Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

In late January, I attended the 9th annual California Rangeland Conservation Coalition summit in Oakdale.  The Coalition, which includes ranchers, environmentalists, agency staff and academics, was formed out of recognition of our common interest in conserving California rangelands for their ecological and economic values.  This unlikely combination of folks has actually agreed that ranching - grazing livestock - is essential to protecting wildlife habitat, enhancing watershed function and managing invasive plants.  While past summits have focused on the threats posed by real estate development, this year’s event focused on a different, and for me, unexpected threat - the conversion of our rangelands to orchards and vineyards.

What’s so bad about turning unirrigated rangelands into irrigated almond and walnut orchards or vineyards, you might ask?  As it turns out, there’s plenty to worry about - increased competition for limited water resources, impacts to native species, destruction of vernal pool and other rangeland habitats, and fragmentation, just to name a few.  But there’s more to the issue than these directly observable effects.

After returning home from this year’s summit, I happened to start watching Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, The Dust Bowl.  As I watched, I was struck by the similarity between the attitudes and actions of farmers in the Southern Plains in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl, and our own efforts to convert “unproductive” grasslands into intensively farmed orchards.  At the risk of being melodramatic, I think we should consider the lessons of the Dust Bowl and the parallels with today’s grassland conversion.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, rangeland is defined "as a land cover/use category on which the climax or potential plant cover is composed principally of native grasses, grasslike plants, forbs, or shrubs suitable for grazing and browsing, and introduced forage species that are managed like rangeland. This includes areas where introduced hardy and persistent grasses, such as crested wheatgrass, are planted and such practices as deferred grazing, burning, chaining, and rotational grazing are used, with little or no chemicals or fertilizer being applied. Grasslands, savannas, many wetlands, some deserts, and tundra are considered to be rangeland. Certain communities of low forbs and shrubs, such as mesquite, chaparral, mountain shrub, and pinyon-juniper, are also included as rangeland."

My own "cowboy" definition of rangeland is any land that is too steep, too dry, too wet, too "something" for cultivated agriculture.  Pre-historically, our rangelands were grazed by wild ungulate (hooved) animals, and today, California's rangelands are the foundation of our livestock industry - cattle and sheep have grazed on rangelands in California for more than two and a half centuries.  Rangelands continue to provide habitat for an incredible array of wildlife and native plants - everything from raptors to reptiles and the majestic oak to the smallest wildflower.  Scientists are increasingly convinced that well-managed livestock grazing is crucial to the health of the native flora and fauna on our rangelands.  And ranching, as an economic endeavor, is crucial to keeping these rangelands intact  itseems that ranching and wildlife both require large, contiguous tracts of open land.

The Southern Plains - that area roughly centered around the Oklahoma panhandle and adjacent states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas) - are also an important rangeland ecosystem.  Donald Worster, a Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, says, “Nature took several million years to find a solution to these unstable soils, these high winds, these turbulent weather conditions, which was the grasses.”

In the first half of The Dust Bowl, writer Dayton Duncan explains, along with Worster and survivors of the Dust Bowl, how the wheat boom resulted in the plowing of native prairie and planting of wheat on millions of acres in the Southern Plains.  The price of wheat, driven up by World War I, seemed to be on an endless upward path.  Even though the Plains were prone to periodic drought, Worster says, “Promoters promised that the very act of farming would increase the precipitation - the rain follows the plow.”  Wayne Lewis, who grew up on a farm in the Oklahoma panhandle, adds, "In the late 20s, the crops were good, the prices were good and so everybody...the thing to do was to break out everything and get it in wheat."  Indeed, from 1925-1929, Southern Plains wheat farmers busted sod on an area equal in size to the state of New Hampshire.

Technological advancements, unusually wet weather and government policy facilitated the wheat boom.  “Modern machinery made wheat farming more efficient and profitable even if prices fell to $1 per bushel," writes Duncan.  According to The Dust Bowl, an unidentified federal agency claimed that "the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses."  And the weather cooperated.  “The great plow-up had going for it ample rainfall for a period of 10-15 years and it just kept encouraging more and more," says Worster.

Like the economic bubbles of my own lifetime, not everyone was convinced that the wheat boom was beneficial or sustainable.  According to Duncan, “A handful of old timers, especially the cattlemen who had been there through those droughts, weren’t so sure [about sod-busting the Plains].  To them, the Southern Plains were a grassland and the sod should never be turned.” Calvin Crabill, who grew up on a ranch in southeastern Colorado, recalls that his father, a cattle rancher, took a night job plowing the prairie.  "He knew that buffalo grass was the natural turf of that country - it was grazing country.  He didn't stay with the tractoring thing too long because I think it just got his heart.  He was a stockman and he knew it was all wrong and he paid the price for it later," says Crabill.

Crabill's father and the other stockmen were right.  Following the stock market crash in 1929 and several years of record wheat crops, the price of wheat crashed.  As prices fell, the federal government encouraged farmers to plant less.  On the contrary, everyone planted more - to make up for lower prices with higher volume.  Farmers needed the income to cover their mortgages and equipment loans.  "The answer [was] always more, regardless of the problem," says Worster.  By 1931, the price of wheat had dropped to approximately half the cost of production.  And then it stopped raining.

With no moisture to germinate wheat (or any other) seeds, there were no longer any roots to hold the fragile Plains soils in place when the winds blew.  One dust storm in particular, in March 1935, finally got the nation's attention.  Dust from the Plains eventually blew through Washington DC and 300 miles out to sea in the Atlantic.  America's greatest economic disaster became its greatest ecological disaster - due, at least in part, to the conversion of rangeland to cropland.

So how does the wheat boom of the 1920s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains relate to rangeland conversion and orchard development in 21st century California?  To me, there seem to be a number of similarities.  At last week's summit in Oakdale, Roger Duncan, the UC Cooperative Extension Horticulture and Pomology Advisor for Stanislaus County, gave a presentation about trends in tree crop production.  Between 1992 and 2012, almond acreage in California has increased by 74 percent.  Pistachio acreage is up by 108%, and vineyard acreage has increased by 66%.  While some of these plantings have occurred on vegetable and field crop land, the greatest impact has been to rangeland.

Like the mechanization that played a role in the wheat boom, new technology is making orchard development on formerly unirrigated rangelands possible.  The hardpan, common to so many of our rangeland soils, once made orchard production impractical.  Bigger tractors and six to eight foot deep ripping allows farmers to break up this hardpan before planting trees.  The University of California and private industry are developing new tree varieties that allow orchards to thrive under a wider range of growing conditions.  The ability to access deep aquifers (some orchard wells are 16 inches in diameter and descend more than 500 feet below the surface) allows farmers to tap into new water sources.

This conversion is being driven by economic factors.  In general, a rancher needs approximately 12 acres of unirrigated rangeland to support one cow and her calf for a year.  For a 300 cow operation, the annual net return per acre is $1.02 (2008 Beef Cost and Returns Study, UCCE) . Planted to almonds, this acre of land would produce an annual net return of $195 per acre (2012 Almond Costs and Returns Study, UCCE) - and walnuts would generate annual net returns of $1,442 per acre (2012 Walnut Costs and Returns Study, UCCE).  According to Duncan, 82% of the world's almonds are grown in California.  In 2013, Blue Diamond Almond reported that "demand will continue to outstrip supply."  At the end of his presentation, Duncan showed a slide that asked, "When will the madness end?"  He concluded that conversion would stop only when California runs out of land and water.

Once again, the government is complicit in these conversions as well.  When a rancher dies and the value of his or her estate is determined by the IRS, the land is appraised at its highest and best use - which is orchard production (at least from an economic perspective).  Since the estate taxes are calculated on this higher amount, many families have no choice but to convert part of the ranch just to pay the tax.

At least to me, the situation on California's rangelands seems eerily reminiscent of the situation on the Great Plains in the late 1920s.  And now it's stopped raining.

In some respects, this conversion is too recent to fully understand the ecological and community implications.  Anecdotally, however, some impacts are already being felt.  Lower groundwater tables have created conflicts amongst landowners in Stanislaus County.  In Merced County, land subsidence is apparently linked to groundwater overdraft from deep wells in orchards.  Other impacts, like those to rangeland vegetation and wildlife, have not been studied yet, to my knowledge.

Fortunately, many of the academics, ranchers and environmentalists who are part of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition are starting to search for answers.  Sheila Barry, a livestock and natural resources advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, focuses on the economics.  "The disparity is so great [between rangeland livestock production and orchard production]," she says, "that progress towards a level playing field will only come from finding ways to pay for non-production values [like wildlife habitat] produced by ranchers and ranches."  She adds, "We have to find ways to reduce the cost of doing business, too - estate tax policy shouldn't be pushing people to convert the ranches."  The afternoon session at the Oakdale summit was devoted to examples of efforts in other states (most notably Colorado and Montana) to pay for non-production values.

Finally, I'll admit to mixed feelings about this trend.  I've always viewed residential development as the greatest threat to our rangeland agriculture.  At least an orchard keeps land in agriculture.  I've started to realize, however, that our society is wonderfully adept at figuring out how to do things - we've figured out how to grow orchards on lands that we once thought were unsuitable to orchard production.  We are less adept at asking ourselves, "Should we do this?"  Thankfully, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, and many of its members, is asking this very question.


  1. Yes there are some similarities. However the "dust bowl" resulted from all that plowing and the wind carrying off the topsoil in giant dust clouds. Most orchards, once established don't run that risk. Sheila Barry's ideas are all good ones and needed urgently. Thanks for sharing what you learned.

  2. Julie:
    I agree - I think it's far too early to tell what the ecological consequences of busting sod on our foothill and valley rangelands might be. While we may not lose topsoil in orchards to wind, there are other implications!