Ken Burns Dust Bowl documentary: when profits override the environment

Arthur Rothstein captured this photograph of Art Coble and his sons, south of Boise City, Oklahoma, in April 1936The grass covered Oklahoma prairie was new to most citizens of the recently reunited United States of America in the days following the turn of the 20th Century. Buffalo grass covered the ground, its roots woven through an area a foot below the surface, slaking the grassy thirst and stitching the ground in place during dry spells. But the soil was fertile, and wheat commanded a profitable price.

World War I started, and the federal government wanted the land farmed, and offered generous assistance to farmers willing to till the land. And profits would be even higher if the yield could be increased. Initially, farmers used plows that sliced the soil, leaving most of the grassy cover in place while opening furrows into which they could drop seed. A new kind of plow shredded the soil, turning it over to bury grass and expose the no longer moisture-holding soil.

Soil, everyone thought, was the one resource that could not be exhausted, …

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