This summer’s drought has been one for the record books, but how does it stack up historically?
Near Crookston, Minn., Tim DuFault recalls producing paltry crops in 1988: a cornfield that yielded just 3 bushels per acre and a barley field that went 20 bushels per acre. The corn yield was about 100 bushels per acre below average, and the barley yield was less than a third of what it should have been, DuFault said.
So far in 2021, farmers have been unable to stop topsoil, propelled by 40-plus mph winds, from going airborne and piling up in roadside ditches adjacent to their fields. And as dry conditions dominate the summer of 2021, comparisons are being made — with good reason — to the droughts that have secured a place in the region’s history.
As of Sunday, July 4, North Dakota’s topsoil conditions were rated 76% very short to short, and subsoil supplies were 81% short or short, according to National Agricultural Service-North Dakota. The situation was similar In Minnesota, where topsoil conditions for the week ending July 4 were rated 78% short or very short, and subsoil supplies were 73% short of very short, National Agricultural Statistics Service-Minnesota said.
Scientifically, the way droughts are defined has changed during the past century, yet the way people recall them remains the same. They use words like “hot,” “windy” and “dirty,” when asked what it was like living and farming during historically dry times. The soil was “parched,” they recall, and the fine particles resembled “flour.”
Dust storms, like this one in 1937 in Williams County, N.D., were a common sight in the Dirty Thirties. (Photo: Farm Security Administration)
“The dust was everywhere,” said Thompson, who was nicknamed “Pud” as a child by her father because she loved to eat pudding. Now 94, she refuses to tell people her given name because she dislikes it “so much.”
Born on May 30, 1927, in Fertile Township, Walsh County, N.D., Thompson recalls the dirt in the air on some days during the 1930s was so thick that she could barely see the barn that was just across the farmyard.
“The men always had purple handkerchiefs tied over their noses so they could breathe,” she said.
Clouds of grasshoppers blocked the sun.
“I remember my dad going outside and he said ‘look up.’ The sky was full of grasshoppers,” Thompson said.
The number of grasshoppers grew during the ’30s as they feasted on crops and stripped trees of their leaves. At the same time, water supplies shrunk.
“We lived along the Park River, and it completely dried up,” Thompson said.
The farm home Thompson lived in with her parents and three siblings didn’t have running water, so one of her jobs was to draw water from the well, pour it into two buckets — her mother told her to carry one on each of her young shoulders to even out the weight — and haul them to the house.
That water, which she poured into the reservoirs of the cookstove, was for cooking use. Water that collected in the cistern and snow that melted and pooled in puddles was used for washing clothes.
“Water was a precious commodity, then,” she said.
The lack of rain stunted pasture growth, so Thompson’s father grazed the cows in the ditches along their farmstead to supplement their feed. Thompson and her siblings were tasked with sitting astride Sugar, their sorrel and white pony, to keep tabs on the cattle. Their father insisted they ride the pony bareback because he didn’t want the saddle to add to its discomfort on the blazing hot days.
“All morning, one of us would watch the cattle to make sure they didn’t go into the corn or into one of the neighbor’s ditches,” Thompson said.
Idle and broken machinery, like this, which was on the farm of E. Gorder in Williams County, N.D., in 1937, was scattered across the Great Plains as farmers left their homes to seek jobs in the West. (Photo: Farm Security Administration)
Though rainfall was scant and her dad’s wheat crops and prices were poor during the 1930s, the Thompsons never worried about having enough to eat because they owned the cows and other livestock, she said.
“We had chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, sheep and cows. Grandpa was a butcher,” she said. “When it was butchering time in the fall, it was for three days.”
No parts of the animals went to waste, she said, and neither did anything else on the farm. Newspaper and magazine pages were used to keep dirty boots off of the floor. Strings that fastened packages were added to the ever-growing string ball. Her father cut trees, which he later split, to fuel the wood stove.
“It was so cold at night in ’36 that he stayed up the whole night to keep the stove going,” Thompson said.
Different effects 50 years later
Crookston, Minn., farmer Tim DuFault, shown June 22, 2021, preparing his bins for an early harvest, thinks this year’s wheat crop may be similar to the crops of drought-plagued 1988-89. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Five decades later, in 1988, another memorable drought plagued the region. By then, the advent of electricity and running water reduced the physical discomfort on farm families. New farming methods and agricultural technology also had radically changed. Though farmers, ranchers and the agricultural business community suffered financial losses, the effects of that drought were different.
For example, because many farmers today use no-till or minimum-till methods and seed their crops with an air drill instead of a press drill, they typically don’t work the land several times in the spring before the crop is planted, DuFault said. The modern planting methods help conserve moisture, so his crop got off to a good start this spring, despite below-average rainfall the previous eight months.
Lately, though, DuFault’s crops have suffered as hot, dry weather continues to hold a grip on northwest Minnesota and North Dakota. While the chances for rain sometimes look promising on the radar, the clouds fail to drop any moisture, DuFault said. Either the rain peters out before the rain gets to his farm or the clouds head elsewhere, he said.
The record hot temperatures, strong winds and continued dry conditions will show in DuFault’s spring wheat fields. The weather conditions stressed the crop, pushing it to mature a few weeks earlier than it should have. As a result, yields likely will be, at best, average.
Besides low yields, insect infestations are another potential problem. Though he’d rather forget them, DuFault has vivid memories of the grasshopper infestation of 1988.
“That’s when we started having a lot of grasshoppers around here,” he said.
“If you went out to the field to check it, the grasshoppers were jumping at you, and you’d see army worms.
Spraying and successive wet years brought the insects under control, but DuFault is concerned that this year’s drought could result in a repeat of 1988.
“I’m hoping we don’t have that problem,” he said.
For Morris Davidson, a retired agricultural Extension agent in Grand Forks County, the drought of 1988 was notable because of the hot weather that accompanied it.
The heat was intense, he said. In 1988, like this year, the wheat was short and didn’t “tiller,” or grow additional shoots off of the main stem, so yields were poor.
Retired Grand Forks County agent Morris Davidson recalls that during the drought of 1988-89 the county’s crop test plots were so poor that they weren’t even harvested. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
In fact, the Grand Forks County wheat test plot was such a disaster during the 1988 drought that it wasn’t worth harvesting because the data from analyzing the varieties wouldn’t have contributed much to research, Davidson said.
In some ways, this year’s drought is more severe than the ’88 drought, DuFault said. The fall of 1987 was wet, he recalls. This past spring, at least in the northern Red River Valley, was not.
“This year, we were dry going into the year,” DuFault said. Since April, his farm has received only an additional 3.35 inches of rain.
“It’s bone dry,” he said.
There are similarities between the things people recall about droughts and how they affected their families, crops and livestock. But the way the droughts are defined has changed during the past century.
In 1988, for example, the Palmer Drought Severity Index was used to quantify the drought. Since 2000, the U.S. Drought Monitor — produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department — has been used to determine drought severity.
Because an across-the-board drought definition isn’t available, the duration of the drought is a reasonable, if not totally scientific, way to measure severity.
The longest drought, of course, is the drought that began in 1930 and lasted until 1941.
Although that drought often was referred to as a single event, there were at least four different droughts during those 12 years, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. They occurred in 1930-31, 1934, 1936 and 1939-40, the center said. Because the dry periods occurred in such quick succession, the regions that were affected weren’t able to recover before another drought began.
During that time, crops were devastated by lack of moisture, and if there was anything left, it was decimated by grasshoppers. Farmers and their families left their homes in droves, often heading to the West in search of work.
People who remained on the farm dealt with blinding dust storms, clouds of grasshoppers and damaged crops that sometimes yielded nothing.
The 1930s drought began to wane in the spring of 1938, the National Drought Mitigation Center said. Most of the United States was receiving near normal rainfall by 1941.
Another drought hit the region in the 1950s, followed by the four-year drought that began in 1988.
Meanwhile, federal disaster relief and crop insurance programs have eased the financial impacts that result from crop losses.
It’s too early to tell how the drought of 2020-21 will compare to the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s droughts. Some things this year, like blowing dirt, damaged crops and a shortage of pasture grass, hint at those historic droughts. Those things, no doubt, will cause financial hardships this year for farmers and ranchers.
The days of carrying water from wells, or scrounging water from drying puddles and cisterns, are over, however.
Some 70 years after Thompson and her family endured the drought of the 1930s, she feels blessed to live on her farm in a home with running water and an environment that is controlled by the turn of a dial. She enjoys visits from her seven children, 13 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
“I am the luckiest woman in the world, really,” Thompson said.