A Dust Bowl survivor sees parallels to heat, not hardship

Alan Bjerga / Bloomberg News /

HERMANN, Mo. — Tony Klott remembers pouring water in front of his shoeless feet as a boy so the cracked Dust Bowl ground wouldn’t burn his soles.

His children and grandchildren now live in climate-controlled comfort within an hour’s drive of the Missouri farm where he grew up. Klott, 85 and retired, said the difficulties of living through the drought of 2012 pale in comparison to those of the “Dirty ’30s.”

Last month surpassed July 1936, the depths of the Dust Bowl, as the hottest month on record in the lower 48 states. The Department of Agriculture has declared almost 1,700 counties — about 56 percent of all U.S. counties — as natural-disaster areas caused by a drought that has seared millions of acres of pasture and cropland from Nebraska to Texas. Prices of wheat and corn have risen so much that ranchers have slaughtered cattle to avoid the cost of feeding them.

Klott is among a dwindling number of farmers who experienced the dust storms and poverty of the Dirty ’30s immortalized in “The Grapes of Wrath,” when Plains topsoil blackened skies in New York and red snow fell in New England.

“You have a lot better chance now than you did back then,” Klott said in an interview on the Hermann, Mo., farm where he grew up.

One reason is the federal government: A safety net of subsidies and crop insurance means his family doesn’t face the struggles of his childhood, when failed crops meant going hungry or abandoning farms. Better land management has kept the skies free of the dust storms that defined the era. U.S. farmers have been transformed from subsistence growers to global suppliers.

Tall and serious, with an accent that hints at the German he spoke as a child, Klott remembers exact dates of weather disasters, as well as the routes he served in 21 years as a mail carrier, supplementing his farm income.

“It rained mud” in the 1930s around his childhood home, Klott said in an interview in his current house, near Bowling Green, Mo. His son now farms the surrounding fields of parched soybeans and corn. “Some days it would be as clear as this, but you could hardly see the sun. The sky would just be full of dust.”

The third-eldest of seven children, in a family struggling to feed itself on 160 acres of woods, pasture and crops outside Hermann, Klott was 7 years old in 1934, in an area where farming had changed little from the 19th century.

The Klotts spoke German at home. English, like shoes, was only for school. His mother baked six loaves of bread daily. Sunday dinner featured meat from squirrels they hunted. Electricity and indoor plumbing were for city folk, and education stopped before high school.

Dust Bowl farmers “were doing their work under conditions none of us can quite imagine,” said Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, chairwoman of the history department at Iowa State University in Ames. “Farm women would get up at 2 or 3 in the morning because that was the only time they could churn butter” in cooler air, she said. “To understand what was going on in the ’30s, you have to add a whole other layer of despair and discomfort.”

The U.S. itself was a much poorer, less-educated, more agricultural nation. About a fifth of the labor force worked in farming, compared with less than a 50th today, according to Census data.

This year’s dryness resembles the 1930s in heat and rainfall patterns, said Jason Rosencrans, a meteorologist with the federal Climate Prediction Center. In July, drought covered 57.2 percent of the contiguous 48 states, according to the Palmer Drought Index. In July 1934, the figure was 79.9 percent.

Despite meager rainfall, crop revenues this year will exceed pre-drought estimates as soaring prices offset lower yields, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, forecasting record farm profits of $122.2 billion.

Today’s crop growers also have access to taxpayer-subsidized insurance to help recoup lost sales, a program that may pay out $20 billion this year.

Mule-drawn plows have given way to computer-equipped tractors. Today Klott can escape the heat in the central air conditioning he added to his house in 1995.

“The physical stuff was tougher for them. Now the strain is more mental,” said Joe, one of three of Tony’s five children who still farm. None of his adult grandchildren do.

The current drought is a reminder that farming, then and today, includes risks, and no guarantee of success, he said. People who work hard, who help one another, will make it through.

“Hang in there,” he says, and he smiles.