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Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee

Publishing Information

Personal and Confidential From Morris Cooke

August 27, 1936
The President
The White House
Washington, D. C.

Dear Mr. President:

  • We have the honor to submit herewith our report on the essentials of a long time program looking towards betterment of economic conditions in the Great Plains Drought Area.

    The Nature of the Problem

  • In accordance with the responsibility entrusted to it on July 22nd the Committee has made a preliminary study of drought conditions in the Great Plains area with the hope of outlining a long term program which would render future droughts less disastrous. We have consulted the accessible records, have enlisted the aid of authorities and agencies already working in this field, and have just completed a trip of inspection and conferences through the areas most seriously affected.

  • The time at our disposal has been brief, but we have fortunately been able to draw on the experience of the Resettlement Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the Agriculture Adjustment Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Weather Bureau, the Geological Survey, and other government agencies, old and new, Federal and State, which over a considerable period have been dealing with the problems of our semi arid lands. The degree of attention which this subject has already received is indicated by the fact that the Federal agencies alone have spent in the Great Plains region, as defined later, since January 1, 1933, on works related to conservation of physical assets, about $140,000,000, not including grants, loans and relief disbursements amounting to approximately $335,000,000.

  • We put forward our recommendations with the more confidence, therefore, because of the mass of material generously placed at our disposal by those who have pioneered this field. We are summarizing conclusions which are the growth of years of experiment and investigation. We offer a basic program at this time because we believe that there is general agreement as to the main facts among those most familiar with the situation, and because we are convinced that activities for permanent rehabilitation and reconstruction already undertaken must be speeded up and expanded if the Great Plains area is to avoid a worse disaster than has yet befallen it.

  • We have been mindful of your request, made in appointing this Committee, that we look toward "the most efficient utilization of the natural resources of the Great Plains area, and especially toward practicable measures for remedying the conditions which have brought widespread losses and distress to many inhabitants of the Missouri, Platte and Arkansas Valleys, the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and contiguous areas."

  • Particular attention has been given to the suggestion in your letter of July 22nd, as follows:

    "We have supposed that the modes of settlement and of development which have been prevalent represented the ordinary course of civilization. But perhaps in this area of relatively little rain, practices brought from the more humid part of the country are not most suitable under the prevailing natural conditions."

  • A trip through the drought area, supplementing data already on record, makes it evident that we are not confronted merely with a short term problem of relief, already being dealt with by several agencies of the Federal Government, but with a long term problem of readjustment and reorganization.

  • The agricultural economy of the Great Plains will become increasingly unstable and unsafe, in view of the impossibility of permanent increase in the amount of rainfall, unless over cropping, over grazing and improper farm methods are prevented. There is no reason to believe that the primary factors of climate temperature, precipitation and winds in the Great Plains region have undergone any fundamental change. The future of the region must depend, therefore, on the degree to which farming practices conform to natural conditions. Because the situation has now passed out of the individual farmer's control, the reorganization of farming practices demands the cooperation of many agencies, including the local, State and Federal governments.

  • We wish to make it plain that nothing we here propose is expected or intended to impair the independence of the individual farmer in the Great Plains area. Our proposals will look toward the greatest possible degree of stabilization of the region's economy, a higher and more secure income for each family, the spreading of the shock of inevitable droughts so that they will not be crushing in their effects, the conservation of land and water, a steadily diminishing dependence on public grants and subsidies, the restoration of the credit of individuals and of local and State governments, and a thorough going consideration of how great a population, and in what areas, the Great Plains can support.

  • These objectives are not now attainable by individual action, but we believe they will restore an individual independence which has been lost. Mistaken public policies have been largely responsible for the situation now existing. That responsibility must be liquidated by new policies. The Federal Government must do its full share in remedying the damage caused by a mistaken homesteading policy, by the stimulation of war time demands which led to over cropping and over grazing, and by encouragement of a system of agriculture which could not be both permanent and prosperous.

  • In many measures the Federal Government must take the initiative, particularly in furnishing leadership and guidance, and in participating to a substantial extent in the construction or financing of the needed public works. Through existing agencies it will be able to employ many of the residents of the region. In other measures the State and local governments must take the initiative. The emphasis of the program should be on coordination and cooperation, with each agency and each group undertaking the functions it is best able to perform. There need not be, and should not be, conflict of interest or jurisdiction between State and local agencies on the one hand and Federal agencies on the other, There need not be, and should not be, impairment of local and individual initiative.

  • There must be, on the other hand, continuous and sustained joint efforts on the part of all agencies concerned. The problem of the Great Plains is not the product of a single act of nature, of a single year or even of a series of exceptionally bad years. It has come into being over a considerable period of time, and time will be required to deal with it. The steps taken must be continuous, non intermittent and patiently followed. A reasonably stable agricultural economy must be established, maintained and handed on to the children of this generation.

    Causes of the Present Situation

  • We must analyze causes before we can prescribe remedies. The basic cause of the present Great Plains situation is an attempt to impose upon the region a system of agriculture to which the Plains are not adapted to bring into a semi arid region methods which, on the whole, are suitable only for a humid region.

  • The Great Plains area has climatic attributes which cannot be altered by any act of man, although they may slowly become changed, for better or worse, by natural weather cycles which we cannot yet predict.

  • With respect to plant growth, however, the stripping off of the mellow top soil, by unrestrained erosion, down to less absorptive, less tractable sub soil, is the equivalent of an unfavorable soil climate change. Adoption of soil conserving farm practices based on increased use of the rainfall by increase of its absorption, results in conservation not only of the soil but also of the water without which the soil cannot be utilized with maximum efficiency.

  • By the Great Plains is meant, in general, an area stretching from west central Texas to the border of Canada, definitely bounded on the west by the Rocky Mountains, more irregularly delimited on the east near the 100th meridian, where, before settlement by the white man, the "short grass" country merged gradually with the "tall grass", or prairie, country. The critical area now under discussion excludes southwestern Texas but includes the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle, northeastern New Mexico, and all the northern portion of the Plains. The area may again be divided, by a line run midway east and west across Kansas and eastern Colorado, into the Northern Plains and the Southern Plains.

  • The entire region is marked by a low annual rainfall, often concentrated in storms of short duration and great intensity, by wide fluctuations of temperature, and by prevailing winds not equaled in average strength anywhere in the United States except along the sea coasts. The soil is derived mainly from old water transported material, with some areas of drifting sand. In the North the Bad Lands of South Dakota are evidence of extensive prehistoric erosion, but the longer winters, protecting the ground by frost and snow, have made wind erosion a somewhat less serious danger in the North than in the South. In the South much sandy soil is naturally unstable and the finer grained soil becomes loose and unstable with exhaustion of the humus supply by continuous cultivation. These lands have been held in place chiefly by such natural growths as buffalo grass and grama grass.

  • One primary source of disaster has been the destruction of millions of acres of this natural cover, an act which in such a series of dry years as that through which we are now passing left the loose soil exposed to the winds. This destruction has keen caused partly by over grazing, partly by excessive plowing. It has been an accompaniment of settlement, intensified in operation and effect since the World War. In eight states lying partly within the region the area in harvested crops has increased as follows:
    187912,200,000 acres
    189953,500,000 acres
    190971,600,000 acres
    191987,800,000 acres
    1929 (1)103,200,000 acres
  • As the ranges were enclosed feed crops were raised to fatten stock, requiring intensive cultivation, and the ranges themselves were overstocked. Thus there was not only a progressive breaking up of the native sod but a thinning out of the grass cover on lands not yet plowed.

  • The settlers lacked both the knowledge and the incentive necessary to avoid these mistakes. They were misled by those who should have been their natural guides. The Federal homestead policy, which kept land allotments low and required that a portion of each should be plowed, is now seen to have caused immeasurable harm. The Homestead Act of 1862, limiting an individual holding to 160 acres, was on the western plains a stimulus to over cultivation, and, for that matter, almost an obligatory vow of poverty.

  • Subsequent enlargement of the allowable individual holding did not solve the problem. A study of homestead holdings in North Dakota and Montana shows that whereas in eastern North Dakota a 160 acre tract was sufficient to support a family, tracts of two and three times this size were inadequate in western North Dakota and Montana. In the latter area tracts of several times the homesteads actually granted would have been necessary.

  • The shocking records made under the Homestead Act prior to 1916 only 60 per cent of all entries perfected; since that time only 45 per cent should serve as a warning.

  • Fortunately or unfortunately, the settlement of the Western Plains occurred at the end of what appears to have been a forty year dry period and at the beginning of a wet period which has apparently terminated. Thus the brief and occasional droughts which descended during the latter part of the nineteenth end early years of the twentieth century were assumed to be exceptional and were not taken as warnings. On the contrary, speculation continued and harmful methods of farming persisted.

  • As the twentieth century advanced higher powered plowing, planting and harvesting machinery made possible the cultivation of larger areas without increased labor. The World War, with its high prices for food crops during years of abundant rains, stimulated production to new heights, and after the war farmers were forced to expand their acreage in order to sustain their cash income during a period of falling prices. In the Texas Panhandle alone wheat planting increased from 876,000 acres in 1924 to 2,458,000 in 1929.

  • Nature and the market combined to make wheat farming highly speculative. Extreme instances can be found in which more than 90 per cent of the entire net income of a wheat farm over a period of twenty years was concentrated in a single year. Yet each year some or all of the wheat land was plowed and the soil exposed to the destructive forces of sun and wind.

  • The economic results have been general insecurity, bankruptcy, tax delinquencies, absentee ownership, and an increase in tenancy. In eight Great Plains states the percentage of tenant farmers rose from 15.5 in 1880 to 38.9 in 1930. Since 1930 it has risen again, standing at 41.1 in 1935. Notwithstanding heroic efforts of their occupants, many farms have been abandoned. About 150,000 persons moved out of the Great Plains region between 1930 and 1935. The "suit case farmer" has made his appearance, visiting his land only a few weeks a year to plant and harvest his crop, making no permanent improvements and abandoning his crop in drought years.

  • The economic deterioration of communities, with loss of public credit, suspension of schools, neglect of roads and a general decline of community activities, is more difficult to measure, but its reality is apparent to any one who studies or even visits the region.

  • The physical results of a mistaken agricultural policy are now being experienced under the blistering winds of the droughts. With the destruction of the natural grass cover the soil has been exposed. to the drying influence of the summer winds, to blowing, and to washing by the rains. Water has not been adequately conserved. In many parts of the area there has been a decline in the ground water level, though. how much of this effect is due to excessive use and how much to the decline in rainfall is not yet certain,

  • The dust storms of 1934 and 1935 have been visible evidence to nearly every American living east of the Rocky Mountains that something is seriously wrong. The extent of erosion on the Great Plains has not yet been accurately measured. It is safe to say that 80 per cent is now in some stage of erosion. As much as 15 per cent may already have been seriously and permanently injured.

  • This is a situation that will not by any possibility cure itself. A series of wet years might postpone the destructive process, yet in the end, by raising false hopes and by encouraging renewal of mistaken agricultural practices, might accelerate it. Our precipitation records are insufficient to permit reliable prophecy. It would in any case be difficult to predict for the entire area, since rainfall varies widely and irregularly between points within the region, and even between neighboring stations.

  • On such evidence as we have it seems probable that the period between 1825 and 1865, when the Great Plains were being explored but not as yet extensively settled, was one of drought, despite occasional wet years. The records also indicate, according to some authorities, that we are now possibly in the midst of a new and prolonged drought period, which may have its wet years but may keep average rainfall for the next twenty years or more below the long time average.

  • Whether the drought condition is to be brief or protracted, the practical problems of the people and the land of the Great Plains will remain of the same character. Whatever is done now toward stabilizing the Great Plains economy will have its value, regardless of whether or not a continuance of dry years forces more drastic action later on. We should adapt our policies to promote the welfare of the present inhabitants of the Plains under the conditions we can reasonably foresee, We are certain that under any conceivable climatic conditions the practices which have destroyed the sod and desiccated the soil are harmful and must, for the good of all concerned, be changed or abandoned.

  • There is no ambiguity as to what is meant by "the good of all concerned." As we have gathered the opinions of experts and of the best thought in the States, the following list of general objectives some requiring State, some local and some Federal initiative, and all requiring cooperation thus emerge:

  • Develop and maintain the highest possible income and standard of living in the region.

  • Develop a type of economy that will withstand the shocks of recurrent periods of drought.

  • Make the nature of public grants and subsidies such, and in accordance with a central long-time plan so well conceived, that the necessity for them will be ultimately eliminated.

  • Through these and other means restore the solvency of local governments and of the region as a whole.

  • Stabilize land tenure and occupancy and so reduce the more or less aimless migration out of the region, or from one point to another within the region, which takes place during drought periods.

  • In carrying out this policy encourage such re-groupings of the population as will permit greatest economy and efficiency in the conduct of schools, courts, policing, sanitation and other public activities. Reduce social isolation.

  • Modify unsound tax systems in such a way as to proportion taxes to ability to pay, which in turn depends upon the productivity of the land to be taxed. Combine governmental subdivisions too small or too poor to be operated efficiently. By these means reduce the tax burden and that delinquency which is the sure sign of a bankrupt rural economy.

  • Arrest the wastage of soil by erosion and make efficient use of the water resources of the region.

    Lines of Action

  • None of the other objectives will be attainable unless we realize the one which is here named last. It is basic. On analysis it is found to involve engineering, agricultural practice, finance and education, in addition to a revision of policies by all public agencies concerned.

  • The necessary steps are clearly indicated. The region should be divided into sub-areas according to the types Of use to which each portion of it may be best and most safely devoted; and, in addition, to determine the kinds Of agricultural practice and engineering treatment required to fit each portion to its indicated use. Certain sub-marginal lands should be taken permanently out of commercial production. On arable farms such soil conserving practices as re-grassing, contour plowing, listing, terracing, strip cropping and the planting of shelter trees should be followed. Grasses of demonstrated fitness to local conditions should be developed and used.

  • In a land of little rain it is imperative that water should never be allowed needlessly to go to waste. The farming practices described will help to reduce run-off and to hold water in the soil. Dams may be of use not only in checking water erosion but in holding back water for use during dry periods. In some cases they may produce power for pumping and other local uses. Thousands of stock reservoirs and wells should be developed to provide a more adequate supply for stock. Small irrigation systems for groups of families will be found useful, and construction of large irrigation projects to supply families already in the region should be considered.

  • Some readjustment of water rights appears essential. It is contrary to the basic principles of conservation to allow water to be diverted to poor lands when there is not enough to supply neighboring lands of better quality.

  • Some of these projects may be carried out as a part of a work relief program, others as major public works, still others by the farmers themselves, either individually or in cooperating groups. In the case of works by the farmers the necessity for credit will immediately be felt of a kind available to a capital structure already burdened with its maximum load of ordinary commercial credit.

  • Measures of this sort will improve the conditions and practices on individual farms, but they cannot be expected to effect the change which is urgently needed in the land use pattern of the region. We believe that public acquisition of lands should be continued.

  • Some types of land within the area, we believe, should be leased or optioned, with the stipulation that the owners shall carry on an approved program of restoration to grass or forest, Other lands, too seriously injured to warrant restoration by private enterprise, should be taken over by county, State or Federal governments and put permanently under grass or forest.

  • It may be found advisable to extend the grazing range by taking some arable farm lands under public ownership. In some cases abandoned farms or farms reverting to public ownership under tax forfeiture may be acquired in this way, with proper compensation to owners for such equities as exist.

  • Obviously no permanency of the agricultural system or of the land itself is possible if the individual owner is allowed to put his holdings to uses which will ultimately destroy them and endanger the property of his neighbors. We suggest that the possibilities of restraining such owners, within the limits of laws now existing or which may be constitutionally enacted, be fully explored. The States affected are already keenly aware of this problem.

  • In this step the Federal Government may act as adviser, as it has already done in the case of the Soil Conservation Districts Act, draft enduring the past year by the Land Policy Committee of the Department of Agriculture, with the cooperation of the Soil Conservation Service and the Solicitor's Office. The text of this proposed legislation has recently been printed and submitted to the States for their consideration.

  • In Texas an act has been passed empowering a county to establish it self as a conservancy district, to make assessments and to effect on private land the improvements necessary to protect the lands of the district. In case this act fails to be upheld by the courts the states should be prepared to submit new legislation to achieve the same necessary object within the permissible limits. A precedent may conceivably be found in the zoning ordinances by which most American cities protect them selves against uses of land which are held to be harmful to the public interest. In Wisconsin and Minnesota rural zoning has already been under taken. The protection of property itself demands some restriction upon the privileges of the private owner of property.

  • Wherever possible the cooperative principle should be invoked and encouraged, as particularly adapted to the needs and problems of the region. The Taylor Grazing Act and the grazing regulations in the National Forests and on State lands should be administered with the definite aim of stimulating the formation of cooperative grazing associations. Cooperative grazing districts should be assisted to prevent the over stocking of their lands, and should be aided by a program of public land acquisition to block up their ranges. Citizens of several States and the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico have taken cooperative action to prevent overgrazing. Other farmers may well follow the example they have set.

  • Local committees, informally selected; have played an important role under the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the Resettlement Administration. By such committees the interests and wishes of the people may receive adequate expression. The formation of such committees should be encouraged and all governmental agencies should consult and cooperate with them in order to make sure that what is done will have the support of local public opinion.

  • An educational campaign should be undertaken without delay by the Agricultural Extension Service and the Rehabilitation supervisors, supplemented by suitable curricula in the schools. Churches, farmers' organizations, civic bodies and fraternal orders should be urged to take a part in this campaign, and community discussions of the problem should be stimulated. The results of research carried out by State and Federal agencies should be disseminated. Particular attention should be directed to the demonstrations of the Resettlement Administration and the Soil Conservation Service. The government agencies should be ready at all times to pool their experience and information with that of local agencies and of individuals, in order that there may be the greatest attainable degree of mutual confidence.

    A Coordinated Program of Cooperation

  • It is clear that none of the activities proposed will be of the greatest possible use unless they are coordinated parts of a well-devised project envisaging the entire region. There is no reason why such a project should not exist, nor why it should not be carried through without friction between local and State agencies on the one hand and Federal agencies on the other. The emergency is a test of the democratic system, which we believe can be met without any exercise of arbitrary power by any agency.

  • Certain basic facts must be determined. We need to know approximately how many people the region should be expected to support under the conditions of a scientific agriculture. We need to know to what extent population could be relocated with advantage to itself.

  • Generalizations as to such facts are likely to be misleading at this stage of our studies. On the one hand it may be laid down as a principle that aimless intra-regional migrations should not be encouraged. On the other hand it is clear that in many cases a different grouping might be utilized to produce happier and more prosperous communities.

  • Whether or not the region can support adequately the population now residing within its limits is a question which cannot at present be answered. In the long run a transfer from cropping to grazing would undeniably reduce the population of some areas. Nevertheless, it is possible that a sounder agricultural economy, with more assured family incomes and higher living standards, might increase subsidiary opportunities for employment. Temporarily, the work which needs to be done in the fields of soil and water conservation will take up much of the slack.

  • The fundamental purpose of any worthwhile program must be not to depopulate the region but to make it permanently habitable. Any other outcome would be a national failure which would have its effects, tangible and intangible, far beyond the affected area.

  • The drift away from the Great Plains has already begun, and is likely to continue unless remedial measures are taken without delay. Over the long period of years the Plains will support more people and continue in larger measure their contributions to the country's welfare if the proposed program is adopted, than they would if present tendencies were allowed to continue their course. The conservation of land and water, as here envisaged, is for the purpose, and only for the purpose, of conservation of human beings.

  • The regional agriculture must rest on the development of holdings which will actually support a family in independence and comfort. Undoubtedly these holdings must be larger than those now prevailing in many parts of the Plains. They can be made more adequate in some instances by reclamation, in others by the combination of smaller units. State and county governments may expedite this process by making available to grazing and other cooperative agencies the chronically tax delinquent lands which it is not to be expected will again be cultivated by their nominal owners. Such lands may be developed under a work relief program during the period of transition which must follow the drought and the development of new land policies.

  • Since tenancy, imposing upon the tenant the necessity of "mining the land", is peculiarly unfitted to conditions now existing on the Great Plains, there would seem to be justification for the use of the public credit to enable competent tenants to purchase and operate their own farms. All extensions of credit should be conditioned upon the operation of farms according to rational principles of soil and water conservation, and all should be on such terms that the borrower's probable income will be sufficient to enable him to repay his borrowings without hardship.

  • It may be assumed that in so far as the raising of cereal crops continues in the Great Plains area there will be an irregular alteration of good years and bad years. We recommend thorough exploration under the auspices of the Federal Government of the possibilities of covering this unavoidable risk by some form of insurance. A proposed solution which studies by the Department of Agriculture indicate may be actuarially sound calls for the collection of a portion of the surplus in bumper years, with repayment in kind during years when crops fall below normal.

  • As we review the situation we are convinced that although, as we have pointed out, the cooperation of all government agencies concerned local, state and national is imperative; in many vital respects the initiative must be taken by the Federal Government. We find the following in the Preliminary Report of the South Dakota State Planning Board, on Agricultural Resources. issued in January, 1936:

    "If a policy of shifting undesirable crop land to grass is adopted, public action will be necessary to put it into effect. Since the Federal Government is in a better position to administer a policy uniformly, and is not as subject to local pressure as local groups, it seems that it would be the logical agency to carry out the action phase of a crop land retirement program. This state, however, should cooperate in every way consistent with the interests of the people of the state."

  • It is our belief that this attitude would find support in the other states of the Great Plains and in the country at large. We therefore recommend that the studies and demonstrations carried on by agencies of the Federal Government concerned with Great Plains problems be extended, coordinated and directed along lines of positive influence. We suggest, also, that a study be made to determine what new Federal legislation, if any, may be necessary in order to permit the central Government to promote the transfer from crop to grass farming where needed, to guide and facilitate the necessary resettlement, stimulate proper measures of conservation and furnish the necessary credit.

  • To integrate and implement the lines of action which have been recommended, a board representative of pertinent Federal and State agencies should formulate the comprehensive project to which we have made reference, and suggest ways by which current relief activities may in considerable measure be made the first steps in consummation of a long-run plan.

  • The situation is so serious that the Nation, for its own sake, cannot afford to allow the farmer to fail. The future of the Great Plains involves the future not only of the more than 2,500,000 people now living there, and of their descendants; it involves also the future of the nearly 10,000,000 in the states affected, and more remotely but yet substantially the more than 120,000,000 people of the Nation. It is bound up with the development of a sound national farming policy, upon which, in turn, depends our ability to provide both opportunities for and the requirements of a reasonable standard of living for all our people. We endanger our democracy if we allow the Great Plains, or any other section of the country, to become an economic desert.

  • The Nation has profited by the courage and endurance of the people of the Plains. We have all had large responsibility for the direction of settlement and for the development of agricultural conditions in the area. We cannot discharge ourselves of the obligation thus incurred until we have helped them to create, within the natural and climatic conditions which can be prepared against but cannot be controlled, a secure and prosperous agriculture.

  • The reports, memoranda and other documents from which these conclusions and recommendations have been drawn offer abundant material for a comprehensive, more detailed report, if such a report is desired. The indicated outline and scope of such a report is handed to you herewith.

    Sincerely yours

    Hugh H. Bennett,
    Chief of Soil Conservation Service

    Frederick H. Fowler,
    Director of Drainage Basin Study,
    National Resources Committee

    Francis C. Harrington;
    Chief Engineer Of Works Progress Administration,
    representing the Administrator Harry L. Hopkins,
    Administrator of Works Progress Administration

    Richard C. Moore, Col.
    Corps of Engineers, U.S.A.

    John C. Page,
    Acting Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation

    Morris L. Cooke,
    Administrator of Rural Electrification Administration (Chairman)

    Henry A. Wallace,
    Secretary of Agriculture

    Rexford G. Tugwell,
    Administrator of Resettlement Administration

    1. If counties only within the defined Great Plains area were included, the totals would be much smaller (e.g., 44,860,409 acres for 1929), but the rate of increase might be even greater.