At first, things seemed wonderful for the sodbusters. Grain brought high prices, due in part to demand generated by World War I. Because the market was so good, more and more acres were planted to grain. This effort was aided in part by the advent of the tractor, allowing more land to be planted than ever before. More people came into the area, hoping to make money quickly by growing grain on an acreage.
On Black Friday in October 1929, much of the American economy began a rapid descent into chaos. At the time, nearly one in four Americans worked on a farm. The collapsing economy meant there was little or no money to buy farm products. In addition, the supply of grain far exceeded market demand. The summer of 1931 produced a record wheat crop. But the market soon put grain prices at 50 percent below what it cost to grow the grain. As if the economy were not enough to strangle sodbusters, the ecological disaster struck.
The area was not called the Great American Desert without reason. Rainfall tended to be cyclic and drought was not uncommon. The 1930s, though, brought a lengthy drought unlike any these people had experienced before. But it wasn't drought that left the land bereft. The weather conditions were simply a crowning blow to human activity.
The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought, no epic siege of frost, no prairie fire, nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done. They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land - thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains.
A 1931 study by an Oklahoma college showed that of the 16 million acres under cultivation in the state, 13 million were seriously eroded. As Egan explains:
And this was before the drought had calcified most of the ground. The erosion was due to a pair of perennial weather conditions on the plains: wind and brief, powerful rain or hailstorms. But it was a third element — something new to the prairie ecosystem — that was really to blame, the college agriculture experts reported: neglect. Farmers had taken their machines to the fields and produced the biggest what crops in history, transforming the great grasslands into a vast medium for turning out a global commodity. And then they ditched it.
Put simply, the drought merely provided further insult to seriously eroded soil. The prairie grasses were nature's refinement for the plains, literally holding the land in place while able to survive high winds and low rainfall. Without those prairie grasses, dust storms replaced thunderstorms and blizzards. Millions and millions of acres literally took to the sky. On at least two occasions, storms that started in the plains darkened skies on the east coast, including New York City and Washington, with dust to the point street lights came on.