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Editor’s Notebook

Aug. 8, 2006. It tried to rain again yesterday. I even put out a measuring cup, hoping to determine, scientifically, how much precipitation fell. I needn’t have bothered.

It was a political rain: a lot of promises, a lot of loud noise, a light show and no meaningful results.

I did read this morning that July goes down as the second hottest in U.S. history, bested only by 1936, during the Dustbowl. Jim Shrefler, a reader in Oklahoma, made that connection in an e-mail yesterday. He quoted the following from our August 3 posting:

“The drive from Denton, Texas, to Olustee, Okla., takes about four hours, mostly through the Rolling Plains, an area where farmers plant significant acreage in dryland cotton....”

He added this observation: “Sounds like a story from a few decades back in Dustbowl times!”

Excellent point. The weather this summer, throughout the Sunbelt and across the Midwest, the heart of U.S. agriculture, resembles the devastating heat and drought that ruined many good farms and many good farmers during the 1930s. But we no longer see the wind-ravaged acreage that turned so much productive farmland into a giant sandbox. We’ve learned much about conservation since then. Conservation Reserve Program plots hold erodible soil in place. Terracing, stubble planting, conservation tillage and efficient irrigation also diminish potential for Dustbowl conditions.

Farmers don’t use sodbuster plows as much as they did back in the 1930s. Technology allows them to plant and harvest with as few as one or two trips across the fields.

In the process they save soil, conserve moisture and spend less money on energy, equipment and labor. I can’t remember talking to a farmer in the past decade who was not doing something to reduce the number of trips across a field.

If John Steinbeck were alive today, he’d find few Oklahoma farmers willing to pack up and trek across country to pick peaches in California. And thousands of school kids would miss The Grapes of Wrath.

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