Forces of Nature - Part 3
Kansas is blessed with rich soil, but rainfall determines whether it is a dust bowl or a farming paradise.
The Desert and the Garden
Two opposing names have been used to describe Kansas and its landscape:
- Great American Desert, and
- Garden of the West
Early white explorers doubted Kansas was suitable for settlement due to its shortage of water and trees. The region was dubbed "The Great American Desert" by Stephen Long, who concluded, "[It] is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence."
But as Americans pushed onto the prairies, their ideas changed. Land speculators began promoting the Plains as the "Garden of the West." Henry Worrall challenged the state's desert image with this painting, "Drouthy Kansas," suggesting bountiful crops and an abundance of water were the norm. Worrall's art sometimes was sponsored by railroads who wanted to attract people to Kansas. These companies profited from land sales to settlers who became their freight customers. Promotional literature often misled settlers into believing Kansas had abundant water.
The reality is that drought is part of the natural cycle on the Plains, but eastern settlers who moved here wanted consistent moisture. They thought they could increase the rainfall just by settling and farming the land.
"Rain follows the plow" was widely believed in the 1800s. According to this theory, plowing the soil allowed more rain to soak into the prairie sod. The moisture then evaporated, adding humidity and leading to more rainfall. Science of the day supported this theory and confirmed people's belief that God had destined them to control the land.
Actual rainfall in Kansas didn't bear out the promise made by promoters. Kansas averages 26.5 inches of precipitation a year, but actual amounts vary widely across the state. The southeast corner sees 45 inches but the western border only 15.
County fairs promoted the quality and abundance of farm products in Kansas. No matter what had happened the previous year--drought or flood--the images of bounty stayed the same, as in this fair poster from 1891.
The bitter reality of farming on the Plains is that rainfall is inconsistent. When settlers realized this, some left. Those who stayed tried other methods of watering their crops.
Instead of relying solely on rain, farmers practiced irrigation. They diverted water from rivers and streams, and pumped water from underground. Windmills were early irrigation tools, while mechanical pumps became important in the 20th century.
Kansas has three major aquifers that are sources for irrigation water (an aquifer is an underground layer of rock, sand, and gravel in which water collects).
Dust in the Wind
One of the greatest natural disasters of the 20th century made Kansans reconsider their approach to farming in a dry environment.
Severe drought struck the Plains in the 1930s. Strong winds lifted the light, dry soil and blew it over the landscape in terrible dust storms, and the region became known as the Dust Bowl.
The drought's effects had been made worse by human actions. In the 1910s, World War I increased the need for grain around the globe. New technology--particularly gas-powered farm equipment--allowed farmers to work faster and more efficiently. To meet the higher demand for grain, American farmers broke new ground for crops, causing wheat production to jump 300 percent in the 1920s. This destroyed deep-rooted prairie grasses that had held the region's topsoil in place for centuries. The exposed topsoil became airborne in spectacular fashion when the Great Plains were hit hard by drought and winds in the 1930s.
One agricultural implement that contributed to the Dust Bowl due to its overuse was this one-way plow developed by Charles Angell of Meade, Kansas. All its discs are set at the same angle, thus the name "one-way." Farmers liked that it plowed faster and easily broke up hard soil. But its overuse created a fine, dusty layer that quickly blew away in heavy winds. This is a smaller version of the actual plow, which was usually ten feet wide.
Holding Our Ground
Over 90 percent of Kansas is farmland, and dust storms are an ongoing problem. To prevent another Dust Bowl, farmers must work together to conserve moisture and stop erosion. Kansans are keeping an eye on promising new developments in agriculture.
All grains planted by today’s farmers are annual—grown from seed every year. Harvesting the grain destroys these plants and exposes soil to wind erosion. In Kansas, Wes Jackson is experimenting with perennial grains—crops that re-grow every year. Their deep root systems will anchor soil in place in much the same way as prairie grasses.
Jackson is the founder and president of The Land Institute, located near Salina. The Land Institute promotes "sustainable agriculture," that is, producing food without damaging the earth. Its researchers are developing plants that look like annual crops above-ground, but have the deep roots of perennials below-ground.
Jackson wore this jacket as a youth while heading up a local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. The FFA's mission is to turn students into leaders in agriculture. Jackson went on to gain an international reputation as an innovator. His honors include the MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the "genius award").
Farmers all over the world are reaping the benefits of no-till farming--growing crops without disturbing (tilling) the soil.
Instead of cultivating their land after harvest, no-till farmers leave the stubble in the field. This mulch keeps moisture in the earth while allowing rain to filter through. Wind can't blow away the soil.
The benefits of no-till farming include:
- Less soil erosion
- More moisture retained in the soil
- Fewer chemicals needed
- Reduced needs for tractors/saves fuel
- Healthier crops
Forces of Nature is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.
- Tornadoes - These storms are a Kansas icon
- Wind - Kansas is a windy state
- Earth - Sometimes our rich soil becomes airborne
- Water - Too much or too little is a problem
- Fire - Grasslands depend on fire
Test your knowledge by playing our interactive games.
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org