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TABLE 3.2. Problems Associated with Certain Soil Conservation Methods

Basic Method Specific Conservation Method Problems
of wind speed
1 ) Management of vegetation:  
- cover crops reduces soil moisture and fertility for
main crop
- crop rotation same as above
2) Strip cropping
possible on stubbles because of young
only half area productive; no grazing
4) Crop residue management
(stubble mulch)
diseases and fungi survive in plant
debris and affect next crop
of soil
1 ) Moisture retention by weed
-mechanical tillage
depending on tool used, from 10 per cent
to 50 per cent of protective plant debris
is destroyed each application
- chemical methods - only works in humid conditions
-chemical residues affect next
season's crop
2) Emergency tillage - only effective if subsoil has moisture
to provide clods to be brought to
-cannot protect an existing crop

Source: FAO 1960 and field interviews 1978,

Note: Implicit in all methods is a cost factor, whether for tillage operations, non-productive areas, or possible reduction of next season's crop yield.

1) Reduction of wind speed by:

Vegetation management

Physical barriers (non-vegetation)

2) Reduction of soil vulnerability by:

(a) Moisture retention through control of non-productive vegetation-mainly tillage but recently by chemical control (herbicides)

(b) Emergency tillage in drought to maintain soil surface roughness

The details of the discovery, diffusion, and adoption of the various methods are complex, often uncertain, and beyond the scope of this report, but Fig. 3.5 is an attempt to set out the interplay of the innovations (both private and official) and to place them in the general setting of land settlement history and factors operating to increase as well as decrease the chances of desertification. At the time of discovery great hopes were usually entertained for each innovation but in time each has been found wanting in certain respects, and despite claims none has so far been generally accepted as the panacea. Table 3.2 summarizes the current problems associated with the various techniques.


The attitudes to windbreaks illustrate the complexity of the issues. As part of the official belief in the potential for manipulation of climate, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 encouraged tree planting on the Plains, and although there was evidence of misuse of the legislation (MacIntosh 1975), some windbreaks resulted. A further boost came in 1924 when the Clarke-McNary Act allowed landowners to purchase trees for windbreaks at cost. However, the main stimulus came in the Dust Bowl era with President Roosevelt taking a personal interest in the officially sponsored Prairie States Forestry Project (Johnson 1947, 237). Not all scientists thought the project worthwhile, but 18,600 miles (30,000 km) of windbreaks (using over 2 million trees) were planted east of the 100th meridian. None were planted to the west because it was assumed rainfall would be inadequate. Yet by 1954, when a sample survey of the plantings was undertaken, only 42 per cent were rated as in good condition, 31 per cent were "fair," 19 per cent "poor," and 8 per cent had been destroyed (Read 1958). Damage, apart from human, had been greatest from drought from central Kansas southwards (i.e., in part of the Dust Bow, area). As protection against wind erosion the value of the windbreaks was questioned:

The present pattern of the shelter belt, except in a few localities, is wholly inadequate to decrease wind velocity significantly over large areas of cultivated lands. Only relatively small areas to the leeward of individual windbreaks are protected. I Read 1958,87]

Concern for the future of the windbreaks was renewed in 1975 with the appearance of a report to Congress on the need to discourage their removal from the Great Plains (Comptroller General 1975). After noting that soil erosion' was a problem in the Great Plains, the report expressed concern that in some counties of the central Plains up to 35 per cent of the original windbreaks had been removed -mainly to make more land available for production. This economically based action was being accelerated despite the fact that "most farmers and State, Federal and local conservationists agree windbreaks prevent wind erosion and are still needed in the Great Plains" (Comptroller General 1975, iii). The problem was compounded by some conservationists who felt that the windbreaks were no longer needed because the introduction of other conservation practices (strip cropping, crop rotation, stubble mulching, and emergency tillage) had rendered the windbreaks obsolete. The report pointed out in reply (despite the 1954 evidence to the contrary above) that the windbreaks were a permanent protection even during drought when most of the other measures "became less effective."

In 1976 a symposium on "Shelterbelts on the Great Plains" was told that 250,000 miles (400,000 km) of shelterbelts were needed, ten times the existing acreage (Griffith 1976, 6). At the same meeting the farmers' reasons for removing the windbreaks were listed as:

- "so that more land can be put into agricultural production... "

- "because certain tree species sap so much moisture that crops will not grow next to the windbreak . . . "

--- "high land values and good prices . . . will offset any benefits . . . from the windbreaks . . . "

-"disease, age, and chemical sprays . . . have left many trees dead, making some windbreaks unsightly and ineffective."
[Davis 1976,11]

The conflict of viewpoints was obvious.

The Farmars' View

Prior to, during, and after the Dust Bowl era, Great Plains farmers voted with their feet on the desertification question -moving into the area when the economic and environmental prospects appeared attractive, and moving out in times of drought. Emigration from drought-stricken areas was noted in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1920s; some 40,000 families left the Plains in the 1930s (Lawson 1971, 6); there was a further surge in the 1950s (Dick 1975; Dunbar 1944; Fite 1966; Hewes 1973; Olson 1955; Schlebecker 1963); and evidence of recent farm abandonment was noted in the field in 1978. Just how many of these movements were related to soil erosion per se and how many were the result of the combination of factors, with soil erosion only one of several, is difficult to establish but Hewes's comment is probably close to reality:

The advances came largely at times of average or better rainfall and wheat prices, and of technological improvements, and . . . retreats have usually followed soon after, at times of reduced rainfall, lower prices, and poorer economic conditions. [Hewes 1975,206]

Soil erosion was implicit but not seen as a major factor. Further, since the peak of rural populations in the 1920s the slow attrition of rural population densities on the Plains has been a continuing phenomenon, associated with changing agricultural technologies and life-styles, and this also blurs the picture of responses to the threat of desertification.


More specifically, however, there is evidence to suggest that farmers as a whole have not regarded and do not regard soil erosion as seriously as the officials. Part of the evidence lies in the dominant role of the economic motive in Great Plains farming and part lies in the farmers' apparent philosophies, including their attitude to soil conservation measures

The economic motive in farmers' decision-making seems to have been a constant and dominant feature of Great Plains agriculture. Certainly, even at the height of the Dust Bowl with their fields blowing away, the farmers, according to an official report, were more concerned about crop failures and low prices than soil erosion (USDA 1953, 7). This point was confirmed from a field interview in 1978 with an official whose family had experienced the Dust Bowl in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Despite the fact that he had been employed in the Soil Conservation Service, he felt that his parents had been more concerned about the economic situation than the erosion of their fields (Esters 1978).

As part of official reaction to the 1950s droughts and the renewed soil erosion problem, the Great Plains Conservation Program was established in 1956 to encourage farmers to put cropland back to grass. Ten years later a study of the experience of participant and non-participant farmers indicated that differences in permanent land use adjustments between participants and non-participants are inconclusive.... The wheat and food grain [economic] programs appear to exert as much of an influence on land use as did the GPCP with its cost sharing assistance for cropland conversion practices. [Cotner et al. 1969, 206]

The dominance of the economic motive has been further emphasized in the 1960s and 1970s by the recognition on the Plains as elsewhere in the USA, of farming as "agribusiness" (Drache 1976). Indeed, current estimates are that over two-thirds of US farmers obtain over half their income outside the farm (Skold 1977,169).

The economic motive was apparent in the evidence of speculation in land settlement (where land was seen as a commodity from which a profit rather than a living could be obtained) and from the apparent motives of a particular type of farmer peculiar to the Great Plains-the "sidewalk" or "suitcase" farmers (respectively, those who lived in the local town or outside the county).

The histories of land settlement on the Plains provide abundant examples of speculation in land, but the role of the suitcase farmers has only recently been documented. While careful not to pass moral judgement for the Dust Bowl conditions on the main body of farmers, the 1936 official report did single out the suitcase farmers as culpable since they put in crops on otherwise unimproved land, broke camp at the end of the plowing and planting season, because of ensuing low prices did not return to harvest what they had sown, and left the soil partly exposed to the drying and eroding winds. [RGPC 1936,4]

In effect they were not on site to carry out emergency anti erosion tillage, and not only their own but their resident neighbours' lands suffered. In a recent study of their role, Hewes set up a hypothesis of climatic variability leading to variations in crop yields and a lowering of land prices which in turn leads to "outsiders who were less hard-hit than residents" buying land "in the hope of speculative gains" and an increase in absentee ownership and suitcase farming. This did seem to fit the facts and demonstrated the ability of the suitcase farmers to "garner the rewards of the good years and to cut back or pull out when times get bad" (Hewes 1973, 178-184). From Hewes's work and some evidence of the deliberate flouting of local conservation ordinances by absentee farmers (Voelker 1952,16- 19) it would seem that for such men soil erosion was merely a debit in their account books.

Evidence of the general philosophy of farmers towards erosion is in part inferential and, through their attitudes to conservation measures, partly explicit. In the 1936 official report on the Future of the Great Plains (RGPC 1936), chapter 5, "Attitudes of Mind," discussed the need to change not only farmers' methods but also their attitudes to farming. Farmers were claimed to believe inter alla that "man conquers nature," "natural resources are inexhaustible," and " [farm] values will increase indefinitely." If true, this would suggest a tolerant attitude to soil erosion-a stress which could be met and which represented only a temporary setback in a linear progression of productivity. Reviewing the Plains situation in 1974 an official used an Associated Press release of 1938 on the "peculiar psychology and a fallacious belief among farmers in the Great Plains" to suggest that things had not changed much. The "peculiar psychology" was the attitude that once the drought broke it was forgotten and the farmers reverted to management systems "poorly suited to wind erosion control," and the fallacious belief that "erosion actually improved farm land by exposing fresh layers of soil" (Myers 1974, 1). In the early 1970s the ploughing up of previously conserved grasslands (1.5 million acres [607,000 ha] in 1974 alone), the clearing of windbreaks Inoted above), and local disastrous crop failures suggested to him that the 1938 judgement was still valid.

Field observations in the traverse through the Dust Bowl area were inadequate to justify any opinion on the extent of application of conservation measures. The general impression was not of any major erosion in progress. However several days had a marked dust haze, even along
main roads several sanded fences and erosion spots were noted (Plate 3.2), and there was evidence of drought affected wheat crops-the latter particularly in the northern Texas Panhandle. One attempt, however, was made in Kit Carson County to provide some systematic evidence of present land use.


As part of his investigations of dry farming in the Plains, Hewes conducted an investigation of land use in Kit Carson County (Colorado) which involved comparison of land use as mapped in 1939-40 with a field traverse across the southern county in 1962 (Hewes 1963). As part of the 1978 field trip I repeated the survey along the eastern half of Hewes's traverse using the same method. The results are indicated on Table 3.3.

In his study Hewes noted that for the whole traverse roughly 85 per cent of the land along the traverse mapped as idle in 1939-40 was again in cultivation by the mid-1950s; 15 per cent had reverted to pasture. The serious wind erosion of the 1930s seems to have had little effect on more recent land use. [Hewes 1963, 337]

By 1962 cropland and fallow represented 55 per cent of the total traverse, compared with 23 per cent cropland and 27 per cent "idle" land in 1939-40. How much of this latter category was really unused or merely relatively untilled fallow land was not clear. If this was in fact fallow land then 50 per cent of the total traverse would have been land broken for the plough compared with 55 per cent in 1962. Whichever the case, however, the land cultivated had increased by 1962.

TABLE 3.3. Land Use in Kit Carson County, Colorado, 1939-40, 1962, 1978



1939-40a 1962 1978
Cropland 22.0 33.0  
    75.0 78.8
Fallow 45.8    
Idled 34.0 - -
Pasture 44.0 23.0 21.2
Abandoned - 1.0  
Total 100.0 99.0 100.0

Note: Data are for the eastern traverse of Hewes's 1962 survey which was along County Road G from intersection with County Road 35 to intersection with the Kansas border.
a. Source: Hewes 1963.
b. Source: Hewes 1963.
c. Source: Field traverse 19 May 1978.
d. "Idle"land noted only in 1939-40 data. This may include some fallow land.
e. "Abandoned" land noted only in 1962 data.

Comparing the land use for the eastern half of the traverse only, in 1962 cropped and fallowed land was 75 per cent of the total compared with 22 per cent cropped and 34 per cent idle (possibly fallowed land) in 1939-40, an increase of "broken land" from 56 per cent to 75 per cent. By 1978 cropland and fallow had increased to 78.8 per cent of the eastern traverse.

The earliest reconnaissance survey (no modern soil survey has so far been published for the county) noted that 86.9 per cent of the land along the eastern traverse was either Class III (23.08 per cent) or IV (63.86 per cent). Thus, while both of these were categories of potential cropland, the dominance of the poorest cropland requiring most conservation practices (Class IV) suggests that in 1978 more than ever before, even if all the cropland was in these classes, the farmers were gambling either on their ability to cope with the threat of erosion or that the threat would be reduced by good seasons. As Plate 3.3 shows, in 1978 the seasons had not been favourable. If the basic aim of conservation schemes had been to take marginal cropland out of production and put it into grass, the results in Kit Carson County by 1978 were not impressive.


To document farmers' perception of the mitigation of soil erosion we need to examine both their behaviour and attitudes. Behaviour can be studied through the facts on soil conservation procedures adopted by farmers and attitudes from documentary evidence and field interviews.

Since the Dust Bowl era the Soil Conservation Service has carried out periodic surveys of "land use capability"-that is, the potential of land for cultivation or for rangeland use with varying amounts of soil conservation practices. Eight classes of land have been recognized, the first four of which "are capable of producing adapted cultivated crops, although Classes II through IV require special conservation treatments and management practices," Classes V to VlI are best suited to pasture use, and Class VIIl is not suited to agricultural or pastoral use without major reclamation works. If these surveys have been consistent in methodology (2 per cent survey of farms on the Plains) an. evaluation over time, any changes in areas of cropland in the various classes should indicate actual changes in management practices (i.e., management incorporating soil conservation measures). Table 3.4 summarizes some available data for the period 1958-75. The overall impression is that a decrease in area under crop has been accompanied by a halving of the land which should not be cropped, i.e., cropland in Classes V-VIII decreased to 45 per cent of 1958 by 1975, while cropland in l-IV decreased slightly to 94 per cent of the 1958 figure by 1975. Another estimate for 1975 suggested that soil erosion was still a dominant problem on some 57.9 per cent of the cropland of the Great Plains states, but the figure is suspect because it includes data for Arizona, which is not usually included in the ten Great Plains states (Davis 1977, 42). A further estimate for the same year was that 108 million acres (62.2 per cent) of the 173.5 million acres (70.2 million ha) of cropland was still in need of conservation treatment (Strong 1976, 250). Even at this level of generalization, and bearing in mind the doubtful evidence, a surprising amount of land still seems to be threatened by erosion.

TABLE 3.4.Changes in Land Capability on the Great Plains, 1958-75

  million acres (thousand km2)
1958 1967 1975
1. Northern Plains States:
Class I land 4.6 (18.6)   7.3 (29.5)    
Class II land 44.7 (180.9)   58.4 (236.3)    
Class III land 54.3 (219.7)   41.2 (166.7)    
Class IV land 16.9 (68.4)   19.2 (77.7)    
Total 120.5 (487.6) 87.2 (352.9) 126.1 (510.2) 91.2 (369.1) 86.7 (350.9)
2. Southern Plains States:
Class I land 6.7 (27.1)   5.6 (22.7)    
Class II land 41.2 (166.7)   35.8 (144.9)    
Class III land 46.3 (187.4)   46.0 (186.2)    
Class IV land 20.1 (81.3)   25.2 (102)    
Total 114.3 (462.5) 53.7 (217.3) 112.6 (455.8) 46.5 (188.2) 39.7 (160.7)
3. Great Plains: d
Cropland in Class I-IV
  165.5 (669.8)   166.5 (673.8) 155.7 (630.1)
Cropland in Class V-VlIl
(not cultivable)
  16.8 (68)   10.4 (42.1) 7.5 (30.4)
Total Cropland   182.3 (737.8)   176.9 (715.9) 163.2 (660.5)

TABLE 3.5. The Erosion Hazard in the Dust Bowl Area, 1950s-60s

County (State) Land Capability Class with Significant Erosion Hazard
(% county)
Total Land at Risk(% county)
and Date of Survey
Class IIE Class IIIE Class IVE  
Baca (sol) 1963 - 4.1 65.8 69.9
Sherman (Tex) 1968 0.8 9.6 13.2 23.6
Ochiltree (Tex) 1964 0.2 70.4 5.6 76.2
Cimarron (Okra) 1956 - 11.8 14.5 26.3
Texas (Okra) 1958 - 28.6 10.0 38.6
Morton (Ks) 1960 - 10.6 24.4 35.0
Stevens ( Ks) 1958 - 12.5 36.8 49.1
Stanton (Ks) 1958 - 21.8 4.8 26.6

Source: USDA County Soil Surveys for dates shown.

TABLE 3.6. Land Capability Classifications and Cultivated Land in Southwest Kansas, 1940s-60s

County and
Date of Survey
  Land Capability Classification Actually
Cultivated(% county)

(% county)

Morton 1943     21.8 41.6 63.4 67.5(1941)
1960     59.4 24.7 84.1 65.1(1959)
Stanton 1942     35.9 52.6 88.5 82.2(1941)
1958     91.4 5.1 96.5 ca.90.0(1958)
Stevens 1940     60.1 12.1 72.2 71.4(1942)
1958     42.9 37.3 80.2 (1958)

Source: Surveys of "Physical Land Conditions affecting use, conservation and management of land resources" and Soil Surveys for each country by USDA Soil Conservation Service on dates shown.

What of more detailed evidence? Soil surveys do not exist for all Great Plains counties and many of those published are obsolete anyhow. For the Dust Bowl and adjacent areas, however, there are some cases where two surveys of the same area at different dates are available for comparative study, and most of the counties have a "recent" soil survey, although "recent" means the 1960s and often the first half of that decade. Some analysis of this varied data (Tables 3.5 and 3.6) is possible however.

Table 3.5 indicates for some of the counties in the Dust Bowl the percentage of potential cropland area classed as having a serious erosion hazard in the 1960s (which in terms of climate and drought incidence were classed as moister than in average years). Estimates of the erosion hazard ranged from a low of 23.6 per cent to a high of 76.2 per cent of the counties' potential cropland areas.

For three counties in southwest Kansas comparative data for the period immediately following the Dust Bowl and the beginning of the 1960s were available (Table 3.6). While there may be inconsistencies between the two surveys, in every case the area of potential cropland had increased significantly from the 1940s to the 1960s, and in two of the three cases the poorest cropland area had been reduced significantly (by almost half in Morton and almost nine-tenths in Stanton counties). Actual cropland had not declined (except slightly in Morton County) but had in fact increased over the period. Only in Stevens County, however, did the actual cropland area exceed that thought advisable by the soil survey.

The general, and to some extent the detailed, picture therefore seems to indicate a slow but significant expansion of conservation practices on the Great Plains up to the mid 1970s without, however, removing entirely the threat of soil erosion. In 1973 the situation changed dramatically when world food shortages brought a relaxation of official controls on agricultural production and the release of 50 million acres (202.3 thousand km2) of grassland conservation reserves for immediate cultivation (Johnson and Ungar 1976, 95). In that year the Soil Conservation Service estimated that 1.5 million acres (6.1 thousand km2) of grassland had been ploughed up, half of which had never been ploughed before (Myers 1974,6). In the same year the Great Plains Agricultural Council forwarded to the Secretary of Agriculture and Congress a resolution which expressed concern that increased foreign and domestic demand for agricultural products . . . may cause lands which are only marginally suitable for cultivation and which have been through one cycle of cultivation, damage and rehabilitation at great cost, to be put to the plow again in the immediate future. [Proc. GPAC, Manhattan, Kansas, 26-27 July, 197 3, 122]

In 1975 a Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry commented that soil erosion was still a serious national problem despite the efforts since the Dust Bowl era.

In recent years, there has been a shift away from soil conserving crop rotations . . . [towards] a continuous single crop or . . . rotation of two intensive row crops [e.g., corn and soybeans].... Trends that could lead to another "dust bowl" during a sustained drought include . . . elimination of strip-cropping . . . shifting from soil-conserving, stubble-mulch tillage to plowing to help control . . . weeds in wheat; shifting to wheat production certain rangelands in the drier regions; [and]shelter belts . . . are being removed. [Berg 1975,23]

The Soil Conservation Service, on the defensive, agreed in principle but suggested that "most observers at the district level do not believe that we are slipping behind in conservation work" (Berg 1975,24). Yet in 1976 fears of a renewed erosion threat were voiced: "Millions of acres of land, once retired from production, are again being used for row-crop production without adequate conservation measures" ( Lyles and Swanson 1976,13). Part of the problem was the general increased demand for grain and part was the increased use of irrigation (particularly by centre-pivot systems) which reduced the need for drought management measures. As a result emergency tillage had become the standard anti-erosion strategy rather than the conservationists' preferred pre-event stubble-mulch, strip cropping, and minimum tillage methods. Since emergency tillage has a limited usefulness in severe drought conditions, the risk of erosion had been significantly increased.

After the initial success in disseminating conservation ideas and practices in the Dust Bowl era we might ask why on the one hand has the diffusion of conservation practices taken so long and why on the other hand has the picture, from the point of view of the conservationists, worsened in recent years? Possible explanations seem to be in the incomplete scientific knowledge of the erosion processes; general farmers' attitudes to risk; the nature of innovation diffusion over space and time; the high turnover of farm ownership and the continuity of a significant proportion of absentee owners on the Plains; the varied intensity of conservation education programmes over time and space; and the basic economic motive in farm management noted previously.

The significance of erosion

As noted above, information on Great Plains soils at the detailed local level is not complete although a national survey of soil erosion is currently under way and should be completed in July 1979 (Proc. GPAC, Fort Co/lins, Co/orado, 21-22Ju/y 1977, 93). A review of wind erosion research in 1975 noted 20 areas of inquiry to be considered in a ten-year official research programme (Woodruff 1975).

Assessment of the real impact of soil erosion on long-term productivity was still needed, despite the assumption of a significant detrimental impact which has been used to justify official conservation policies since the 1930s! A start has been made recently to quantify the impact, but the technique still makes debatable assumptions (such as relating crop yield to soil thickness) which need testing in the field (Lyres 1977).

Part of the problem is that farmers in the central Great Plains have been cultivating mainly loess soils with high inherent fertility throughout the profile. While there is some debate about the precise origin and age of the loess, there is general agreement on the location, fertility, and great depth of the loess soils (up to 200 feet [BO ml in Nebraska) (sort and Jones 1970; Schultz and Frye 1868). Thus, for these wind-derived soils the loss of a few inches of topsoil may not be as significant as for other types. Indeed the continued and even increased yields of crops from areas originally officially dismissed as permanently ruined for cultivation have been a source of embarrassment to soil conservationists (Borchert 1971, 11; Hewes 1973, 169). Recently the picture has been complicated by increased use of fertilizers by farmers (although most is applied to irrigated land) and some evidence that continuous tillage has reduced the drought resistance of some Plains soils by reducing their moisture-holding capacity (Skidmore, Carstenson, and Banbury 1975).

Farmers' attitudes to risk-taking

The review of required wind erosion research also suggested attempts "to improve farmer acceptance of wind erosion control technology," particularly to ask "why he is willing to gamble on the probability of a serious wind erosion occurrence rather than routinely apply short-term or permanent control system" (Woodruff 1975,150). The extent to which farmers are prepared to accept risk in their decision-making is relevant to their perception of the value of conservation measures which aim to reduce the risk of crop loss through soil erosion. Saarinen's study provides some relevant evidence, as does the record of Great Plains farmers' participation in the various federal crop insurance schemes.

Saarinen found that the farmers in his sample choose a strategy which implies a careful form of risk taking, one which is neither reckless nor rigidly tied down by long range planning considerations. In other words they feel they must be flexible enough to adapt to the changing circumstance but at the same time circumspect rather than rash. [Saarinen 1966, 97]

Such an attitude does not imply an unequivocal acceptance of conservation measures, particularly those such as the "set-aside" and "Soil Bank" programmes which required acceptance of specific land uses for at least three and up to ten years ahead. Such a commitment might be seen as too constricting from the farmers' viewpoint.

Saarinen's findings on farmer attitudes to insurance further supported the above generalization, in that farmers in the humid counties tended to carry all-risk insurance all the time, while farmers in the drier counties took out hail insurance only when there was a crop coming up which was worth insuring (Saarinen 1966, 101-102).

Both government and private insurance policies are now an integral part of the Great Plains agricultural system, with the area receiving on average 47 per cent of the annual US federal crop insurance indemnity payments and in 1974 receiving 46 per cent of the US private company crop hail insurance payments (Miller 1975, 52). The federal component represents the culmination of increasing official management of agricultural production-a process going back to the first proposals in 1922 and the first Crop Insurance Act of 1938 (which initially was for wheat only) (Myrick 1967). In part the 1938 act was an attempt to reduce the pressure for other forms of official relief by providing farmers with a proportion of their planting

costs of crops which failed. After a period of experimentation, the scheme became generally applicable after 1964 and a new, comprehensive scheme was announced this year (1978) by the Department of Agriculture.

A review in 1967 showed that within the Great Plains, wheat was the main crop federally insured, and that over the period 1939-65, while the northern states (Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas) had a surplus of premium over indemnities, the southern states (Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) had a deficit (indemnity payments greater than the premiums). Specifically 14 "Dust Bowl" counties had amassed a deficit of over $18 million over the (drought) period 1948-1955 (Delvo 1967, 26). For the southern farmers at least, participation seems to have been a paying proposition; indeed, the losses in southeastern Colorado were so large that the scheme was eventually withdrawn (Loftsgard 1967, 44)!

But did crop insurance really "pay" from the farmers' viewpoint? Table 3.7 suggests that for counties at the humid edge of the Plains in central Oklahoma the farmer would have been marginally better off not carrying federal insurance! How far this is more widely true is not certain but may be the cause of some apparent hesitation by farmers at least on the humid edge of the Plains.

What have been farmer attitudes to the schemes? A survey of past and present participants in 1966 found that the reasons for participation ranged from protection for farm capital investment to a favourable personal relationship with the local agent and a requirement for participation by local lending institutions (Loftsgard 1967, 41-46). Significantly, however, in support of Saarinen's findings, the farmers did not see the federal scheme as an indispensable strategy, and the alternative private hail insurance had great appeal. The conclusion was that "most farmers employ a combination of uncertainly precautions rather than depending on one strategy exclusively" (Loftsgard 1967, 44).


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