All of North Dakota is abnormally dry, and parts of the state are in extraordinary drought. This isn’t a new experience for North Dakota, but this drought feels different, and I don’t think it’s the rain that’s falling as I write on Father’s Day morning. I think it’s a change in the psyche of the state.
North Dakota is better placed to withstand drought today. The economy has diversified, and the state has grown richer. Instead of despair at the prospect of drought, there’s optimism about the state’s economy.
Of course, there will be suffering. Drought is the meanest of weather phenomena on the Northern Plains, and it is meanest to farmers. There are fewer farmers now than the last time a prolonged drought hit the state, in the late 1980s, and the state is much less dependent on agriculture for its prosperity, though farms still produce a lot of it.
In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s just about every North Dakotan had a direct connection to a farm operation. That lessened by the time that the “Statehood Drought” struck. I use the term because the drought occurred in the late 1980s, coinciding with preparations for the Statehood Centennial in 1989. Drought pretty much sucked the joy out of the centennial celebration. The Herald printed several special editions about the history and the possible future of North Dakota. They were unanimously downbeat.
George Sinner was governor then, and even he was a pessimist. We journalists called him “Governor Chicken Little” or, alternatively, “Gov. Gloom and Doom.” The oil industry collapsed in the early '80s, leaving the state with less money than it needed – a situation that recurred in 2015 but has been largely banished now by the establishment of a Legacy Fund built on oil tax revenues.
Of course, the Dust Bowl was very much worse. Mary Ann Low chronicled those years in “Dust Bowl Diary.” It was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1984 – half a century after Low left the farm in northern Stutsman County for Jamestown College.
North Dakota’s other Dust Bowl classic is “The Bones of Plenty” a novel by Lois Phillips Hudson. It was first published in 1962. Like Low, Hudson grew up in Stutsman County, and like Low’s diary, Hudson’s story is as gritty as a dust storm.
The Thirties were a turbulent time in the state’s politics; the state had four governors in six months. The best remembered is William Langer, known as “Wild Bill,” who took extraordinary steps, including an embargo on grain exports from the state and a moratorium on farm foreclosures.
My drought memories don’t go back that far, but I heard endless stories about the Dust Bowl from my parents, who were married in July 1933. They had endless stories about the drought, including heart-rending tales about the loss of cattle and horses. Dad claimed that in the first winter of his marriage he had only a dime to spend – the bounty from his trapline – and he carried it in his pocket all winter.
Unable to make a living from the land, Dad turned to rearranging it. For several years, he worked on WPA projects. When I was a youngster, he’d load the family in the car and take us to visit the parks and dams he helped to build, many of which are under water now – victims of the Garrison Dam, an artifact of a different age.
Both of these drought events left the state deeply scarred.
This time, however long the drought lasts, the state is likely to emerge with much less damage.
The state is very much different today. The economy is bigger, broader and more diverse than it was, both in predictable and in unexpected ways. The oil boom was predictable, even though it has proved unreliable; a downturn in oil prices caused a state budget crisis in 2015. Colleges and universities still haven’t recovered completely from the cuts made then.
Ag and oil are no longer alone in contributing to the state’s economy. An astonishing innovation boom has taken place in the state. Grand Forks provides a good example. At last week’s Economic Development Corporation meeting, Keith Lund, the director, said 1,200 jobs associated with unmanned aircraft have been added here, many of them affiliated with the Grand Sky Initiative, which itself arose in times of trouble, when Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its air refueling mission. Twenty-three companies have started, expanded or relocated to Grand Forks, from established multinationals to startups.
The theme of the annual meeting was “Resilient and Rising.”
Here are statistics he presented to support the theme: Since 2010, residents of the county in their 30s grew 21%, more than double the national rate, and the number of children under age 15 grew 10%. Nationally, that group declined by 10%.
Rain gave me hope as I wrote this on Sunday morning. Could this be the rain that breaks the drought?
But it wasn’t only the rain that buoyed my spirits.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.