The Dust Bowl and Farming During the Depression

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the unique challenges that farmers in the Great Plains faced during the Great Depression
  • Describe the circumstances and significance of the Dust Bowl

Rural America During the Depression

Despite the widely held belief that rural Americans suffered less in the Great Depression due to their ability to at least grow their own food, this was not the case. Farmers, ranchers, and their families suffered incredible losses during the Depression. Life for all rural Americans was difficult. Farmers largely did not experience the widespread prosperity of the 1920s. Although continued advancements in farming techniques and agricultural machinery led to increased agricultural production, decreasing demand (particularly in the previous markets created by World War I) steadily drove down commodity prices. As a result, farmers could barely pay the debt they owed on machinery and land mortgages, and even then could do so only as a result of generous lines of credit from banks. While factory workers may have lost their jobs and savings in the crash, many farmers also lost their homes, due to the thousands of farm foreclosures sought by desperate bankers. Between 1930 and 1935, nearly 750,000 family farms disappeared through foreclosure or bankruptcy. Even for those who managed to keep their farms, there was little market for their crops. Unemployed workers had less money to spend on food, and when they did purchase goods, economic conditions had driven prices so low that farmers earned very little in the way of profit. A now-famous example of the farmer’s plight is that farmers would simply burn corn to stay warm in the winter when the price of coal began to exceed that of corn.

On the Great Plains, environmental catastrophe deepened America’s longstanding agricultural crisis and magnified the tragedy of the Depression. Beginning in 1932, severe droughts hit from Texas to the Dakotas and lasted until at least 1936.

Environmental Catastrophe Meets Economic Hardship: The Dust Bowl

A photograph shows a group of houses on the Great Plains. A massive dust cloud fills the sky overhead.

Figure 1. The dust storms that blew through the Great Plains were epic in scale. Drifts of dirt piled up against doors and windows. People wore goggles and tied rags over their mouths to keep the dust out. (credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

From the turn of the century through much of World War I, farmers in the Great Plains experienced prosperity due to unusually good growing conditions, high commodity prices, and generous government farming policies that led to a rush for land. As the federal government continued to purchase all excess produce for the war effort, farmers and ranchers fell into several bad practices, including mortgaging their farms and borrowing money against future production in order to expand. However, after the war, prosperity rapidly dwindled, particularly during the recession of 1921. Seeking to recoup their losses through economies of scale in which they would expand their production to take full advantage of their available land and machinery, farmers plowed under native grasses to plant acre after acre of wheat, with little regard for the long-term repercussions to the soil. Regardless of these misguided efforts, commodity prices continued to drop, finally plummeting in 1929, when the price of wheat dropped from two dollars to forty cents per bushel.

A photograph shows an abandoned farmhouse and farm equipment that were largely buried under dust.

Figure 2. As the Dust Bowl continued in the Great Plains, many had to abandon their land and equipment, as captured in this image from 1936, taken in Dallas, South Dakota. (credit: United States Department of Agriculture)


Exacerbating the problem was a massive drought that began in 1931 and lasted for eight terrible years. Dust storms roiled the Great Plains, creating huge, choking clouds that piled up in doorways and filtered into homes through closed windows.

The droughts compounded years of agricultural mismanagement. To grow their crops, Plains farmers had plowed up natural ground cover that had taken ages to form over the surface of the dry Plains states. Relatively wet decades had protected them, but during the early 1930s, without rain, the exposed fertile topsoil turned to dust, and without sod or windbreaks such as trees, rolling winds churned the dust into massive storms that blotted out the sky, choked settlers and livestock, and rained dirt not only across the region but as far east as Washington, D.C., New England, and ships on the Atlantic Ocean. The Dust Bowl, as the region became known, exposed all-too-late the need for conservation. The region’s farmers, already hit by years of foreclosures and declining commodity prices, were decimated. For many in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas who were “baked out, blown out, and broke,” their only hope was to travel west to California, whose rains still brought bountiful harvests and—potentially—jobs for farmworkers. It was an exodus. Oklahoma lost 440,000 people, or a full 18.4 percent of its 1930 population, to outmigration.

The suffering of farmers during the Dust Bowl years took many forms. Livestock died or had to be sold, as there was no money for feed. Crops intended to feed the family withered and died in the drought. Terrifying dust storms became more and more frequent, as “black blizzards” of dirt blew across the landscape and created a new illness known as “dust pneumonia.” The land suffered as well. In 1935 alone, over 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. To put this number in perspective, geologists estimate that it takes the earth five hundred years to naturally regenerate one inch of topsoil; yet, just one significant dust storm could destroy a similar amount. In their desperation to get more from the land, farmers had stripped it of the delicate balance that kept it healthy. Unaware of the consequences, they had moved away from such traditional practices as rotating crops and planning alternate growing seasons so that land could lay fallow between plantings and thus regenerate. The land was effectively worked to death in the pursuit of short-term gain.

Migrant mother

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother became one of the most enduring images of the Dust Bowl and the ensuing westward exodus. Lange, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, captured the image at a migrant farmworker camp in Nipomo, California, in 1936. In the photograph a young mother stares out with a worried, weary expression. She was a migrant, having left her home in Oklahoma to follow the crops to the Golden State. She took part in what many in the mid-1930s were beginning to recognize as a vast migration of families out of the southwestern Plains states. In the image she cradles an infant and supports two older children, who cling to her. Lange’s photo encapsulated the nation’s struggle. The subject of the photograph seemed used to hard work but down on her luck, and uncertain about what the future might hold.

This iconic photograph made real the suffering of millions during the Great Depression.

Figure 3. This iconic 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange of a destitute, thirty-two-year-old mother of seven made real the suffering of millions during the Great Depression. Library of Congress.

Watch It

The Dust Bowl was a time of terrible weather conditions across huge swaths of America’s agricultural land due to poor farming practices and persistent drought. One of the most devastating of these storms became known as Black Sunday.

You can view the transcript for “The Dust Bowl and the Depression” here (opens in new window).

Country Bank Closures

Unlike most factory workers in the cities, in many cases, farmers lost their homes when they lost their livelihood. Most farms and ranches were originally mortgaged to small country banks that understood the dynamics of farming, but as these banks failed, they often sold rural mortgages to larger eastern banks that were less concerned with the specifics of farm life. With the effects of the drought and low commodity prices, farmers could not pay their local banks, which in turn lacked funds to pay the large urban banks. Ultimately, the large banks foreclosed on the farms, often swallowing up the small country banks in the process. It is worth noting that of the five thousand banks that closed between 1930 and 1932, over 75 percent were country banks in locations with populations under 2,500. Given this dynamic, it is easy to see why farmers in the Great Plains grew wary of big-city bankers.

For farmers who survived the initial crash, the situation worsened, particularly in the Great Plains where years of overproduction and rapidly declining commodity prices took their toll. Prices continued to decline, and as farmers tried to stay afloat, they produced still more crops, which drove prices even lower. Farms failed at an astounding rate, and farmers sold out at rock-bottom prices. One farm in Shelby, Nebraska was mortgaged at $4,100 and sold for $49.50. One-fourth of the entire state of Mississippi was auctioned off in a single day at a foreclosure auction in April 1932.

Not all farmers tried to keep their land. Some of those who had arrived only recently, in an attempt to capitalize on the earlier prosperity, simply walked away. In hard-hit Oklahoma, thousands of farmers packed up what they could and walked or drove away from the land they thought would be their future.

Moving West

The Okies, as such westward migrants were disparagingly called by their new neighbors, were the most visible group on the move during the Depression, lured by rumors of jobs in far-flung regions of the country. Men from all over the country, some abandoning families, hitched rides, hopped freight cars, or otherwise made their way around the country. By 1932, sociologists were estimating that millions of men were on the roads and rails traveling the country. Popular magazines and newspapers were filled with stories of homeless boys and the newly-mobile veterans of the Bonus Army commandeering boxcars. Popular culture, such as William Wellman’s 1933 film, Wild Boys of the Road, and, most famously, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and turned into a hit movie a year later, captured the Depression’s dislocated populations.

These years witnessed the first significant reversal in the flow of people between rural and urban areas. Thousands of city dwellers fled the jobless cities and moved to the country looking for work. As relief efforts floundered, many state and local officials threw up barriers to migration, making it difficult for newcomers to receive relief or find work. Some state legislatures made it a crime to bring poor migrants into the state and allowed local officials to deport migrants to neighboring states. In the winter of 1935–1936, California, Florida, and Colorado established “border blockades” to block poor migrants from their states and reduce competition with local residents for jobs. A billboard outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, informed potential migrants that there were “NO JOBS in California” and warned them to “KEEP Out.”[1]

Migrant family walking with their belongings on a dirt road. A small child is in a wheel barrow packed with blankets.

Figure 4. During her assignment as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Dorothea Lange documented the movement of migrant families forced from their homes by drought and economic depression. This family, captured by Lange in 1938, was in the process of traveling 124 miles by foot, across Oklahoma, because the father was ill and therefore unable to receive relief or WPA work. Library of Congress.

Sympathy for migrants, however, accelerated late in the Depression with the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family’s struggles drew attention to the plight of Depression-era migrants and, just a month after the nationwide release of the film version, Congress created the Select Committee to Investigate the Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens. Starting in 1940, the committee held widely publicized hearings. But it was too late. Within a year of its founding, defense industries were already gearing up at the outbreak of World War II, and the “problem” of migration suddenly became a lack of migrants needed to fill jobs in the war industry. Such relief, however, was nowhere to be found in the pre-war 1930s.

Exclusionary Politics

Americans meanwhile feared foreign workers willing to labor for low wages. The Saturday Evening Post warned that foreign immigrants, who were “compelled to accept employment on any terms and conditions offered,” would exacerbate the economic crisis. On September 8, 1930, the Hoover administration issued a press release on the administration of immigration laws “under existing conditions of unemployment.” Hoover instructed consular officers to scrutinize carefully the visa applications of those “likely to become public charges” and suggested that this might include denying visas to most, if not all, alien laborers and artisans. The crisis itself had stifled foreign immigration, but such restrictive and exclusionary actions in the first years of the Depression intensified its effects. The number of European visas issued fell roughly 60 percent while deportations dramatically increased. Between 1930 and 1932, fifty-four thousand people were deported. An additional forty-four thousand deportable aliens left “voluntarily.”[2]

Exclusionary measures hit Mexican immigrants particularly hard. The State Department made a concerted effort to reduce immigration from Mexico as early as 1929, and Hoover’s executive actions arrived the following year. Officials in the Southwest led a coordinated effort to push out Mexican immigrants. In Los Angeles, the Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief began working closely with federal officials in early 1931 to conduct deportation raids, while the Los Angeles County Department of Charities began a simultaneous drive to repatriate Mexicans and Mexican Americans on relief, negotiating a charity rate with the railroads to return Mexicans “voluntarily” to their home country. According to the federal census, from 1930 to 1940 the Mexican-born population living in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas fell from 616,998 to 377,433. The next president, Franklin Roosevelt, did not indulge anti-immigrant sentiment as willingly as Hoover had. Under the New Deal, the Immigration and Naturalization Service halted some of the Hoover administration’s most divisive practices, but with jobs suddenly scarce, hostile attitudes intensified, and official policies became less welcoming. As the cycle turned again, immigration plummeted and deportations rose. Over the course of the Depression, more people left the United States than entered it.

Link to Learning: The Deportation of Mexican Americans

Men and women waving goodbye next to a train track.

Figure 5. Relatives and friends wave goodbye to a train carrying 1,500 persons being expelled from Los Angeles back to Mexico on August 20, 1931.

Leading up to the Great Depression, multiple waves of Mexican immigrants came to the United States seeking economic opportunities. By 1930, the Census reported nearly 600,000 Mexicans living in the United States; however, it is believed this number was well below the actual total. Also by the late 1920s, many Mexican immigrants had American-born children who were, in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment, automatically considered citizens of the United States.

When the stock market crashed and Americans suddenly struggled to find jobs, Hoover announced the Mexican Repatriation Act which deported those of Mexican descent with the intent that it would create jobs for those that did not appear ethnically Mexican. The term “repatriation” was a misnomer because many of those that left were coerced or forced to leave under false pretenses. Many left willingly at the time, fearing that if they remained, they would eventually be forced to leave. Immigrants were offered free train rides to Mexico and left the United States not knowing what their future would hold.

Of the estimated 400,000 to 1,000,000 people deported, somewhere between 40-60% of those were U.S.-born citizens, many of them children who were culturally and legally American. This unconstitutional deportation of American citizens had a massive impact on hundreds of thousands of families. Many of these children lost access to education and were poverty-stricken upon their removal to Mexico. And while most children left with their Mexican-born parents, some children remained in the United States, never to see their parents again.

Authors Raymond Rodriguez and Francisco Balderama co-authored Decade of Betrayal, examining these unconstitutional deportations. Rodriguez was ten years old when his father suddenly returned to Mexico alone and never returned. Balderama and the late Rodriguez wanted to ensure this event in U.S. history would not be forgotten. While the U.S. federal government has not issued an apology, in 2005 California issued the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program. There have not yet been any reparations granted to the surviving victims.[3]

You can watch these videos to learn more:

Try It

Caroline Henderson on the Dust Bowl

Now we are facing a fourth year of failure. There can be no wheat for us in 1935 in spite of all our careful and expensive work in preparing ground, sowing and re-sowing our allocated acreage. Native grass pastures are permanently damaged, in many cases hopelessly ruined, smothered under by drifted sand. Fences are buried under banks of thistles and hard packed earth or undermined by the eroding action of the wind and lying flat on the ground. Less traveled roads are impassable, covered deep under by sand or the finer silt-like loam. Orchards, groves and hedge-rows cultivated for many years with patient care are dead or dying . . . Impossible it seems not to grieve that the work of hands should prove so perishable. —Caroline Henderson, Shelton, Oklahoma, 1935

Much like other farm families whose livelihoods were destroyed by the Dust Bowl, Caroline Henderson describes a level of hardship that many Americans living in Depression-ravaged cities could never understand. Despite their hard work, millions of Americans were losing both their produce and their homes, sometimes in as little as forty-eight hours, to environmental catastrophes. The contrast between the laborious tending of the land and its sudden annihilation is powerful in this account. Note Henderson’s references to that which is “dead,” “dying,” and “perishable,” and contrast those terms with her depiction of the “careful and expensive work” undertaken by her family’s own hands. Many simply could not understand how such a catastrophe could have occurred.


Dust Bowl: the area in the middle of the country that had been badly over-farmed in the 1920s and suffered from a terrible drought that coincided with the Great Depression; the name came from the “black blizzard” of topsoil and dust that blew through the area

Mexican Repatriation Act: a policy enacted between 1929 and 1939 that resulted in the deportation and repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans

  1. James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 22.
  2. Cybelle Fox, Three Worlds of Relief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 127.
  3. Valenciana, Christine. 2006. “Unconstitutional Deportation of Mexican Americans.” Multicultural Education 13 (3): 4-9.