In a great rush of wind and earth, the dust storm came brutally from the north. It gathered the sand and soil from Steven Anderson's neighbors and dumped it in his cornfield in long drifts that recontoured his irrigated fields. And it stripped the soil from Anderson's own winter wheat, carrying off the green shoots and leaving brown roots behind.
The sandy gusts buried his farm equipment and scoured the paint off his tractor and disker. Drainage ditches nearby were filled with the dirt.
For 24 hours it just kept blowing. It blew the gravel off Road 23, uprooted miles of fencing, and buried miles more under waisthigh drifts of dirt.
The wind lifted tons of topsoil from the wheatfield opposite Edgar Pratt's feedlot and stacked it across the road outside the feedlot fence, suffocating a steer inside.
Before the Feb. 23 dust storm was over, it had damaged 300,000 acres of Kt Carson County cropland, a fourth of the county's total, and destroyed 40,000 acres of winter wheat.
We're talking about awfully poor production for a lot of years, very poor," Bod Croissant, the county extension agent, said. "It removed a heck of a lot of valuable topsoil" - six inches from some fields.
The U.S. soil conservationist here, Vernon J Haas, estimates that some fields underwent 30 years of normal oil loss in 24 hours.
Eastern Colorado has been one of the areas most severely damaged in the 1976-'77 dust storms season. While total wind erosion damage in the Great Plains is down this year compared to last, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota have all experienced more damage than last year. Western Kansas, too, has been hard hit.
In 37 eastern Colorado counties, 900,545 acres of land had been damaged from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28, 242,140 acres of crops were lost and 141,725 acres were tilled to varying degrees to prevent wind damage.
Another 2.2 million acres are listed as "in condition to blow," according to the U.S. Agriculture Department's Soil Conservation Service, and there are taunts of such future havoc: on Wednesday 40-mile winds raised enough dirt to give Burlington, the proud and pleasant little agricultural community, a tawny sky.
While the dust storms here are the children of high-speed winds raking over dry land - Kit Carson is in its fourth year of drought and 12th year of below-normal rainfall - some people say privately that many farmers must share the blame. Forgotten or discarded soil conservation practices by men who know better and the farming of sandy marginal land have contributed.
Yet for the first six years of the 1970s, Kit Carson has averaged less rainfall than during the drought years of the '30s, said Croissant. Normal is 16.8 inches a year; last year the county got 11 inches - 35 per cent less than normal.
Some of the precipitation recorded for this year will be deceptive. On March 11, a late winter blizzard with winds of 100 miles an hour descended on the central Great Plains. Snow stacked in drifts 8, 10 and 12 feet high, and an estimated 6,000 cattle wandered off to die in Kit Carson County. Many still lie protesquesly in the fields and along the back roads waiting for overworked rendering plant crews to remove them.
Had the snow fallen evenly across these dry fields, it would have brought valuable moisture. Instead, it piled against houses, buildings and randomly on roads, fields and the drifts of dirt left by the dust storm. Most of the dry farmland was left uncovered.
Together, the blizzard and the dust storms have visited several million dollars damage on Kit Carson, a county of about 7,600 people whose lives orbit a world of agriculture, mostly wheat and corn with some cattle.
Five years ago, Steve Anderson, 29, and his father, mother and younger brother came here from their farm in central Kansas. "We're beginning to think we went in the wrong direction," said Anderson, who has not harvested wheat since 1974 because of the drought. The dust storm of Feb. 23 devasted his farm.
The blowing dust worked its way into the bales of hay stacked in the farm yard, leaving them unusable as feed for his cattle. The earth was blown out from around the winter wheat on one 300-acre tract, leaving tufts of roots lying on the surface. About half of the 300 acres would be lost, he estimated. "It just left the roots, just blew the dirt right out from around it," Anderson said, fingering the withered shreds. "Just blew her to hard ground."
Then, in his white Ford pickup, he drove across his suffering fields, across the drifts and humps of soft, unseless blowdirt that will have to be worked and reworked with his tractor. "Look at that great big old hump," Anderson said. Irrigation water "aint going to go uphill. It's a mess."
L"Looks like a sand dune, don't it'?' he said at another point.
Passing a drought-bleached grazing area: "That's supposed to be grass. You can't hardly tell what it is.We aren't going to put very many cattle on that."
But the Andersons don't have many cattle to put out any more. Three years ago they had 225 head. Before the March 11 bizzard, they had 80, having thinned the herd because of drought and low prices. The blizzard took 40, and last week at one corner of the field 11 of them lay as they had fallen, caught in barbed wire, twisted in drainage ditches.
"We're just about broke," said Anderson. "We ain't cut any wheat out here in three years. Our banker don't know what to do with us." The family has pinned its hopes on a $120,000 loan Steve may seek from the Farmers Home Administration to buy out part of his father's land and machinery.
He and his father rent 1,600 acres and own 640. They owe the bank $100,000 and the land they own is collateral on $660,000 more. As Steven Anderson looks out over the decimated wheat, he says, with some resignation to hard and maybe impossible times: "The trouble is, even if we hit a crop, $2 a bushel isn't going to help us. We're in debt so much.
"I guess it's the same all over. If the government don't step in and do something quick, I don't know what's going to happen."
The blizzard set back by 3 days the fattening of cattle on Pratt's lot, where he feeds 31 head for other farmers and 400 of his own. But even before the storm he was heavily in debt because of low grain and cattle prices that do not even cover the costs of production.
Two weeks ago, he said, he was $805,000 in debt. How much now? Pratt removed a folded sheet of paper from the left breast pocket of his jean jacket and made a rough subtraction at the bottom of a running column of figures. "$704,000 now," he announced. And by the time Pratt borrows for his spring corn planting and feeding, he will, he said, probably be $1 million in debt. Some $200,000 of that is cattle business losses over three years.
Despite good harvests last year, Burlington bank deposits are down, loan demand is up, and the banks are putting a squeeze on some farmers. Jimmie Jones, a vice president of the First National Bank, said many farmers are now forced to sell their stored corn at deflated prices in order to get loans for planting this year's crops. Others just won't get loans.
Merchants serving the farmers are affected, too. Russ Wilcox, owner of Wilcox Oil and Chemicals whose customers may require $60,000 to $80,000 worth of such goods a year, says he is now carrying some farmers for $30,000. While declining to give a figure, he says his unpaid accounts are up 80 per cent over a year ago.
Extension agent Croissant notes that some farmers will go out of business and that others are well enough off to survive almost regardless. In between are those whose fate turns on rain and market prices.
"These people have lived with the weather for 30, 50 years," says merchant Wilcox, whose grandfather came to Burlington in a wagon in the 1880s. "They'll survive what Mother Nature gives them. The critical part is they can't recover their costs." CAPTION: Picture 1, About 2,000 cattle killed by blizzard and drought at Burlington, Colo., await transport to rendering plants by overworked truckers; 38,000 more are still lying in the wind-whipped fields. By Frank Johnston - The Washington Post; Picture 2, The winter wheat was already up and greening in this field when the windstorm struck last month in Burlington, Colo., and blew the green shoots right off the roots. Now Lawrence Pierson, farmer and cattle rancher, has only dust., Photos by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Grain farmer Edward Pratt, 52, of Burlington, Colo., is $704,000 in debt today and figures he'll owe over $1 million by the time spring planting is done.