Friday, December 16, 2016

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Worst drought since the Dust Bowl? No dust storms? Thank an agriculture producer.

Oklahoma is facing what many are calling the worst drought since the dust bowl. Weather this is true or not, Oklahoma and most of the southern plains are in a major dry cycle. Every day brings another drought related story; wildfires, low lake levels, no rain; everything except massive dust storms. Why?

The answer: the farmers and ranchers of the southern plains.

We’ve all heard about the dust bowl; extreme drought; soil from the southern plains blowing all the way to the east coast, even coating ships in the Atlantic with dust; massive “dusters” turning mid-day to night. Surely this year, identified as one of the driest in Oklahoma history, we should again be seeing massive dust storms. The difference is the changes in agriculture that grew out of the dust bowl. Changes resulting largely from the partnership between landowners, local Conservation Districts and the state and federal governments, especially the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Back during the “dirty 30s,” the government decided that it would be better to work with producers instead of against them. Using the open hand of friendship in the form of free technical assistance and financial help in the form of cost-share dollars (helping pay part of the cost of making improvements to the land, the producer then pays the rest) instead of the iron fist of government regulation, the U.S. and state governments worked with producers to turn back the tide of dust. Landowners responded by forming conservation districts and adopting new ways of managing the land including new tillage practices, experimenting with new crops and by planting marginal land to native or improved grasses. The results of this partnership? In 1996 we faced a year drier even than the 1930s. The result? No dust storms. Again today we face what may be the beginning of a dry cycle similar to the one that caused the dust bowl. We’re dust storm free. Why? Because of the work of agriculture producers in partnership with conservation districts and the state and federal governments.

We should be proud of these accomplishments, but more needs to be done. We must stay vigilant to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. The state and federal governments must maintain their commitment to conserving our natural resources and properly fund conservation. We should also recognize that we have new challenges such as water quality concerns and the spread of invasive species like the eastern red cedar, challenges that can be addressed the same way we attacked the dust bowl, through voluntary, locally-led means. By working together we can conserve our natural resources without new regulations or without running anyone off the land. Voluntary, locally-led conservation works. If you don’t believe it, look outside. Do you see a dust storm on the horizon? If not, thank an agriculture producer.