Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Perspective, folks, perspective

I took a chunk out of my Sunday afternoon to watch a History Channel documentary called "Black Blizzard," recounting the origins and impact of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

It didn't take long for my brow to furrow as deeply as the parched soil yielded to a plow's blade. They had "experts" pontificating that the Dust Bowl was the earth's protest against "abuse" perpetrated by farmers, who should not have plowed up the tallgrass that kept the soil in place when the prairie winds blew.

Apparently, they didn't realize that the Homestead Act required farmers to plow up the soil to meet the terms of the agreement that gave them the 160 acres of land. Technological improvements (better tractors and plows and harvesters) and soaring grain prices brought about by the outbreak of World War I combined to create a period of prosperity farmers had rarely seen.

It gave them the opportunity to significantly improve their quality of life, to indulge in such luxuries as...real homes built of wood or stone....and an automobile to transport the family. In other words, property residents on the coasts took for granted.

Think about that: it took several years of virtually unmatched prosperity for most farmers to reach something near middle class. Yet they were portrayed as greedy. Who wouldn't want to make most of that opportunity, especially after you'd been desperately poor your entire life?

Mind you, not everyone profited to the same extreme: Dad was born in an earthen dugout in the middle of Kansas in 1924, six years after World War I ended. His father had a strong business acumen, which showed itself for decades afterward, but the Roaring '20s weren't a blast for everyone.

Millions of farmers didn't have electricity reach their homes until the Rural Electrification Administration was created during the Great Depression.

There's no question that farming practices contributed significantly to the Dust Bowl, and measures such as shelter belts and no- and low-till crop management had to be adopted to salvage top soil and prevent the choking dust storms that defined the period.

But I was amazed at how much I heard on the show that reflected a striking lack of knowledge and perspective. It reminded me of the kind of chatter that comes from urban think tanks calling for large portions of the western Great Plains to be transformed into prairie preserves allowing buffalo and other wildlife to roam freely under the adoring view of throngs of tourists. Small farms and the rural way of life are dying, so the thinking goes, so let's do something useful with all that land.

Never mind that studies have shown such a measure would result in less revenue than what is currently generated by the farmers, ranchers and townspeople that currently inhabit the targeted land.

Ironic that I never hear anyone calling for small retailers to be shut down and moved out in cities all over the country because Wal-Mart and other large competitors are, we all know, going to drive them out of business anyway. Or do we really know what we think we know?

Too often in that show, folks showed what they didn't know.

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