 states is experiencing drought, leading some to compare the summer of 2012 to the droughts of the 1950s and even the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

A More Resilient Corn

John's father, Charles Hildenbrand, was born and raised on this land and farmed these fields for decades — as did his father before him. The 84-year-old was too young to remember much about the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s — other than he and his father dragged their mattresses outdoors to sleep at night.

But he says even though this year's drought is the worst he's ever seen, today's hybrid corn is surviving better than the corn he and his father planted ever could.

"If this would've been open-pollinated, it would have been all brown, probably. And there probably wouldn't be any kernels on these ears," he says. "The cobs is about all that would be there, I'm afraid."

The development of hybrid crops that are better able to withstand heat and drought is one of the only reasons the Hildenbrands have a chance of a small crop this year. And it's one of the most important developments in farming since those devastating droughts of yore.

How To Compare

In the '30s and '40s, Charles Hildenbrand used horses, replaced today by tractors, combines and planters with high-tech gadgets and computers. So is it even fair to compare this summer's drought to the devastating droughts in the 1950s, or even the Dust Bowl years?

"Certainly from a geographical footprint, it's right up there with the '50s and '30s at over 60 percent," says climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"But the '30s and '50s were multiyear droughts," he says, "and this drought, so far for the majority of the country, is not a multiyear drought yet."

In those exceptionally dry years of the 1930s, farmers and ranchers plowed up the Great Plains to plant wheat. They ended up losing not just their crops but their top soil, too, as winds blew it into giant dust clouds that darkened the skies for hundreds of miles.

That spurred the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which paid farmers to not farm some land and to replant the native prairie grasses to keep soil in place. Svoboda says the USDA agency also encouraged farmers to change their tillage practices.

"Instead of tilling the soil over, they use what they call no-till drilling or low-till ... which doesn't disturb the soil. It plants directly into a residue-covered soil that retains a lot of soil moisture in that upper part of the profile," he says.

In addition to being better able to preserve what little moisture is in the soil, hybrid crops send roots deeper to find moisture.

Praying For Rain

Still, University Of Illinois agronomist Emerson Nafziger says there is one constant and critical truth to farming.

"The hybrids and so on are improved now, but we certainly don't have hybrids that can do without water," he says.

Looking over his withering crops, John Hildenbrand couldn't agree more.

"I was reading the CropWatchers in the Farm Bureau paper. He said, 'We're no longer crop watchers — we're deterioration watchers.' And that's really what we're doing; we're watching our crops deteriorate in front our eyes," he says.

Hildenbrand estimates his yields already will be less than half of normal, and if there isn't some rain and cooler temperatures soon, he may lose it all. Then he'll rely on maybe the most significant development since the 1930s in helping farmers deal with losses: crop insurance.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

In this country, the summer's drought continues to wilt and bake crops from Ohio to the Great Plains and beyond. More than 63 percent of this country in the lower 48 states is experiencing parched conditions. That's leading some to compare the summer of 2012 to the droughts of the 1950s, even the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. NPR's David Schaper looks at those comparisons and the lessons that farmers have learned over the decades.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Under a baking late afternoon sun just outside of the tiny east central Illinois town of Thawville, John Hildenbrand walks down his dusty, gravel driveway toward one of his corn fields.

JOHN HILDENBRAND: Yeah, you can see on the outer edge, these are a lot better-looking ears on the outside rows. Of course, it's not near as hot as it is inside the field. We'll go in the field. It's a whole different story.

SCHAPER: Walking deeper into the 7-foot-high corn stalks, the temperature, already in the 90s, becomes stifling.

HILDENBRAND: You already start to see how these ears, even one row in, see how much smaller ear, and you can see how it's starting to abort?

SCHAPER: Peeling back the husks on an undersized ear of corn, Hildenbrand exposes kernels that are drying up.

HILDENBRAND: It just never really matured. And we're just one row in, you know. And we get out in there further, it's going to be just that much less.

Yeah, these ears ought to be twice as big as they are.

SCHAPER: That second voice is John's father, Charles Hildenbrand, who was born and raised on this land and farmed these very fields for decades, as did his father before him. The 84-year-old was too young to remember much about the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s, other than he and his father dragging their mattresses outdoors to sleep at night.

But he says even though this year's drought is the worst he's ever seen, today's hybrid corn is surviving better than the type of corn he and his father planted ever could.

CHARLES HILDENBRAND: If this would've been open-pollinated, it would have been all brown, probably. And there probably wouldn't have been any kernels on these ears. The cob is about all that would be there, I'm afraid.

SCHAPER: The development of hybrid crops that are better able to withstand heat and drought is one of the only reasons the Hildenbrands have a chance of a small crop this year. And it's one of the most important developments in farming since those devastating droughts of yore.

In the '30s and '40s, Charles Hildenbrand used horses. Those are replaced today by tractors, combines and planters with high-tech gadgets and computers. So is it even fair to compare this summer's drought to the devastating droughts of the 1950s, or even the Dust Bowl years?

MARK SVOBODA: Certainly, from a geographical footprint, it rivals - it's right up there with the '50s and the '30s at over 60 percent.

SCHAPER: That's Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

SVOBODA: But the '30s and '50s were multi-year droughts, and this drought, so far for the majority of the country, is not a multi-year drought yet.

SCHAPER: In those exceptionally dry years of the 1930s, farmers and ranchers plowed up the Great Plains to plant wheat. They ended up losing not just their crops but their top soil too, as winds blew it into giant dust clouds that darkened the skies for hundreds of miles.

That spurred the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which paid farmers to not farm some land and to replant the native prairie grasses to keep soil in place. Svoboda says the SCS also encouraged farmers to change their tillage practices.

SVOBODA: Instead of tilling the soil over, they use what they call no-till drilling or low-till at a minimum, which doesn't disturb the soil. It plants directly into a residue-covered soil. That retains a lot of soil moisture in that upper part of the profile.

SCHAPER: In addition to farmers being better able to preserve what little moisture is in the soil, hybrid crops send their roots deeper to find moisture. But University Of Illinois agronomist Emerson Nafziger says there is one constant and critical truth to farming.

EMERSON NAFZIGER: The hybrids and so on are improved now, but we certainly don't have hybrids that can do without water.

HILDENBRAND: Actually burn it, is really what it's doing.

SCHAPER: Back on the Hildenbrand farm, overlooking his withering crops, John Hildenbrand couldn't agree more.

HILDENBRAND: Well, I was reading the CropWatchers in the Farm Bureau paper. He said, We're no longer crop watchers. We're deterioration watchers. And that's really what we're doing, we're watching our crop deteriorate in front our eyes.

SCHAPER: Hildenbrand estimates that his yields already will be less than half of normal, and if there isn't some rain and cooler temperatures soon, he may lose it all. Then he'll rely on maybe the most significant development since the 1930s in helping farmers deal with losses - that is crop insurance.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.