Senator John ThuneSouth Dakota’s farmers deserve to take considerable pride in the fact that they are able to coax such abundant yields out of land that can appropriately be described as temperamental. Harsh winters, periodic droughts, flooding, and other challenges create uncertainty, but the resilience of our state’s agricultural producers leads to many successful years. Still, it is important for us to remember that our state’s history has been shaped by the land and our struggles against it.
In the 1930’s South Dakota farmers found themselves caught in the crossfire of two powerful forces: economics and nature. The stock market crash of 1929 sent crop prices tumbling, leaving many farmers in serious trouble. Making matters worse, the early 1930’s were marked by years of extreme drought, making it difficult to grow wheat, corn, and other staples.
In addition to the drought, South Dakota’s plains had been ravaged by years of poor land management. Settlers flocked to the area in prior decades, drawn by available land and high crop prices. This influx of new farmers led to the tillage of native prairie grasses and little crop rotation. The combination of drought and depleted soil paved the way for one of the most reviled terms in American farming: the “Dust Bowl.”
Some South Dakotans can still recall April 14, 1935. Termed “Black Sunday,” this date witnessed one of the worst dust storms in South Dakota history. The strong South Dakota winds we all know well scooped up the soil no longer held down by prairie grass or crops, blowing it for miles and clouding the sky. It is estimated that up to 850 million tons of topsoil were blown off the Great Plains in 1935 alone.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I am proud to have helped reauthorize and strengthen several programs that assist producers in preserving the land and dealing with volatile weather and commodity markets. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which were reauthorized as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, are important tools that help farmers and ranchers implement land conservation practices. Additionally, the 2008 Farm Bill created permanent disaster programs that give producers a much needed safety net during natural disasters.
Since being elected to Congress, I have worked closely with South Dakota agricultural producers and other stakeholders to develop and continue federal programs that encourage better land-use practices. Because agriculture is such a significant economic engine for South Dakota, it is absolutely critical that the policies that are put in place by the Federal government make sense for not just today’s farmer, but also for future generations who will rely on the abundant resources that our state is blessed with.
Today, the winds in South Dakota howl strongly as ever, and periodic droughts are a constant threat. However, thanks to better land management practices, the dust storms that pushed many farmers out of business are a distant memory, but still serve as a powerful cautionary tale. Farmers, as well as state and federal agencies have adopted practices that have resulted in healthier land, including preservation and reintroduction of native grass and better crop rotation.