February 2013
Farm & Field

How Soil Conservation Saved the Farm

And Changed the Face of Southern Farming

Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s recent account of how soil conservation practices saved Midwestern farming in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl is both highly informative and inspiring.

Now for the rest of the story: Soil conservation changed the face of Southern farming and probably saved it, too.

Even as early as the late 19th century, some agricultural researchers at Southern universities already perceived farmers were working with soil resources that could be severely depleted if not properly managed.

One of them was famed researcher John F. Duggar, who worked at what was then known as the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He began laying the groundwork for what we know today as sustainable agriculture.

"His (Duggar’s) premise was that we could sustain cotton production by following a few simple practices — rotating crops, keeping the land covered in winter," said Dr. Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils. "(That) underscored that so long as land remained productive we could sustain agricultural production."

As Duggar was fond of saying, "Agriculture will come into its own when her fields are green in winter."

Unfortunately, few farmers then were heeding the calls of Duggar and other conservation-minded scientists. By the 1930s, the proverbial chickens came home to roost in the Midwest. A decade-long drought was made worse by farming practices paying little heed to the environment.

Precious topsoil that had accumulated over centuries crumbled in the summer heat and was blown hundreds of miles by brisk prairie winds.

Eventually, the worsening effects of this Dust Bowl drove about 25 percent of the population of the Great Plains states off their farms — an environmental catastrophe explored by Burns in "The Dust Bowl."

The Deep South, blessed with plentiful rainfall, escaped the Dust Bowl’s effects. Even so, plowing was eroding topsoil at an alarmingly rapid rate and, much like in the Midwest, was exacting an immense environmental toll.

Instead of being blown into the wind, topsoil in the South was washed by ample rains into lakes, rivers and streams. After more than a century of row-crop agriculture, much of the state’s soil had settled at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Dust Bowl forced policymakers to see the nation’s soil reserves in a new way: As a national security issue, because, without adequate reserves, the nation couldn’t sustain farming.

"Over time you lose your productivity and your ability to feed yourself not only as a person but as a state and country," said Dr. William Puckett, director of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Alabama.

The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service, was established in 1935 to provide farmers incentives to preserve eroding topsoil.

Alabama and other Southern states turned out to be the indirect beneficiaries of the national response to the Dust Bowl crisis.

Puckett said, from the beginning, his agency has operated on the principles of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the pioneer of soil conservation and the first Soil Erosion Service administrator, who always emphasized that direct interaction between a farmer and a government employee was typically not the best way to propagate good soil conservation practices. Instead, soil conservation districts were organized to serve as an intermediary between farmers and the agency employees, underscoring that soil conservation efforts represented as much an innovation in thinking as it did in technology.

Burn’s documentary has provided Puckett and other conservation advocates with an opportunity to remind 21st century Americans of the myriad ways conservation practices that grew out of the Dust Bowl crisis literally have changed the face of the country.

Perhaps no other natural event in recent times underscored the value of soil conservation more than the severe drought of 2012. Despite one of the driest summers on record, U.S. farmers produced more corn and other crops in 2012 than they did in the 1980s.

Puckett said the effects of these advances are plainly visible today — almost 80 years later.

"One thing I like to tell people is that if they take a Sunday afternoon drive with the family, they will see the mark of conservation efforts wherever they go," he said.

James Langcuster is a Specialist III in Communications & Marketing-Department with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.