Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s a haunting picture – a ghostly man wandering on the remains of his devastated farm in Harding County, New Mexico; the landscape and his figure seemingly consumed by dust.
The conditions captured in the 1935 photograph depict what thousands of farmers, ranchers and residents endured across large swaths of the United States during the Dust Bowl, when years of drought and over-farming led to massive dust storms that destroyed towns and ended lives.
Two hours south of that location, in present day Curry County, Spencer Pipkin has been looking at the thousands of bare acres in the area, which leaves him concerned.
Like nearly every part of New Mexico, Curry County has gone through a devastating drought in the past year that has dried out the soil, and made it difficult for farmers and ranchers to survive. Pipkin, a third-generation farmer in the region, said a windy spring could see an influx of dust in the region.
“We could be back in the Dust Bowl situation this spring very easily,” he said. “There’s lots of bare ground out here.”
As a dry land farmer, Pipkin relies on rainfall for the hay crops he sells to local dairy farms. This year, he got only 40% of his average crop yield due to below-average rainfall.
Other farms across the state saw below-average yields and ranchers have been forced to sell off large numbers of their herd after the drought decimated their rangelands, leaving just small clumps of grass and dirt behind.
While it’s still unknown just how dusty the spring will actually be, many scientists agree that New Mexico has become increasingly more dusty in recent years and the state could see an increase in dust storms in the near future.
A study published in the Geophysical Research Letter in October found the number of dust storms in the Great Plains region has increased over the past two decades, due in part to more frequent droughts and agricultural expansion.
The study didn’t include data on New Mexico, but University of Utah Associate Professor Gannet Hallar, who led the team that conducted the study, told the Journal their maps show the southeast corner of the state is seeing similar increases in dust, and especially extreme events such as dust storms.
“When you look at extreme events, that trend increases closer to exactly 10% a year,” Hallar said.
Thomas Gill, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in dust storms in the Southwest, said dust is becoming an increasingly common issue in New Mexico, due mostly to droughts that last longer and longer.
“As drought increases and persists … dust storms become more frequent,” Gill said. “Certainly, the intensity of dust storms is increasing rapidly.”
More dust in the air can lead to problems for farmers and other residents in a given area. The blowing of topsoil can exacerbate crop issues, making it difficult for cropland and rangeland to recover the next year.
Dust can also cause severe health issues. Conditions such as Valley Fever, in which fungi from the dirt enters the body through the lungs, can be debilitating for some people and presents similarly to COVID-19.
Dust storms over major highways also increase the risk of deadly accidents. The Lordsburg Playa, a dried lake in the state’s southwest corner, often blows dust onto Interstate 10 that leads to accidents, including one in 2017 that killed six people.
And the drought, combined with warmer temperatures brought on by climate change, could worsen dust conditions in coming months. State Climatologist Dave DuBois said the current drought shows no sign of easing up, especially with dry wintery conditions in the Southwest.
“There’s a good chance of increased dust storms and nobody’s really noticing,” DuBois said. “But they’re out there.”
‘A traumatic event’
The spring of 1935 was brutal for the residents of northeast New Mexico, particularly in a small farming town called Mills, two hours west of the Dust Bowl’s geographic center in Oklahoma.
Residents saw their way of life upended by a series of blackened dust storms that pummeled buildings and made venturing outside a constant hazard.
“They had weeks and weeks of dust storms, just day after day,” said Geoffrey Cunfer, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who has written about the Dust Bowl in New Mexico. “New Mexico was really in the heart of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.”
The federal government sent Dorothea Lange, who took some of the period’s most famous photographs, to New Mexico to document what was happening. Her photographs show how Mills and other areas had become buried in dirt and how little some residents had left to hang on to.
Some began leaving Mills for good. The bank closed soon after. In a few years, much of the northeast part of the state began losing large numbers of people.
Today, Mills remains largely as a ghost town, its existence noted only by a road sign and post office.
“This was really a traumatic event and kind of a turning point,” Cunfer said. “Those farmers basically just gave up and left.”
Most people impacted by the Dust Bowl stayed, among them the relatives of Rachel Armstrong, whose family has farmed in Curry County since 1906. Her family remembered hanging up blankets to keep out the dust and large piles of dirt sitting in the attic, she said.
But New Mexico has often been left out of the wider Dust Bowl discussion, according to University of New Mexico Professor Jason Smith, partially because of such works as John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” that depict it as a place where people traveled through to escape dust, not where it happened.
“It’s a bit of a reorientation to think of New Mexico as a part of the region hit by the Dust Bowl,” he said, adding that the state has often been forgotten in the cultural legacy of the 1930s.
To help the land recover, the federal government bought back thousands of barren acres from farmers and converted them into national grasslands. Farming practices such as cover crops were implemented to help keep the dust down.
On the economic side, Union County Schools Superintendent Raymond Huff used the Works Progress Administration to employ 60% of local residents to construct new school buildings, even creating furniture and dishes from scratch.
Smith said the Dust Bowl’s lasting impacts on the region can be seen in the big business model the agricultural industry is in, where small farmers find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet each year.
“Farming is an incredibly risky and expensive undertaking,” he said.
‘The importance of soil health’
Many of those interviewed said it’s unlikely New Mexico would see a return to the destruction of the 1930s, given advances in agricultural practices. But soil management has become an increasingly talked about subject in the world of farming as climate change continues to impact water levels and ground conditions.
And some are quick to point out that the effects of poor soil management and dust go beyond farms and the towns that surround them.
“I think the masses and myself … did not realize the importance of soil health,” said Kim Barmann, a rancher based in Cimarron. “I think it’s becoming, not more mainstream, but starting to.”
Barmann said that when soil health fails and crops struggle to produce, it plays a large role in small farming towns becoming ghost towns, an unfortunate reality of rural America’s shrinking presence.
But with the expectation of more dust in the spring, many are hoping cover crops of the previous year will sustain their land until more moisture arrives.
Steve Kaddas, who works with the National Resources Conservation Service in New Mexico, said dust storms are not abnormal in an arid landscape, but that they’re increasing as drought deepens.
He noted that an extended drought makes it more difficult to grow vital cover crops that keep the dirt down and prevent topsoil from blowing away, a potentially devastating reality for farmers and ranchers across the state, and a health risk for others.
For farmers such as Pipkin, whose family has farmed during some of New Mexico’s worst conditions, that creates more risk in an already tenuous business.
“It’s one of those situations, it’s hard to explain to people until you go through it,” he said of the drought. “It’s sad to say, but that’s how you learn farming.”