Many folks around the country have been tuning into The Dust Bowl, a documentary by Ken Burns that has been showing on PBS stations. Nebraska was not at the heart of the drought and was not a literal part of the Dust Bowl, centered on TX, OK, KS, and southeast CO. But, the drought affected Nebraska. Did we see similar trends in Nebraska as depicted on the documentary?
I published a paper, with three colleagues, in 2009 (Hiller et al. 2009. Great Plains Research Volume 19) that detailed the history of Nebraska land use for agriculture, and our data summaries allow an easy comparison to the statistics and trends noted for the southern Plains in The Dust Bowl. So, here are some Nebraska land-use trends.
The Dust Bowl noted that because of high wheat prices in the 20's, everyone had "broken out" (the language of the dry land farmer for plowing) land to increase acreage. So, when the drought of the 30's hit, there was more land under the plow than ever before. Correct in Nebraska?
ANSWER: turns out to be truer than true. In Figure 2A in our paper, you can see that Nebraska had more land under agricultural production in the late 20's than ever before. And, we have not been back to that level of agricultural use of land since. So, yes--Nebraska had broken out land. Interestingly, if you look at Figure 2B, you will see that Nebraska's wheat production had not gone up...the breaking out of land was for increased corn production. That is different than the trends in the southern Plains, where drier lands prevented corn and necessitated wheat.
The Dust Bowl noted that there was a massive demographic shift caused by the drought. People sold farms when they could not pay the bills. Did the same thing happen in Nebraska?
ANSWER: Yes. Very much so. Take a look at Figure 1 in the Hiller et al. paper. By 1910, the size and number of farms in Nebraska had largely stabilized--there was consolidation after the initial homesteading failures. But, in 1930, a critical change occurs in the trajectory of both size and number of farms...and again, we have never looked back. Fewer, larger farms became the trend, and that trend is still true: we are still consolidating.
The Dust Bowl noted there the demographic shift for the Southern Plains included a large exodus of people leaving for California and states west. Was this the same for Nebraska?
ANSWER: Maybe, but mostly not the same. Although I have found some photos in the Library of Congress of displaced farmers from Nebraska that moved to Wisconsin and Oregon, the state population did not markedly change because of the depression and the drought (effects of both have to be considered). Census figures (links below) show that the population of rural Nebraska peaked at 679K in 1910, while the state population has yet to peak--thus, urban Nebraska has continued to grow, while rural Nebraska has shrunk since 1910. In 1920, the rural portion of the population, for the first time, dipped below 50% of the state population (it was 48% in 1920). In 1930, the rural percent of population was 42%, and in 1940 (assumedly after effects of the drought had been seen) the rural portion was 40%. Growth, overall, was slow in the 30's, but the state did not shrink because of outward migration, and the rural portion of the population actually declined at a slower pace than it did between 1910 and 1920 or between 1920 and 1930 (losses of 9% and 6% of the total state population, compared to a reduction of only 2% between 1930 and 1940). Lots of stats there, but the bottom line: Nebraska did not see massive exodus like the southern Great Plains.
The Dust Bowl noted that the drought caused a large shift in agriculture: federal government's involvement in ag through subsidies and complex farm policy, and a furthering of the push to install large systems of irrigation. Did those happen in Nebraska?
ANSWER: There is no doubt. These two forces have changed Nebraska's landscapes more than the drought did, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any other state (>8.5 million acres, one out of every six irrigated acres in the US, according to UNL ag economist Bruce Johnson). Our irrigation system is so complex that at one point, an irrigation canal goes under the Platte River and I80 and resurfaces on the other side! And that system supports the state's economy. Just look out your window as you drive through I80 on your way to Colorado.
Nebraska population census stats from: