Will There Be a Second Dust Bowl? And What Happened to the Topsoil From the First One?

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself –Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Will the Great Plains once again looks like they’re part of a world imagined by dystopian futurist Simon Stålenhag?

Let’s hope not. Unfortunately, this picture (taken at John Martin State Park in Colorado) suggests otherwise:

Of course, that’s just one photograph. In the “Dirty Thirties,” there were many photos like this one, taken in the Texas Panhandle under FDR’s Farm Security Administration:

So will there be a second Dust Bowl? In this post, I’ll first look at a study that suggests there might be (although nobody says we are there yet). Then, I’ll look at the implications of a second Dust Bowl, including the prospect of desertification, and what happened the topsoil lost in the first Dust Bowl. (Previous posts on at NC are here, here, and here. I know we have soil mavens in the readership, so I hope they’ll chime in.)

Prospects for a Second Dust Bowl

While the prospect of a seond Dust Bowl is a hardy perennial in the press (see, e.g., November 2012, May 2014, January 2015, August 2019, March 2020, and May 2020), a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters, “Dust Impacts of Rapid Agricultural Expansion on the Great Plains“, has heightened concern. From the Plain Language Summary section (more publications should require these):

Throughout the U.S. Great Plains, satellite data combined with surface networks have shown a significant increase in airborne dust over the last two decades. This airborne dust is negatively influencing human health and visibility and coincides with increases in agricultural production.

Since the GRL article is paywalled, we must turn to Science for the interpretation, in “Dust Bowl 2.0? Rising Great Plains dust levels stir concerns“:

The findings, reported on 12 October in Geophysical Research Letters, show that across large parts of the Great Plains, levels of wind-blown dust have doubled over the past 20 years. One clue that agriculture is responsible is that the dust levels tend to peak during spring and fall—planting and harvesting seasons…

But recent studies are showing how climate change is drying out the region. Greenhouse gases are making heat waves like those in the 1930s far more likely, according to a study published in May in Nature Climate Change. And in an April study in Science, researchers suggested much of the western United States is on the brink of a prolonged megadrought that could outrank anything in more than 1000 years.

Renewed agricultural expansion is adding to the problem. Grasslands are being plowed up to plant corn near refineries that turn corn into biofuels—spurred by U.S. policies that encourage renewable fuels. Soil is left exposed at critical times of the year….Underlining the connection, [Gannet Haller, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who led the GRL study] says the new study identifies a strong correlation between new croplands and the downwind areas where dust levels are growing the fastest.

Phys.org, summarizes the GRL study in “Atmospheric dust levels are rising in the Great Plains“:

The trend of rising dust parallels expansion of cropland and seasonal crop cycles, suggesting that farming practices are exposing more soil to wind erosion. And if the Great Plains becomes drier, a possibility under climate change scenarios, then all the pieces are in place for a repeat of the Dust Bowl that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s.

On Pasture explains the sensors used in the GRL study, and zeroes in on the rising dust in “Is a Second Dust Bowl on Its Way?”

The focus of the study… was to quantify how much the amount of dust in the atmosphere over the Great Plains had changed in recent decades. To do that, they tapped into instrumentation that measures atmospheric haziness from the ground up and from space down. From the ground, the IMPROVE monitoring network is run by several federal agencies and measures the amount of particulate matter in the air at sites, including national parks, around the country. Another ground-based network, the NASA-run AERONET, watches for how much incoming sunlight is blocked by dust and aerosol particles in the air. From space, an instrument called MODIS does the same job, looking at how much light reflected from the surface is similarly blocked by particles.

All together, the data cover years from 1988 to 2018. Dust, they found, is increasing in the atmosphere over the whole of the Great Plains by as much as 5% per year.

“The amount of increase is really the story here,” Hallar says. “That 5% a year over two decades, of course, is a hundred percent increase in dust loading. This is not a small signal to find.”

Of course, airborne dust doth not a Dust Bowl make. But that’s the connection many on the Great Plains are making. From National Geographic, “Parched: A New Dust Bowl Forms in the Heartland“:

In Boise City, Oklahoma, over the catfish special at the Rockin’ A Café, the old-timers in this tiny prairie town grouse about billowing dust clouds so thick they forced traffic off the highways and laid down a suffocating layer of topsoil over fields once green with young wheat.

They talk not of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but of the duster that rolled through here on April 27, clocked at 62.3 miles per hour.

And if we don’t have a mega-drought yet, we’re certainly having droughts. From the U.S. Drought Monitor animations page:

With these warnings echoing in our minds, let’s turn to the implications of a second Dust Bowl:

Implications of a Second Dust Bowl

A second Dust Bowl would be very bad. From Frontiers in Sustainable Food Production, “Simulating the Cascading Effects of an Extreme Agricultural Production Shock: Global Implications of a Contemporary US Dust Bowl Event“:

In this study, we analyze the global potential impact of a present-day event of equivalent magnitude to the US Dust Bowl, modeling the ways in which a sudden decline in US wheat production could cascade through the global network of agricultural trade. We use observations of country-level production, reserves, and trade data in a Food Shock Cascade model to explore trade adjustments and country-level inventory changes in response to a major, multiyear production decline. We find that a 4-year decline in wheat production of the same proportional magnitude as occurred during the Dust Bowl greatly reduces both wheat supply and reserves in the United States and propagates through the global trade network. By year 4 of the event, US wheat exports fall from 90.5 trillion kcal before the drought to 48 trillion to 52 trillion kcal, and the United States exhausts 94% of its reserves. As a result of reduced US exports, other countries meet their needs by leveraging their own reserves, leading to a 31% decline in wheat reserves globally. These findings demonstrate that an extreme production decline would lead to substantial supply shortfalls in both the United States and in other countries, where impacts outside the United States strongly depend on a country’s reserves and on its relative position in the global trade network.

Plus a lot of people would starve, and bread riots are never good for regime stability.

There is also the more global question of desertification, described by National Geographic in “Desertification, explained“:

While land degradation has occurred throughout history, the pace has accelerated, reaching 30 to 35 times the historical rate, according to the United Nations. This degradation tends to be driven by a number of factors, including urbanization, mining, farming, and ranching. In the course of these activities, trees and other vegetation are cleared away, animal hooves pound the dirt, and crops deplete nutrients in the soil. Climate change also plays a significant role, increasing the risk of drought.

As with so many other issues having to do with soil, we have a definitional controversy. NASA’s Earth Observatory, “Temporary Drought or Permanent Desert?” adds an important element to the discussion:

The United Nations’ official definition says desertification is land degradation in typically dry areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.

Scientists are beginning to say that desertification is a reduction in the productivity of the land that is not reversible. In other words, land is desertified when it can no longer support the same plant growth it had in the past, and the change is permanent on a human time scale. Many things can cause desertification. Drought, overgrazing, fire, and deforestation can thin out vegetation, leaving exposed soil. If the nutrient-rich top soil blows or washes away, plants may not be able to return. Overfarming or drought can change the soil so that rain no longer penetrates, and the plants lose the water they need to grow. If the changing force is lifted—drought ends or cattle are removed, for example—but the land cannot recover, it is desertified. The loss of productive land for a season or even a few years is one thing, but to lose it effectively for ever is clearly far more serious

Here are some figures on the topsoil — yes, I finally got round to it! — that was lost in the first Dust Bowl. From the Kinsley Library, in Kinsley, KS, “Handy Dandy Dust Bowl Facts“:

In 1933 there are 39 dust storms. It could be told where they came from by the color of the dust: black soil came from Kansas, red soil came from Oklahoma, and gray soil came from Colorado and New Mexico

On May 9 1934, one storm was 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across, and 2 miles high. Planes had to fly 15,000′ to get above it. The storm carried 3 tons of dust for every American alive. It went as far as NYC where it was 1,800 miles wide and weighed 359 million tons. It carried dust 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

More than 850 million tons of topsoil had blown off the southern plains in 1935, nearly 8 tons of dirt for every resident of the United States. In the Dust Bowl, farmers lost 480 tons per acre. 100 million acres might never be productive farmland again.

In the 1930s the government bought 11.3 million acres of dusted-over farm fields and tried to return it to grasslands. In 2000, some of it is still sterile and blowing.

It takes 1000 years to build 1″ of fertile top soil and only hours to blow it away.

So, what happened to the topsoil in the first Dust Bowl? It blew away, and most of it is gone. That’s irreversible. My concern is not so much a second Dust Bowl, but the third, the fourth, the fifth. How many Dust Bowls does it take before the Great Plains becomes another Great American Desert? As with Covid, nature may have been generous enough to give us a trial run with a relatively easy plague. But what about next time?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

85 comments

  1. Wukchumni

    In a book i’m guilty as hell of pimping on here, Ten Lost Years by Barry Broadfoot, is a oral history of the common man & woman in Canada in the dirty thirties-recorded in the early 70’s along the lines of Studs Terkel, but vastly better stories in my opinion.

    In one of the vignettes, a Canadian merchant seaman is in Liverpool when he notices dust in the air from across the pond that had followed him there…

    Reply
    1. Winston Smith

      Barry Broadfoot is very good. “Six war years” is akin to Terkel’s “the good war”. You probably can’t find it now.

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        Do I dare admit that Six War Years is available for $2.99 on Amazon?

        Yes, it’s another tour de force with some amazing tales, highly recommended!

        Reply
  2. pileusII

    It takes 1000 years to build 1″ of fertile top soil and only hours to blow it away.

    Complete garbage. What Gabe Brown has done in ND can work anywhere.

    Reply
    1. Kvoth

      Gabe isn’t creating soil, he’s regenerating soil organic matter, which is different. That of course makes his soil healthier and more able to provide the nutrients necessary for plant growth (and animal grazing) and provides all the other services he describes in the video. Most importantly, it keeps more soil from eroding or blowing away.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Here is where a soil scientist ( perhaps the particular soil scientist who has written two comments on soil-based threads) could help us here.

        I am not a scientist, soil or otherwise. I am just an amateur science buff. My level of understanding has to be pre-disclaimerised that way from time to time.

        In common parlance, “soil” is considered to be what the pedologist calls ” topsoil”. It is the bio-life in the surface-layer of soil, together with decaying remains of plants and bio-life and also ( new understanding emerging) the root-exudates deliberately injected by plants through their roots into the soil right around those roots which create the bio-active mineral atomolecule-holding long-chain organic humus molecules which make a live bio-functioning soil out of a sterile subsoil or pre-soil.

        Or am I wrong? What would a pedologist say?

        My understanding is that re-storing organic matter and bio-active life-living into a sterile pre-soil or subsoil makes it into soil as against merely a subsoil or pre-soil with organic matter in it. Or am I wrong? What would the pedologist say?

        Part of why Gabe Brown’s program could work so well in North Dakota is that the subsoil and under-subsoil contains vast amounts of glacial rubble of various sizes . . . including the tiny pieces out of which can be leached or extracted various plant-necessary mineral nutrients. Could Gabe Brown be understood as having turned hi-mineral subsoil into new topsoil? Or should he be understood as having turned topsoil – organic matter back into topsoil + organic matter? What would a pedologist say?

        Perhaps the abandoned strip-mine scablands in Appalachia would offer the purest test of theories about this subject. Here is a bunch of aerial photos of removed-mountaintop minesites after the mountaintop removal mining has happened.

        https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0geK.MX2JBf89oAZ0lXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZANDMDkzNF8xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=mountaintop+removal+mining+images&fr=sfp&guce_referrer=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&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAKtcMq3VTHMoFN0ezNZdtg6yazZPwoxcRl6agiskbhbpNN59heU6rbTDhAuDgmWV0vrQGEdJ6leGqFuXTSSbCcHZkGrjCYKYD8hEEv-MZv9ZKMNxc6y5Gl9yuqG8WhzTk5B7W-axwGCC-VP1wKvtd30MlzQr2IfliS5gChldxxLB&_guc_consent_skip=1603328056

        Some of that scabland is horizontal . . . flats and benches and etc. Powerful grindering machinery could be brought in to grind the top two feet of a sample horizontal flat into soil-sized bits.
        After thorough testing of the sterile grinded bits for total mineral content, industrial quantities of any other mineral-sourcing rock needed to create nutri-mineral balance could be brought and mixed in.
        Then just enough compost/peat/etc could be brought in to mix into the top single one inch of the artificially-grinderized rubble-till enough for rough and tough plants to grow in it. Will those plants put roots down deeper than one inch? Will those plants begin a process of topsoil creating and deepening such that deeper rooted plants can be succession-planted to drive deeper down the soil deepening process? It sounds like an experiment worthy of being performed.

        Reply
        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > Perhaps the abandoned strip-mine scablands in Appalachia would offer the purest test of theories about this subject.

          I’d ask the Trillbillies; I think they’d say it failed the test.

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            At the risk of sounding all ” the test can never fail, it can only be failed”, I think the private landscalpers involved never had to pass any such test. So they never even tried.

            The test I envision would be a real one, funded and staffed well enough to fail or succeed on its own techno-scientific merits, perhaps with Green New Deal funding, if Joemalabam wins and a President Joemalabama can be tortured into providing such funding.

            Gabe Brown would be invited to submit names of all scientists and scientechnicians he thinks would be knowledgeable enough to know what to do and experiment with, and how to do it. He himself would be too busy to take any active part. But he might submit names like Ray Archuleta ( from whom he derived some original informed inspiration)
            https://understandingag.com/partners/ray-archuleta/

            And then further involve whomever Ray Archuleta would invite. And then spend the money and manpower to do it right. Pay the disemployed stripminers to run whatever heavy equipment would be involved. They are masters of heavy equipment.

            Why not involve the Trillbillies themselves? They might be and/or know people who are “lay masters” of what an eco-viable restored flatscape and benchscape would look like.

            Reply
        2. H

          Re: Appalachia reclaimed land.
          Most of it is not flat, but sloping steeply & terraced with poly netting on top. That poly net is degrading. No way to plow it & the water table is far below due to the fractured rock. Level areas are the highest elevations of all reclaimed. Even if it could be pumped, the water is too polluted from the strip mining to use.

          Names such as “Sulphur Creek” & “Stinking Creek” were common throughout Appalachia long before the mining. Thus the communist sounding term “Sacrifice Areas” was coined.

          Now factor in that much of the strip mined land was never reclaimed at all, similar to NC’s article the other day about fracking bankruptcies. Been there, done that.

          Now factor in the remoteness & distance to markets. A subsidized & tended forest is the only hope for this land, in itself likely a pipe dream now that the Greens have their sights set on burning it.

          Again, a warning from 1964:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXbvpBI08vs&feature=youtu.be

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I am totally NOT a scientist. I am ONLY a lay amateur science buff. I was thinking of limiting the experiment to the flat scar lands because only they would be non-subject to erosion on top of all the other problems.

            And yes, the experiment would be to see if a forest-supporting soil can be re-created on these flat scarlands able to support a self-sustaining forest able to take part in the Water Cycle/ Carbon Cycle/ Nitrogen Cycle, etc. It would not be expected to yield any economic product. It would only ever be able to perform a life-supporting eco-maintainance function. It would need heavy subsidy to get going. Would even enough subsidy, if rightly directed, get it going?

            I hope the experiment is tried.

            The slope lands become a whole nother other set of problems.

            Reply
            1. H

              I have seen the forest regrow all on it’s own on slopes & flats here in E. KY with no “reclamation” at all. It takes longer & the erosion was horrific. The regrowth is due to higher rainfall & the stupendous virility / variety of Appalachian forest. From creekbed to mountaintop you can find descendants of plants from tropical to ice age, prairie to mountain, waiting for the next shift.

              I see no connection to be made with western drought/ land use issues.

              Google aerial photos of huge strip mines in WV, then zoom out & watch them disappear into an ocean of green.

              Still not much use for the land though. Marginal logging after a century. Burn it for “biofuel” after 50 years.

              Appalachia will “create” soil. Whether it is of any use or not is another question.

              Reply
      2. pileusII

        Gabe isn’t creating soil, he’s regenerating soil organic matter, which is different.

        There is no difference, he is absolutely creating soil.

        “Soil” as you define it is sand, silt and clay. That’s not soil, it’s dirt. Creating soil means bringing in the microbiology that will feed minerals to the plants by cover cropping in the off season, and, crucially, NOT tilling. Exactly what Gabe is doing. But I’m not going to get into a silly academic debate with you about what soil is. I’m too busy building it myself. Soil is what you grow food in. And you can’t grow food in dirt.

        Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            From what I have read, that was part of the whole point of ammonium nitrate as “fertilizer” to begin with. An “excess” of decay-organism-uptakable nitrogen would stimulate the soil microbes to speed up their rate of humus oxidation to get the energy to grow more microbe-mass until the extra nitrogen was all used up.

            It was a way to oxidise the humus altogether out of soil until it was degraded to such a level of dirt that ammonium nitrate and the other soluble salt fertilizers would be the only way to grow crops in it.

            Reply
            1. H

              AN boosted yield even before faltering soils. Then the geneticists arrived. GMOs adapted to higher chem inputs, leapfrogging. A field of raw yellow silt transformed into verdant green with nary a weed in sight. In the future, organic content may not even be a factor at least as far as corn goes. Think GMO corn & Canola on Mars.

              Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      I wouldn’t call it “comPLETE garbage”. I would call it “incompletely true”. In the wild, it can take topsoil a long time to form. Under well informed human management, it can take much shorter. Gabe Brown shows what WELL informed human management can achieve.

      We call the “scientific study of soil/soils” by the name “pedology”. Since we have mainly been studying wild soils ” as mankind found them” and as mankind has been working them to this day, perhaps we should call the pedology of wild soils to be wildian pedology. And wildian pedology is not “wrong!” It is just incomplete. Wildian pedology is to pedology as Newtonian physics is to physics or Speciesian biology is to biology.

      The knowledge of and assumptions about “soil”, based as they are on “wild” soil, are being Overtaken By Events. Events like Gabe Brown and all the newly developed/developing science which informs his work and the work of others. Maybe science is popping in the field of pedology too. And if we get a category of manmade/man-guided soils recognized under the name “domestic soils” and/or “tame soils”,then that will be a Big Bang in the field of pedology.

      Of course if any credentialed pedologist wants to tell me why I am wrong about that, I will give any such comment a slow and serious read.

      Reply
      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Events like Gabe Brown and all the newly developed/developing science which informs his work and the work of others.

        All this is fine. I can accept what seems to be a “lone inventor” thesis, combined the usual resistance to a paradigm shift (see, e.g., Semmelweiss). That said, I’m not seeing any links. And please don’t tell me to watch a video. A paper? A site? Newspaper story? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

        (I mean, I incorporated the point that topsoil takes many years to build because I thought it was unexceptionable!)

        Reply
      2. Darthbobber

        Again, his methods are not about creating topsoil from nothing, they are about improving the quality of existing topsoil, and its being done in land that was not already deseertified.

        Reply
    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What Gabe Brown has done

      I have repeatedly expressed the view that simply dumping a YouTube link into a comment isn’t proof of any claim, absent a transcript. At a minimum there needs to be an explanation or abstract of some kind, and “what Gabe Brown has done” doesn’t cut it. I don’t have the time to watch a video of unknown provenance on a whim, and your asking me to do so amount to assigning tasks. I suspect many if not most readers feel the same.

      I’ll watch your video when I goddamned well get around to it, maybe on the First of Never.

      Reply
      1. JohnnyGL

        As someone who’s seen at least a couple of Gabe Brown lectures, I can vouch for their quality. He’s got some good and interesting lectures and he’s worked with academics to document the results.

        I cannot, however, agree with what pileusII seems to have understood from that lecture(s). Kvoth has accurately put what Gabe Brown is doing into context.

        A more inquisitive tone (instead of a dismissive, defiant one) might have been appropriate. Maybe, try something like “Hi, NC community, how do I square the idea that it takes 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil with Gabe Brown’s work restoring his land on the plains?” It would certainly result in a better reaction from our long time gracious hosts.

        As a nice example of what long term, unabated erosion can do, keep in mind that thousands of years ago, the city of Basra, in modern day Iraq, used to be a port city. It’s now many miles inland from the Persian Gulf. Obviously, we can’t run a parallel simulation to see what would have happened to the landscape absent the rise of agriculture for last few thousand years, but nonetheless, erosion makes massive, permanent changes to the landscape.

        Reply
    4. Martin

      Uh, well, actually, one of the reasons it works well for Gabe is that North Dakota has a shorter growing season, milder temps hence less evaporation than say Kansas. This is one of the reasons that yellow field peas work in the Dakotas but not down here, darn it. I would be careful with the ‘it can work anywhere’ idea. Crop failure is a humbling experience sir.

      Reply
    5. Darthbobber

      This has nothing to do with replacing topsoil, but with improving the quality of still-existing topsoil. In land that was NOT desertified.

      Reply
  3. Michael Fiorillo

    Given that so much ag production on the Great Plains depends upon the Oglalla Aquifer, which is destined to run out (soon, in states like New Mexico) at current rates of usage, it seems future dust bowls in that region are more than likely.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      There were no such dust bowls in the Oglalla Aquifer zone before the advent of tillaged row-crop farming.
      Once the Oglalla Aquifer is depleted down to zero, that land could be saved from dustbowling by restoring it to plains and prairie.

      Perhaps the Plains and Prairie Indian Nations would be happy to re-assume Sovereignty and Control in return for preventing any return of the dust bowl. Once the Oglalla Aquifer has run out.

      Or even some of it to quickly rotated-rotating multispecies grazing paddocks never exposed for some edible meat-yield for the 300 million Americans who will still be alive and will still insist on being fed. And if they still have their guns and ammo, they may GET fed, too.

      Reply
      1. Thistlebreath

        Have a look at what Wes Jackson et al have been doing at the Land Institute, on Water Well Rd. outside Salina, Kansas.

        No, windblown topsoil can’t be reclaimed. But immediately switching over to an ag system based on root structure will retain what’s left.

        And as for industrial grazing, Tony Seba is calling for that sector to implode pretty fast. So far, Tony’s been, if anything, conservative in his timeline of predicting disruptive change.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          It would have to be artisan grazing or artisandustrial grazing to have any hope of longest-term perma-sustainability. If that really is different than industrial grazing , and it is strictly the industrial grazing which will implode, then the artisan grazing and maybe even the artisandustrial grazing will be left standing.

          I remember reading that the Flint Hills region of Kansas was too full of big up-sticking rocks to ever be plowable. That is what saved it from farming. It was all taken up by ranchers instead.
          I have read that for the last hundred years, the Flint Hills region ranchers have been raising and selling calves from their Flint Hills ranchlands. They have maintained landscape eco-viability of that long-grass prairie region well enough and long enough that outside activists have tried turning it into a National Park. I think they may have succeeded with longstanding grandfathered perma-permission for the ranching families to keep ranching. That is what I remember reading anyway.

          Reply
        2. Lambert Strether Post author

          > No, windblown topsoil can’t be reclaimed. But immediately switching over to an ag system based on root structure will retain what’s left.

          I had to truncate the post, sadly, and may return to this topic. There’s a lot to be done before the topsoil blows away, and in the 30s FDR did some of it. (A review of the causes of the first Dust Bowl got left on the cutting room floor.)

          Reply
    2. flora

      Aquifers are interesting geologic/hydrology formations. Think of them as like a sponge holding water, not like a lake. So you can stick a ‘straw’ in one part of the ‘sponge’ and drain it dry while in another part the ‘sponge’ still holds water, maybe plenty of water for the next X years at current draw down. (But if the draw down increases?) Aquifers aren’t underground ‘lakes’. Also, under the Ogalalla is another, much older aquifer that’s unfit for human, livestock, or crop use. It isn’t studied or talked about because it’s useless for human needs. That older aquifer is contaminated with salts and heavy metals from an earlier geologic era. Convincing state reps that not all aquifer strata are equal, and “aquifer” doesn’t automatically mean “useful for human purpose ” is a task.

      Reply
      1. flora

        Adding: I’ve heard people say that groundwater depletion isn’t a problem because there’s another groundwater layer under the Ogalalla (true), because that’s where the Biblical floods retreated to after the great flood. I can’t say about that. But sea water isn’t fresh water. Irrigating crops with ancient sea water would kill crops. Sea water isn’t drinkable.

        Reply
        1. Phil in KC

          The cost of drilling that deep for water that may or may not be usable for agriculture is prohibitive. A number of farmers out in western Kansas are getting out of the wheat business and land is returning to grazing cattle.

          Kansas knows that it is in trouble in terms of water for agriculture. The Brownback administration looked into the idea of diverting water from the Missouri River (which borders the NE corner of the state) and pumping it hundreds of miles westwards. A simple cost/benefit study showed that such a project was doomed from the outset. Never mind getting permission from states downriver which would likely never happen.

          Reply
      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        This raises another issue I never see thought about. Perhaps it isn’t worth thinking about. Or perhaps it is.

        What is the aggregate volume of all the water which has been sucked out of aquifers and brought up to the surface for use and then flowing to the sea? What is the aggregate volume of all the water drained out of all the drained wetlands of the world? What is the aggregate volume of all the soil and subsoil water drained out of all the wet farmland by tile-drain systems and drained out to sea?

        Does all that water add up to enough water to cause any rise in the sea level?

        Reply
        1. redleg

          Geologist here.
          Compared to melting ice sheets, that amount of water is a rounding error. Draining wetlands for farming has impacts for sure, but the impact is best viewed as static- once the water level is brought down to x, flow will increase or decrease based on local conditions. Flow rate changes may occur, but the flow after the initial drawdown would effectively be unchanged.

          Excessive irrigation in arid regions generally doesn’t run off- it evaporates, both into the air and once it infiltrates the soil. The problem with this as the evaporated water leaves behind salts, which are essentially impossible to remove, and carbonate (caliche) which turns the soil into concrete. Since the water evaporates, it’s essentially mined- dispersed and gone forever- from that area even if that evaporated water forms rain or dew somewhere down wind.

          The bigger issue is water quality. This impacts both groundwater systems and surface water. As an aquifer is drawn down, water quality goes to hell before the water runs out, assuming that the cost of pumping associated with deeper water levels doesn’t get prohibitive first. Furthermore, nutrient loading from agricultural runoff is the prime culprit in the formation of oceanic dead zones, such as in the Gulf of Mexico, as agricultural runoff/effluent is “lightly” regulated.

          What would help, would be banning irrigation in tiled farmland (yes, irrigation *and* draintile on the same plot) with the possible exception of tile that has flow controlled outlets (i.e. a shutoff valve- tile systems never have valves, based on my experience). That and mandating no-till practices that not only save water, but can reduce fuel use by ~75% or more. I’m not sure if that gets into carbon negative territory, but it’s the right direction.
          My $0.02

          Reply
        2. Thomas P

          I have to disagree with redleg. I’m not a geologist, but I know how to check in the IPCC report, and they refer to Konikow “Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea‐level rise”

          “Estimated global groundwater depletion during 1900–2008 totals ∼4,500 km3, equivalent to a sea‐level rise of 12.6 mm (>6% of the total).”

          Reply
            1. Thomas P

              redleg, the sea has not risen “several meters” between 1900 and 2008! You are comparing what has happened with what might happen in the future.

              Reply
        3. juliania

          Not an expert, but when we get rains here in New Mexico not a lot of excess goes into the sea; it goes into the aquifer. And the Rio Grande barely reaches Mexico these days as so much of it needed further upstream. And not all topsoil blowing away ends up in the ocean. A lot of it used to end up on my gravel roof with dust storms from Arizona a few years ago.

          Reply
          1. Greg

            Water gets used upstream, which results in it being evaporated into the air. Then a huge proportion of the rain happens at sea.

            Also remembering that even irrigation which doesn’t evaporate from the soil is evaporated from the plant – actual plant use of absorbed water is around 3% and the rest is evaporated from stomata in the process of trying to suck up CO2.

            Reply
    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      Readers will correct me, but I think there are certainly parts of what used to be the Great Plains that are growing food with fertilizer and the Oglalla Aquifer. I think that’s a recipe for desertification.

      Reply
  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    Lambert Strether,

    I will try expressing a wish without stepping over the line into “giving out assignments”, which I know that I as a mere reader have no standing to dare attempt.

    Here is my wish: That seeing as this is now the third ( at least) post devoted strictly to the subject of “soil”, that the subject of “soil” might be considered worthy of a “Category Designator” on equal par with “Environment” and ” Permaculture”. If it were decided that such would actually BE a good thing, then the growing list of ” Soil” posts would be easily findable for people to go back and refer to, to add links to, for soil scientists ( of whom we have one already) to add expert deep-information links to, etc.

    So here’s hoping . . . .

    Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Given Google’s attitude, I won’t express such a “new category” hope for this or any other category.
        Readers who want to circle back to soil-centric posts to find something or leave something will have to adopt the workaround of . . . clicking on the “Lambert Strether” click-name and going through all the thereby-called-up posts to find the soil centric ones. It would only take readers one or three minutes and it would work.

        Reply
  5. juliania

    I’d recommend the PBS program, “The Age of Nature”. The first part documents the regeneration of the Loess Plateau in China. The people who lived there did it in 25 years, with the help of the government. I myself have taken a very small plot that was sand and rocks to begin with, and in less years than that I have soil.

    If you compost it, worms will come.

    Reply
  6. The Rev Kev

    What happened to all that topsoil from back in the 1930s? I would not be surprised that at the moment it sits at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. There were Congressional hearings taking pace about the soil problem in the west when to their disbelief the skies darkened with the clouds of that very same dust from the west. I can only assume that that dust clouds went out towards the Atlantic where they gradually fell into it.

    After that little episode the Federal government made soil a priority as no soil meant literally no food. Unfortunately I would guess that modern agricultural practices have made another dust bowl likely based on some of the stories that I have read here on NC. Modern food production seems to be a more of an extraction process with no regard whatsoever of ‘externalities’ and it is as crazy as it is reckless.

    And if I hear one more farmer talking about what he grows as ‘product’ I swear to god that I will run him over with his own tractor.

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      It was in the post, or at least one example was given. Yes right out into the Atlantic.

      On May 9 1934, one storm was 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across, and 2 miles high. Planes had to fly 15,000′ to get above it. The storm carried 3 tons of dust for every American alive. It went as far as NYC where it was 1,800 miles wide and weighed 359 million tons. It carried dust 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

      Reply
  7. Clem

    “There is also the more global question of desertification, described by National Geographic in “Desertification, explained“

    The same National Geographic that sold out to their chemical company sponsors and heartily endorsed the safety, efficacy and desirability of GMOs?

    Genetically modified organisms like patented seeds, are designed to be drenched in patented weedkilliers like Roundup and Dicamba, which destroy soil tilth, soil fertility, root extensions, fungal hyphae, soil life, and leads to dry sterile soil, more vulerable to duststorms.

    To hell with the (once great and trustworthy) National Geographic. They are frauds.

    No till, or “no plow”, organic agriculture is the way to preserve and build soil.

    https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/no-till-farming-zmaz84zloeck

    https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/20902500/DavidHuggins/NoTill.pdf

    Reply
    1. Greg

      Fun with current organic approaches too. You know how silver and copper are great for hospital stuff because they do charge funny business that rips apart organic molecules? All those copper sprays used as fungicides in organic farming build up and sterilise the soil as effectively and irrevocably as drenching it in roundup. Takes a little longer, but not that long.

      Reply
      1. nippersdad

        No organic gardener I know would willingly spray copper onto their crops. Garden sulphur yes, but never copper sulphates for the reasons you describe. The only side effect to using garden sulphur here in the South would be to slightly lower the PH of your soil, and given we already have acid soils that just means that you would have to increase the amount of lime necessary to keep the gardens in a neutral PH range.

        Reply
        1. greg

          Possibly a farm vs garden difference – the organic production operations I’ve encountered round these parts rely heavily on copper to prevent crop loss to fungi, as nothing else is fast acting enough to prevent significant damage.
          I’m inclined to think production organics are probably usually more monocrop focused than gardens, and monocropping is a big source of disease problems.

          Reply
    1. albrt

      It seems like this was a projection of the same amount every year for 20 years, more like simple interest than compound interest, in which case it would be correct.

      I don’t see any reason to think that the amount of airborne soil would compound steadily every year – if anything it would tend to reduce as there is less soil to transport. It could increase or decrease depending weather and what people do. So this is just a crude straight line projection.

      Reply
  8. Tomonthebeach

    Historically, the Dust Bowl, which once got so bad it engulfed NYC, was caused by the immigration of incompetent farmers who played out their land in the East and moved West to free land in places like Oklahoma where they repeated their stupidity (making the land vulnerable to drought). Today, farms tend to rotate crops to enhance the fertility and texture of the land. They also irrigate – and more wisely too. However, incompetent forest management, and PG&E ignoring growth around their power lines, have led to fires clearing out millions of acres exposing the topsoil to erosion. There is no irrigation except for rain over those spent forests.

    On the other hand, I watch E. German communist industrial farming ruin the land just like Okies (thank you Mr. Kruschev). Industrial farming is growing in the midwest and that could be a dustbowl rejuvenator.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Historically, the Dust Bowl, which once got so bad it engulfed NYC, was caused by the immigration of incompetent farmers who played out their land in the East

      Pro tip: Putting “Historically” at the start of your comment doesn’t mean that the history in your post is, in fact, accurate.

      Reply
    2. nippersdad

      Re: ” …immigration of incompetent farmers…”

      You ignore that soils in the NE were never good to begin with for large scale farming, and the price for entry in places like Ohio were too high for the farmers that had been pushed out due to the constrained economics of farming there. Soils in the South had already been depleted due to monocropping of cotton and where land was so cheap that in my region a man once traded a good hunting dog for a thousand acres. Both, you will notice, were matters of economics, not competence.

      You might want to read The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan; one of the best overviews of the causes and consequences of the Dust Bowl that I have seen. It is not that the farmers were incompetent so much as the economics of growing wheat and corn suddenly changed in the beginning of the Twentieth century. Wheat booms led to wheat busts, for example, and the cost of making larger crops to cover debt soon outpaced the prices that one got for the extra crops. Then the Great Depression hit.

      It was an economic issue, not a matter of competence. The dust bowl is the primary reason why we have crop price supports and a soil conservation corp. This, in theory, makes it possible for the federal government to control how the soil is used and keep prices up such that the individual farmer is not broken by cyclical economic incentives and weather patterns beyond their control. That is where the idea of paying farmers not to farm came from. That we now have an agricultural system dominated by large multi-national conglomerates engaging in industrial farming techniques who have taken advantage of such things as price supports is no reflection on why the New Deal era policies are failing us now. They cannot fail, and so another dust bowl would just represent an ongoing tax write off for them.

      So this should read: “Today(s small), farms tend to rotate crops to enhance the fertility and texture of the land. They also irrigate – and more wisely too.” Unfortunately we are largely not dealing with small farmers, we are dealing with Cargill, Monsanto and Bayer. Cargill, Monsanto and Bayer make their money in ways that view soil health as externalities that, the worse they get only serve to aid their bottom line.

      In the Thirties we did not have industrial agriculture as we presently know it, much less a foreign policy which features the export of soil and water in the form of grain and meat, and it has created a new series of incentives that are just as bad for different reasons, but incompetence does not feature in any of them.

      Reply
  9. Calypso Facto

    Thank you Lambert for posting on a unique place in the world that is often forgotten in the ongoing discourse. I grew up in Kansas and am currently in Oklahoma unwinding a very long and convoluted family situation. My family has been here since before the Civil War and while I probably will have to move for work reasons again eventually, having been under these big skies the past year while the world has gone literally and functionally crazy has been a slight benefit. I was in Portland before, after all.

    One aspect about the first dust bowl not often considered is that the growth in farmer exploitation of the land leading up to the droughts and degradation of the 30s came on the successes of the Farmer’s movements of the raiload era after the Civil War. The wikipedia entry on the Grange and Farmer’s Movements is fascinatingly vague:

    The Grange grew remarkably during the early years: at its peak, its membership rose to approximately 1.5 million. The causes of its growth were much broader than just the financial crisis of 1873; a high tariff, railway freight rates and other grievances were mingled with agricultural troubles like the fall of wheat prices and the increase of mortgages.

    The condition of the farmer seemed desperate. The original objects of the Grange were primarily educational, but these were soon overborne by an anti-middleman, co-operative movement. Grange agents bought everything from farm machinery to women’s dresses; hundreds of grain elevators and cotton and tobacco warehouses were bought, and even steamboat lines; mutual insurance companies were formed and joint-stock stores. Nor was co-operation limited to distributive processes; crop reports were circulated, co-operative dairies multiplied, flour mills were operated, and patents were purchased, that the Grange might manufacture farm machinery.

    … the success of the early agrarian-based movements for farmers in Kansas especially is one of the reasons that drove the influx of weekend ‘suitcase’ farmers to begin commodity planting operations we recognize as big ag today. This increase in bad farming practices from 1890s-1930s is the exploitation/degradation that led to the big dust bowl events, but before all of that and even before the big labor strikes of the late teens, the cooperative tradition that came from these farmer’s movements on the plains is what enabled the farmers to escape the poverty of being in an isolated location without access to markets. Sounds familiar to our current situation. We need a new Grange movement keeping in mind the failures as well as the successes of the first.

    One policy change that would enable a lot of positive change is the USDA preference of big ag/big farms over small, the ‘get big or get out’ commodity push of the late 70s changed to a preference for smaller farms with less reliance on single-crop commodities. Much of the high plains given over to ag is mile after empty mile of ‘precision agriculture’ monitored fields with no real human interaction aside from trucks coming out periodically to drive by the fields to check on their status. These crops – wheat, corn and soy – are then sold as a commodity crop to a market processor who has paid in advance. It’s not really ‘small farmers’ any longer, it’s ‘agricultural enterprises’ taking seed inputs and running them through an industrialized process to generate a product with fixed characteristics. It is this practice that is destroying the soil and depleting the aquifiers, in addition to the equivalent process for meat production, industrialized ranching.

    Reply
    1. farmboy

      same people who William Jennings Bryan led and Thomas Franks writes about today.
      wheat prices in 1917, which is included in the parity concept carried forward to this day in farm legislation but not used as a payment mechanism, were high and encouraged non-farmers to break out prairie all over the world. Exports sailed the world. Adjusted for inflation prices have dropped https://www.darrinqualman.com/wheat-price/ so spec fever is gone. In trading when the shoe clerks are buying that’s the top, so no more shoe cerks buying grassland and breaking it out to grow wheat.

      Reply
  10. albrt

    Betteridge violation, because clearly yes, there will be a second dustbowl, then a third, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Americans in all regions of the country will be driven to increasingly short-term, exploitative desperation.

    Unless the USA somehow peacefully splits up into regional polities that are small enough for the political structure to have some motivation to take care of the land and the people. The current political structure has literally none.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      During and after the New Deal period the US had a political structure to take care of the land and the people. The same Upper Class Warriors who subverted and destroyed that structure from within for the US as a US would still be left alive to subvert and destroy the smaller such structures in any smaller successor countries which would emerge from a disintegration of the US.

      At some point, we will have to find a Final Solution to the Upper Class question in every part of America today.

      Reply
  11. Brunches with Cats

    What about terra preta, the nutrient-rich soil created by ancient civilizations in the Amazon? I know very little about it, did a quick search (sorry, all I’ve got time for right now), and turned up links to a multitude of articles, scientific papers, university research, U.S. government info, etc. Predictably, there are labs trying to figure out how to market the biochar component for max profit, but there also seems to be broader interest for sustainable agriculture, with considerations for climate change. I couldn’t find anything specific to Dust Bowl states, but here are a couple of links that perhaps someone with the requisite background can use as a launch pad to address Lambert’s question:

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2017.02051/full
    https://www.senseandsustainability.net/2020/08/04/tending-the-soil/

    Reply
  12. Conor

    There is a developing Regenerative Farming movement here in Ireland. It’s implications are being ignored by both Teagasc (Government research) and the IFA (Irish Farmers Association). That is normal for such bodies.
    Most of the discussion happens on a WhatsApp group BaseIreland which is part of the International Base movement.
    We are a farming family and began to study it more intensely about three years ago.
    The rationale of Regenerative Farming is to improve soil health by sequestering carbon into the soil. This provides more food/energy for the soil biome which enable it to produce healthy crops. Sustainability means that the farmer has to get a fair price for the produce, or he goes out of business.

    This link is for the Biofarm conference organised by NOTS on 9-15 of November. https://mailchi.mp/nots.ie/biofarm-2020-regenerative-farming-book-giveaway?e=e320df6cfe

    Reply
  13. Conor

    The scientist that most influenced us in a broad view of where our environment was going and how solid the soil science is, was Walter Jehne Australia. His Youtube is in this site
    https://northlandclimatechange.org/2018/09/06/methane-carbon-and-planetary-cooling/
    and what appears to be a transcript of it is here:
    https://www.fixingthesystem.net.au/2018/07/06/boosting-natures-cooling-system/
    Thats the big picture stuff; very important.

    Christine Jones Australia gave us the application of that knowledge on farm.
    https://www.amazingcarbon.com/ is her page of her papers.
    The first one, ‘Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils’ is a 12 page overview of her approach.

    There are many American farmer and scientist videos. Gabe Brown of North Dakota is very prominent. There is also a scientist Andrew McGuire who questions many of the claims of RE. He rightly says that, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” .
    Johnson-Su is doing interesting work on compost,
    https://regenerationinternational.org/resources/

    Dr Elaine Ingham https://www.soilfoodweb.com/ is also well known, but more advanced into microbiology than I want to follow.
    At the moment John Kempf is the one we follow the most. https://johnkempf.com/

    And to blow out the cobwebs on glyphosphate I would recommend John Kempf podcast interview with Zac Bush.
    http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/embracing-the-connection-between-agriculture-and-health-with-zach-bush

    Reply
  14. Lee

    For more on this topic: The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries (Blaikie, 1985)

    In this book, and elsewhere, he argues that soil erosion should not only, or even mainly, be thought of as being the result of mismanagement, overpopulation or for environmental reasons but can often be due to the effects of political economy on poor farmers. His earliest work was based on the case of Nepal, where the marginalisation of peasant farmers onto steep slopes has resulted in erosion. Blaikie writes “A principal conclusion of this book is that soil erosion in lesser developed countries will not be substantially reduced unless it seriously threatens the accumulation possibilities of the dominant classes” (p147).[3]

    Blaikie’s legacy from this book was the beginnings of regional political ecology, a particular approach to understanding the economic and political drivers of resource degradation and particularly the lack of access to natural resources suffered by poor or marginalised people.

    While the book focuses on developing countries, Blaikie’s methods and way of characterizing the political and economic forces at work are nonetheless applicable to the U.S. Indeed, the differences between developing nations and the U.S. are in truth a distinction with an ever diminishing difference.

    Reply
  15. Wyoming

    As I have mentioned in previous posts at one time I owned and operated an organic farm for a number of years. Having said that I would first state that determining the full cause and effect, and beyond that the solutions to the various problems identified, is a very complex and monumental task.

    Fundamentally civilization is not sustainable. What we are really talking about here is trying not to repeat large scale man-made disasters while, at the same time, working hard to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle (and civilizational structure). So we accept methods and practices which do the least amount of damage (yet still too much) and muddle along ignoring the penultimate factor in the problem set. There are just far too many people on Earth using its resources well beyond its carrying capacity. Work hard to address that issue and all of the others become more tractable.

    To turn back towards the post. This problem is not just limited to the regions where which supply the bulk of the food for the CAFO industry. I live in central AZ and my location is a poster child for what is slowly going wrong in a gigantic way. This part of AZ was a ranchers dream at one time. Our historical yearly average rainfall (1880-2000) was right at 18 inches. Not bad. A good mix of winter, freezing, snow and very manageable summers with seldom a day above 100F. The streams, which are almost all dry river beds now, actually had water year round. There were large pine trees throughout the mountains (like 2-3 feet in diameter), lots of game, lots of grass, the riverbeds were seas of cottonwoods and other trees. A really nice place basically. Today the water tables are down 30-40 feet due to humans digging wells for town consumption, and for irrigating hay fields and other forms of agriculture. The big forest trees were cut down decades ago mostly and most of what is left is quickly burning off in the big wildfires we have constantly and being replaced by mountains covered in highly flammable brush (the trees are not regenerating in many areas even after 20 years post-fire). The last year we had historical average rainfall was 1998 (not a typo). Our average since that year is about 13-14 inches. At my house we have had 2 inches of moisture since the end of Feb. The temperatures have dramatically risen and days of 100 occur every year – this summer was the hottest in AZ since records have been kept in the late 1800’s. Phoenix for instance had 17? days above 115F, 45 ? days above 110F, 145 days above 100F and some incredible number of days where the low for the day was above 90F. Ranching this country is wholly unprofitable and does continuing damage to the land – but what a political lobby. We have lots of dust in the air here all the time and large parts of AZ get dust storms every year which look like your pictures – not much topsoil in it of course but still…

    Imagine the dust storms which are probably coming to the Cerrado in the future? Time for my morning walk….

    Reply
  16. farmboy

    climate change will cause drought like conditions that will not absolve in the SW and southern plains. All circumstances lead to regenerative concepts being essential in practice. From a policy standpoint incentives work much better to induce change than regulation on the farm. Expansion of programs like CSP (Conservation Security or Stewardship Program) and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) and the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) will drive change. It would be easy to expand CRP acreage again and take millions of acres out of production. Farmers and landowners have become more defiant of regulation than ever, but economic success is tantamount.

    Reply
  17. michael hudson

    michael hudson
    October 22, 1601 at 4:03 pm
    From plantation agriculture in the 1840s (not a typo) through agribusiness, Big Agri has always fought against soil preservation.
    The appendix to my “America’s Protectionist Takeoff” shows that in 1849, the Whigs wanted to start a Dept. of Agriculture. but incoming president Harrison got sick, and pro-plantation tyler got in. So the Whigs focused their discussion of how plantation cotton and tobacco agriculture deplete soil in the Patent Office Reports, vol. 2. the year 1849 is a wonderful report. Agricultural societies were founded, to urge that U.S. statistics include the soil degradation in the national accounts. At that time, they wanted to show that slave-plantation agriculture was depleting the country’s land resources by more than the Ricardian “gains from trade.”
    For the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Dept. of Agriculture, they solicited articles. I sent in my report on the above. They said, “This is not the direction that we want to promote,” or something to that effect.

    So what Lambert’s article was about, in a nutshell, is short-termism. Agribusiness has been thoroughly financialized.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > So what Lambert’s article was about, in a nutshell, is short-termism. Agribusiness has been thoroughly financialized.

      The part I had to leave on the cutting room floor went into the causes of the First Dust Bowl, which included that material (I don’t know enough about contemporary agriculture, yet, to make similar connections, though ethanal, ick). I didn’t know about the Whigs, that’s very cool, especially the “slavery exhausts the soil” argument (which I think Baptiste disproves).

      Reply
      1. H

        Once read a long thread on The Oil Drum about the effects of :
        1) The growth of drilling depth & capacity
        2) The growth of pumping capacity
        3) The growth of irrigation capacity
        -all led by growth of gasoline/electric motor technology.

        As I recall the consensus was that these were the 3 reasons we haven’t seen another Dust Bowl.
        Once the water is gone or too deep/salty, all bets are off.
        Mention was made of chemical & bio-engineered crops as our last hope.

        Tearing down the fences & breeding 80 million bison has some scientific plausibility.

        3 weeks horsebacking in New Mexico will give you a feel of the enormity. Saw 2 antelope the whole trip, doves, & a few rabbits. Even coyotes were subdued at night, seemingly cowed by the spookyness of the place. Practically untouched wilderness, but no desire to return.
        Water stations are prominent on the map.

        Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      I used to give myself credit for inventing the concept of Gross Domestic Destruct to set against Gross Domestic Product to see if we had a Net Domestic Product or a Net Domestic Destruct at the end of the period under study.

      I see that the Whig-minded authors of those calls for measuring the Domestic Destruct created by plantation agribussiness were over a hundred years ahead of me.

      Reply
  18. Parker Dooley

    The wind doesn’t only carry soil:
    Flynn NM, Hoeprich PD, Kawachi MM et al. An unusual outbreak of windborne coccidioidomycosis. N Engl J Med. 1979; 301: 358–361.

    I was a resident on the infectious disease service during the event described in this article. More detail below:

    In December 1977, a massive dust storm, the “Tempest from Tehachapi,” originating in the southern San Joaquin Valley made its way northward and westward, resulting in coccidioidal infections being acquired in the San Francisco Bay area37—including by a gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo who died of coccidioidomycosis,38 echoing the fate of Mbongo of the San Diego Zoo some 35 years earlier.

    https://academic.oup.com/mmy/article/57/Supplement_1/S3/5300148

    Numerous cases of coccidioidomycosis resulted in the Sacramento area from this event.

    Reply
  19. farmboy

    soil is the unconscious of Mother Earth, always wanting to stay hidden, covered, unexposed-yet the engine of life.
    The Soil Conservation Service was formed in 1935 to address erosion and the Dust Bowl, today is called NRCS. At the same time, purposely, Conservation Districts were formed with all 48 states active on July1, 1945. CD’s and school boards are the most local of all political divisions. State run Conservation Commissions with funds and mandates from state legislatures guide projects and policy. Here is where the work gets done and problems get solved.

    Reply
  20. drumlin woodchuckles

    I wrote a long comment but it may have been chewed up by the etherteeth somewhere in the digisphere. So I will try writing a much shorter version.

    When one offers a link to a video, it is better to explain and describe a little about the what and why behind the offer, and not merely a borderline-peremptory demand-almost to “watch this video”. That said, I don’t understand what is meant by ‘provenance’ in this context. I have understood ‘provenance’ to be the owner-by-owner-by-owner history of a (usually rare and important) artwork and/or artifact. How would ‘provenance’ apply to a watchable-for-free video?

    If the concept intended is ‘sponsorship’, all the Gabe Brown videos I have seen feature their sponsoring organization or hosting institution right within the first few seconds. If the need is for readable written material linkable-to, Brown is only one of many video-ed presenters with few or no such links. In such cases, all one can offer is the link to the video(s) itself — with a hopefully helpful explanation about why and without a peremptory “watch this!” tone. Anyone is certainly free to not watch the video, and if the information presented there-in is also in print somewhere, one might be able to find it. And if it isn’t, one will go without learning about it. In the Brown case, there is a book which can be read . . . for free if it exists in a nearby library. https://www.acresusa.com/products/dirt-to-soil

    Why do so many link to Brown videos when so many other farmers, agronomists, etc. have videos? Perhaps because Brown videos are fun to watch for those who are into that sort of thing. He speaks clearly, well, and as slowly as I think so I can keep up. He is not boring.

    Conor a little upthread offered clickable links to readable material by-or-about, among others, Australian agronomist and climatologist Walter Jehne. His videos may have all the sponsorship needed for bona fides verification, but the one I once tried watching was so agonizingly boring that I had to stop watching after a few sentences. I will never inflict a Walter Jehne video-link upon the readers here. It was just too awful.

    Brown doesn’t present himself as a one-man New-Paradigm-Engineer. Some of his fans may, but he referrences all the different scientists/agronomists who have taught him, mentored him, etc. And the paradigm itself is not new. It is re-emerging from its long suppression and persecution by the agri-petrochemical-governdustrial complex. It used to BE the mainstream until the late 1940s.

    If “provenance” were demanded in all cases, there are two agronomic movements which would remain unknown unto this very day. And those are “permaculture” and “biodynamics”. That is because they have no “provenance” The concept of “provenance” cannot even be applied to them. What they have are a Chain of Apostolic Succession from the Original Prophet to the First Apostle or Apostles to growing numbers of second and third tier Apostles and so on. In Biodynamics the Original Prophet is Rudolph Steiner and one of the First Apostles (charged with taking Biodynamics to America) is Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.
    In Permaculture, the Original Prophet is Bill Mollison and the First Apostle is David Holmgren. Shall we discard and reject Biodynamics and Permaculture because the very concept of “provenance” does not even apply to them?

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    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That having been said, here is something from Ran Prieur about why he hates the whole genre of people-talking videos.

      “October 21. Today, three video links from the weirdcollapse and ranprieur subreddits. I hate videos of people talking. It’s so frustrating having to listen to every word at the same speed, instead of being able to skim through and pick out the good bits. I suppose that people who like videos and podcasts are more social than me, so they actually enjoy the moment-to-moment experience of watching or listening to someone, while I’m just looking for a new idea.”

      What do we tell Ran Prieur to do if there is no transcript or linkable readables about the video whose subject he would like to learn about but whose presented form . . . the video itself . . . he hates to watch?
      I truly don’t know. The best idea I can come up with is a feature to “speed up” the playing speed to just under too-fast-to-comprehend so that far less time is spent listen-scanning it for possible interesting or learn-worthy things . . . possibly to follow-up listen to at a slower speed.

      Reply

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