Students examine the modern and historical importance of soil erosion in Utah and on the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. Grades 3-5
Activity 1: Soil Stories
- Dark Days activity sheets
Activity 2: What's Your Soil Story?
- Example of local erosion (e.g. pictures, site for a field trip, presentation from an expert; your local Soil Conservation District or Cooperative Extension offices may be helpful resources)
- Example Factors and Possibilities Chart
conservation tillage: farming methods that reduce the intensity or frequency of tilling in order to maintain some ground cover throughout the year and disturb the soil as little as possible while still providing the conditions needed to grow a productive crop
drought: a long period of time in which there is very little or no rain
graze: to feed on grass
Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS): (the modern-day Soil Conservation Service) provides financial and technical assistance to help farmers implement conservation practices
Background Agricultural Connections
Dust Bowl describes both a time and a place. The dust bowl region of the United States covers the southern portion of the Great Plains, including parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. But Dust Bowl—with a capital D and B—refers to the time during the 1930s when drought, prairie winds, and poor land use practices combined to make life in this region miserable and farming nearly impossible.
In the early 1900s, gas-powered tractors enabled farmers to cultivate millions of acres and enjoy bountiful harvests. In the southeastern Great Plains, farmers used the newly invented steel plow to dig up acres of perennial prairie grasses and plant annual crops like wheat. When the economy declined in the late 1920s, farmers were forced to cultivate more land to pay their bills. Poorer quality land was tilled, and conservation practices were abandoned to reduce costs. Few recognized that they were setting the stage for mass erosion. In 1930, farmers tilled and planted their fields, but the rains never came, so their crops didn’t grow. The drought continued through the 1930s, leaving acres of dry soil vulnerable to the wind with no plant cover to hold it in place.
On Sunday afternoon of April 14, 1935, clouds of dust moved through the southern Great Plains and turned the sky black. People had to cover their noses and mouths so they could breathe. The day would go down in history as Black Sunday. Robert E. Geiger was a writer for the Associated Press who visited the area during that time. In a series of firsthand articles for the Washington Evening Star, Geiger described “pelting winds full of topsoil” and was the first to call the area the “Dust Bowl.”
During this same time, Utah had its own centers of soil erosion. Grantsville, located in the heart of the Tooele Valley, suffered dust storms that caused economic and ecological problems similar to those of the Great Plains. Grantsville residents recall the 1930s as dark and dirty. When the Tooele Valley was first settled in 1847, abundant grass covered the valley floor, and the valley quickly became one of the most popular winter grazing areas in the west. Large outside trail herds, making their way to Idaho and Nevada, traveled across the valley, lingering to pick up any available feed. Slowly, the grass disappeared and sagebrush took its place. Overgrazing stunted and scattered the sagebrush until what was once a range of plenty became almost barren.
From time to time, brush fires swept through Tooele Valley, destroying what little perennial vegetation was left. Residents of the valley needed to increase their income. They plowed up many acres that, without irrigation, couldn’t yield crops on the yearly rainfall of 12 inches or less. The wind whipped up small dust clouds, sending them into the city. Then came drought, and that was a recipe for ecological disaster. Suffering from the catastrophe was not confined to Grantsville. Soil from the Tooele Valley settled as far away as Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Logan. Even Idaho got some of Utah’s dust.
In the case of both dust bowls, government actions helped reverse the situation. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS), a special branch of the United State Department of Agriculture that is called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today, was created and went to work. The SCS used carefully planned conservation methods to restore grasses and helped farmers implement techniques like conservation tillage to reduce erosion. Local Soil Conservation Districts were established, which still promote conservation on public and private lands today. As vegetation was restored, farmers and ranchers moved back onto the land. Using improved farming and grazing management practices, agriculture has returned to the Tooele Valley and the Great Plains.
The Dust Bowl is now remembered as one of the worst environmental tragedies in US history. Drought has returned to the dust bowl region over the years, but farmers are prepared. Crop farmers plant wind breaks and use conservation tillage techniques to protect the soil. Suboptimal lands are not used to cultivate annual crops. Ranchers move quickly to remove livestock and preserve as many plants as possible on the range. Livestock can graze on rangelands if they are managed properly, arid lands can be used for agriculture with conservation techniques, and we can learn from our mistakes!
The following resources provide additional information concerning the Dust Bowl:
- Introduce the topic to your students by sharing the information in the Background Agricultural Connections. Use the video Dirt: Secrets of the Soil-Dust Bowl to show students scenes from the Dust Bowl and illustrations of soil erosion.
- Read excerpts from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse to illustrate the connection between literature and history. Visit the sites listed in Essential Links at the end of this lesson for more resources to inspire students’ writing.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Soil Stories
- Divide the class into five groups (alternatively, this activity may be conducted individually).
- Provide each group with a different Dark Days activity sheet.
- Instruct groups to study and discuss the photographs. Explain that they are going to use the pictures to create a story. The attached photos show the following scenes:
- Dark Days—1: Black Sunday
- Dark Days—2: a farm in Oklahoma
- Dark Days—3: before and after scenes in Grantsville, Utah
- Dark Days—4: a “dust fence” in Grantsville
- Dark Days—5: a haystack full of dust in Grantsville
- Tell the students that they will have 5 minutes to develop a partial story line about their photograph. One group member should record the group’s thoughts, and the group should condense those thoughts into one sentence. Encourage students to write clear sentences that others will be able to understand.
- After five minutes, each group should write its final sentence in the space provided on the activity sheet and pass the sheet to another group.
- Each group should study the photograph on their new activity sheet, read the unfinished story line, and then develop the story one step further. A new recorder should condense the second plot development into another sentence. Instruct groups to choose a new recorder each time so everyone has the opportunity to assist in the writing process.
- When each photograph and story line reaches its last group, ask students to bring the stories to some type of closure.
- Have one person in each group stand up and read one of the final stories out loud.
- Discuss the pictures and the impact they had on the tone of the stories. Discuss the way the stories were completed. Were students happy with the twists that stories took as they passed from group to group?
Activity 2: What’s Your Soil Story?
- Find an illustrative, local example of soil erosion. Any example will work— it may be erosion from construction, agriculture, mining, etc. Your local Soil Conservation District office or your local Cooperative Extension office (contact information for Utah State University Extension county offices can be found at http://extension.usu.edu) may be able to help. Consider asking them to visit your class or to provide you with pictures of erosion that has occurred on a local site. You may also take local erosion pictures of your own or conduct the activity as a field trip.
- Divide the class into groups or use the same groups as in Activity 1.
- For the local erosion example given, ask each group to determine:
- How the soil erosion might have occurred
- What the soil texture might have been (if possible, bring in a sample from the area)
- How the erosion could have been prevented
- What, if anything, is being done to reduce erosion on the site
- One person in each group should record the group’s response for each question. This will be their report.
- Ask a spokesman from each group to share the group’s report on the site. Compare reports from the groups by constructing a chart of factors and possibilities. The four questions are the factors, and the possibilities are the groups’ answers or responses. See the Example Factors & Possibilities Chart.
- When all the possibilities are listed, ask students to vote individually on which possibility they think is most likely for each factor or question. They do not have to vote for their own group’s possibility.
- Once the votes are tallied, ask a local expert to elaborate on the questions or explain to your students what an expert told you about the given erosion site. Were the class conclusions correct?
- Discuss similarities and differences between the local erosion example and the erosion associated with the Dust Bowl. Is another Dust Bowl possible?
Teach your students more about soil texturing with the lesson Types By Texture.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Farmers rely on quality soil to grow the crops that provide our food.
- Farmers use conservation techniques to protect soil from erosion and other tragedies like the Dust Bowl.
- Erosion can take place on many levels of severity ranging from small to big.
Recommended Companion Resources
- Black Blizzard
- Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp
- Dirt: Secrets in the Soil (DVD)
- Dust Bowl: CBS 1955 Documentary
- Erosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Ended the Dust Bowl
- FDR's Fireside Chat: Dust Bowl
- Hugh Hammond Bennett: The Story of America's Private Lands Conservation video
- Nutrients for Life eLessons
- Out of the Dust
- Survival in the Storm
- The Great American Dust Bowl
- The Journal of C.J. Jackson, a Dust Bowl Migrant
- Third-Grader Explains Nature's Role in Providing Clean Water
- Under Your Feet: Soil, Sand and Everything Underground
- You Wouldn't Want to Live Without Dirt!