When we see bags of flour on the shelves and fresh vegetables at the farmer’s market, we do not consider the preciousness of their presence, but the truth is that our food faces daily fights just for survival. Fortunately, today we have special fertilizers, pesticides, and other preventions and protections that keep our food crops alive and healthy. There have been times throughout America’s history, however, when our crops lost the battle for survival.
Here are five stories about true crop disasters from the past; some of them you may or may not know, but each reveals the great impact that the disaster had on American families.
1.) Potato Blight
It was the height of summer in 1946 when farmers across the eastern United States dared not hold their breath in hopes of their tomato plants surviving the week. Blight. For such a simple word, it had bred terror in the minds of farmers ever since the first disaster in the mid-1800s. The conditions were perfect for the spread of the blight. Usually, folks across the States would be rejoicing for relief from scorching heat of summer, but the moist, warm air was the desire of the dreaded blight, who loved such conditions. Was it possible that there could be another blight as fearsome as the one that had sent thousands of immigrants to America no more than 100 years ago…?
That summer of 1946, more than half of the tomato crops in the eastern United States were destroyed by the late blight. The same blight, a disease of potato and tomato plants caused by a water mold, was the same blight that had hit America in 1844. It turned potatoes to a mushy substance that made them inedible. The next year, the same blight struck Ireland, destroying half of its potato crop, followed by another attack in 1846, wiping out nearly the entire crop. With a third strike in 1847, Ireland was facing the most severe famine it had ever seen, resulting in a loss of 25% of its population, about 2 million people. Half of that number died of starvation and diseases, and the other half escaped the horrific experience by leaving Ireland, many of them coming to the United States for relief.
2.) Wheat Disaster
The Civil War was not the only disaster happening in America during the 1860s. Wisconsin, who was a major supplier of wheat (providing one-sixth of the wheat supply) in the United States, suddenly faced a disaster in wheat production. The culprit was a fungal disease known as wheat rust. Tiny insects, called chinch bugs, also added to the depletion of the wheat crops by sucking out plant juices while injecting a chemical that clogs the plant’s vascular system. The effect was a disaster for the Wisconsin wheat production.
Because wheat was a cash crop for Wisconsin farmers, these farmers had to come up with new ideas for production. Despite the wheat failure, good did come from the disaster. Farmers were forced to try different crops for profit. This led to a boom in the cranberry industry across the state, as well as ventures in the tobacco and dairy industries among others. So the next time you enjoy a thick slice of Wisconsin Cheese, you can probably thank the wheat rust and chinch bugs that brought on the wheat disaster…and Wisconsin’s industrial revolution.
3.) Boll Weevil
Today, if you drive through downtown Enterprise, Alabama, your nose is taken hostage by the alluring scent of fresh peanuts. The smell is a comforting smell—like hot apple pie on a cold winter day. However, the town has not always smelt of peanuts. As a matter of fact, peanuts were not even harvested in the area until the early 1900s when the farmland’s cotton crops were swarmed with the boll weevil. The boll weevil, a beetle-like insect whose larvae feed on the cotton plant, originated in Mexico and began it destruction in Texas in the last 1800s. It made its way across the cotton belt, feeding on the plant and killing crops in its path. In 1915, it hit Alabama, destroying 60% of Coffee County’s cotton crop.
Just as the wheat disaster in Wisconsin brought new industries to the state, the same result occurred in Alabama. The severity of the cotton losses caused Alabama farmers to turn to other crops, including peanuts. By 1917, Coffee County produced and harvested more peanuts than any other county in the nation. The effect was so stimulating that a monument was erected in honor of the pest—in fact, the world’s only monument dedicated to a pest. The Boll Weevil Monument is standing today in the center of downtown Enterprise as a constant reminder of the crop disaster and its rather positive outcome.
4.) Grasshopper Swarm
The sky was suddenly darkened; the sound of thousands and thousands of tiny wings reverberating across the plains sounded like helicopters landing. It was like the day when Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt…almost. The same horror felt by the Egyptian population was experienced by the people across the American heartland when on July 26, 1931, grasshoppers swarmed crops across the Midwest, destroying millions of acres.
Swarms such as this, though fairly common in areas of Africa and the Middle East, are rarely seen in America. The grasshopper swarm of 1931 occurred in dry drought conditions. The grasshoppers were so thick that they did indeed block out the sun, and they could even be scooped with a shovel. Crops were destroyed as plants were eaten to the ground, leaving the fields completely bare. Fortunately, the United States has not experienced such a disaster since the 1930s.
5.) Dust Bowl
The 1930s was probably one of the most disastrous times that America has ever seen. Not only did the Great Depression hit, but the United States also experienced natural disasters as well, and one of the worst was the Dust Bowl. Contrary to its name’s implications, the Dust Bowl was not a piece of decorative table dinnerware made of dirt. The Dust Bowl is the name given to the area of the United States that was devastated by horrendous dust storms that destroyed crops and sent millions of people seeking relief.
How did this tragedy happen? Well, the drought that began in 1934 and lasted through 1937 had made the soil loose and weak. As winds began sweeping across the plains, they merely scooped up the dirt as they went, transforming into dense wind storms known as “black blizzards.” The dust storms swept across 150,000 square-miles, including parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. They destroyed cattle and pasturelands and forced out a good 60 percent of the population of that region.
These stories really can instill a greater appreciation for the food that sits on our tables. Despite the struggles that go into planting and keeping crops growing, we still are blessed to have what we do. These are just a few of the stories that have marked the lives of American families throughout the history of our strong country, but they are good reminders of the disasters our ancestors have faced and the true American spirit with which they faced them.