The red land of Oklahoma agriculture carries the true lore of Route 66 in its 350 miles along the Mother Road that opens up to the open Southern Plains.
The Joad family from “Grapes of Wrath” was immortalized as the “Okies” who fled a Depression-era farmstead for life as migrant workers in California. Route 66 was the migrant road used for people to escape their poverty.
The Joads were from Sallisaw in Steinbeck’s fiction, about 90 miles south of Route 66. The days of mass migration out of the Plains appear gone, but Oklahoma farmers are trying to recover from another major drought — and appear to be seeing signs of hope.
DUST BOWL DAYS
Agricultural depression actually hit Oklahoma hard before the 1930s and the documented Dust Bowl. By the mid-1920s, the Daily Oklahoman wrote in disdain about migrant farmers, or “carpetbaggers” who agreed to crop a piece of land for a year or two, and then move on to other ground. The Dust Bowl, however, sent a shock through the region that redefined economic hardship on the Southern Plains.
“The Dust Bowl drastically changed that part of Oklahoma where I lived, and southwest Kansas and the Texas Panhandle,” said Pauline Hodges, a retired teacher and historian, who was a researcher for Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired last year. “It changed that area more than any other event, ever. It changed it in terms of population, but more importantly it changed how people farmed and viewed the land and the water.”
Her family originally came from Missouri, but moved to Beaver County, Okla., in the Panhandle for the chance to farm more land.
“For 10 years they had bumper wheat crops,” she said. “They had the farm half paid for. Then, for 10 years you couldn’t grow anything — anything. Well, maybe you could grow Russian thistles, but that’s about it. So eventually the bank foreclosed and we lost everything.”
Hodges’ dad was lucky enough to get a job with the Works Progress Administration to help build Route 64 and Route 83 up through Kansas. Route 64 went right by her family’s house. It also was a migratory road. “The migrants to California would stop every day and ask for food. My mother would feed them. Sometimes it was just bread and butter, but she never turned anybody down.”
GOING WHERE THE JOBS ARE
At the height of the Dust Bowl, as many as 300,000 Oklahomans left the state. Some panhandle counties saw their population cut in half. While a significant number saw opportunity in the journey to California, more people migrated to larger cities in the region.
“The greatest migrant streams were into nearby cities, because if you are going to look for a job, why go all the way to California when you can go to Oklahoma City and work in the packing plant where your farm skills will work?” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Yet, the exodus of people along the road also helped others survive. First, camps formed up and down the highway. Then, Route 66 filled up with motels, gas stations and hamburger stands that grew throughout towns along the route even as farmers across the Midwest and Plains were facing foreclosure and forced to look for work elsewhere.
FAST FORWARD TO RECENT DROUGHT
Since the most recent drought began in 2010, farmers in Oklahoma and the Southern Plains have seen production numbers for crops such as wheat fall to levels not seen since the drought of the 1950s. This year produced the most disappointing winter wheat crop in Oklahoma since 1957. Harvest was cut in half with yield declining statewide from 31 bushels an acre last year to 17 bushels per acre this year. Production fell to 51 million bushels. The yield and production were actually worse than 2011 production, which was 74.8 mb. The 1957 crop produced 43 mb.
Randy Martin and Aaron Base went to college together at Oklahoma State University, but farm about 240 miles apart. The two farmers have weathered the difficulties of the drought.
Martin, 38, from Afton in northeast Oklahoma, grows corn, wheat, soybeans and hay. This summer, Martin said he has been getting just enough rain to get through. “We have been through three years of really bad corn,” Martin said. “When I say bad, I mean 10 to 40 bushels. It’s been bad.”
Martin’s corn mainly goes to the large poultry industry in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. His soybeans go to the shipping terminal in Catoosa, Okla., and eventually into the Mississippi export terminals.
“I don’t know if we are making any more money right now with these higher prices when your input prices are higher right now as well,” Martin said.
Martin also lives right on Route 66, which can be difficult at times because of frequent motorcycle tours. While local communities seek to draw tourism, Martin said that makes it hard to manage farm work and move machinery up and down the road. “They are always in the way,” he said. “It’s getting worse all the time.”
Base, who turns 40 later in August, is a fourth-generation farmer whose family settled near Geary in west-central Oklahoma in the early 1900s. Base mainly raises wheat, cattle and hay, but he also grows winter canola and some sorghum. Base has integrated canola to develop a more diverse rotation, which can be a challenge on dryland acres.
“Most of our problems out here just stem from monocultures,” he said. “The rotation traditionally has been winter wheat with summer fallow to graze it off.”
Oklahoma farmers grow 250,000 acres of canola, mainly in the central and western parts of the state. That’s still about 1 million acres fewer than in North Dakota, but Oklahoma now is second in canola production nationally. There also is a curb appeal to canola.
“In western Oklahoma, if you hit the right spot at the right time of year, these canola fields are absolutely beautiful,” Blackburn said. “It looks like an ocean. It’s prettier than the tulip fields in Holland at the right time of year. That’s a fairly new phenomenon because you would not have seen that five years ago. Now there is a market for it and farmers are going to go where the market is.”
Canola, however, is not a crop that you can graze in the winter compared to wheat. The cattle simply don’t care for canola. Canola also had a bad year, dropping from $12 a bushel down to $9. “There was a lot of winter kill in the canola and it just never rained,” Base said. “I thought my canola was going to be better than my wheat, but this year it turned out different. It was a difficult year for the canola, but we need it to break up the monoculture.”
While the wheat crop was poor, most of Oklahoma has actually seen some relief this summer. Scattered rains and a cooler-than-normal June and early July have eased some concerns. The U.S. Drought Monitor has improved dramatically for Oklahoma since mid-May. Last week’s USDA Crop Progress report rated topsoil moisture as 11% very short, 26% short, 60% adequate and 3% surplus. Crop and pasture conditions are improving as well. USDA rated Oklahoma pasture and range as 53% good to excellent and only 17% poor to very poor.
Wheat harvest also took longer than expected because areas of Oklahoma weren’t getting the normal hot, dry heat that normally arrives in mid-June. Martin said the unseasonable cloudy, cool conditions in June caused higher moisture levels in the wheat. His yields, though, were good, averaging over 60 bpa.
Base said his own wheat yield was in the 30s: “Overall, it was kind of a surprise it was as good as it was.”
LOOKING AT LIVESTOCK
With drought appearing to ease, farmers are looking more at opportunities from the high cattle prices. That includes boosting hay acreage in the state as well. While USDA shows overall hay acres declined about 1% nationally, Oklahoma added 380,000 acres of hay production this year, the most of any state.
Base also has 80 pairs of cattle. With the price of grain going down and price of cattle going up, a lot of producers are thinking about putting more emphasis on his livestock operation, but he is cautious about expansion.
“I run a lower stocking rate and I don’t have to feed them as much hay that way,” he said.
Winter wheat fields traditionally in parts of Oklahoma have been used for grazing cattle over winter, but that dropped off during the drought. Base expects to see that rebound if the moisture is there to sustain the wheat crop.
“A lot of cattle would come to this part of the country to graze,” Base said. “There was a lot of that going on. You got paid on the gain and a lot of cattle would come from across the country. That has slowed somewhat. To really have good grazing wheat you have got to get it in early.”
Martin’s dad and brother run a 120-head dairy as well. He, however, prefers raising beef and has a 100-head cattle herd. He would like to expand the herd, but he notes, “It’s hard to keep heifers with the prices where they are.”