Dust Bowl, and Grandpa Keeping His Job

My Dad told me a story about my Grandpa the other night.  I had heard about him surveying from the top of his station wagon, accidentally hitting his father in the head with a sledge while driving a fence post (and running like the dickens before he woke up), and some other family stories, but not about when he started with the SCS.

Grandpa worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Nebraska as a young man a little before and during the Dust Bowl years, plus a few years in California after that.  His dad, my great-grandfather, grew corn and wheat,

Dust Bowl storm, courtesy of PBS show Legacy by Ken Burns

which grandpa had helped with before striking out on his own.

Horse_plowing_wiki bw
Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

As soil storms began to rage across the land, the SCS was looking for ways to convince farmers to work the land differently.  Farming had started with shallow plowing when horse-drawn plows were all they had.  With their new tractors, farmers were able to plow deeply and get better crop yields.  They could completely turn the dirt, getting the grass on top buried, as they made cost-efficient, straight-line rows across their fields.  As yields quickly increased, and prices dropped, the race was on to plow faster and deeper to compete with other farmers.


So Grandpa’s boss told him that the SCS could not keep everybody working, since their budget was being cut.  However, if he could convince farmers in his area to plow on the contour instead of straight lines, he could keep his job.  This was in late winter, so he still had time to try to convince some folks before plowing began

Grandpa talked to his dad and asked, “Can I plow your field on the contours this year?  If it works, I can get some of your neighbors to do it and my boss will makes sure I still have my job.”  His dad agreed, and so he did.  They planted (my Dad can’t remember if it was corn or wheat), and the afternoon they finished, it started raining.  Hard.

Grandpa stayed out with a dim flashlight watching the furrow at the top of the steepest hill, near the house.  If it overtopped, he knew it would wash down the

Discing and planting on contours, Courtesy of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL)

hill, take out the rest of the furrows, and he would be looking for work.  Just as the water got close to the top of the furrow, the rain stopped.  In the next few weeks their crop came up and the neighbors watched as the seeding Grandpa did on the contours grew 3 times as fast as what they had planted

Corn on contours
Courtesy of The Des Moines Register

in straight rows on their hills.  You can guess, he was able to convince quite a few surrounding farmers to change their practices to plow on contours, and so he kept his job.

What’s this have to do with water rights?  Not a lot directly…but efficient practices that make better use of water can pay off and be more profitable in the long run.  Not to mention, it can keep government agencies and bank loan officers from demanding changes quickly, at a time when there may not be savings to get them done.