Watching Ken Burn’s documentary “The Dust Bowl” on PBS this past week, I could not help but feel depressed. I also felt proud that I recently retired from a 34-year career in conservation — that is: “using a resource wisely while protecting it for the next generation”. We can’t excuse the farmers, land speculators, and a government for the horrible land use decisions made from the 1890s to the 1920s in the Southern Plains of this country, but we can admire the struggle of those people to persevere, stay on the land and play their part in healing from the disaster.
President Roosevelt toured the plains with some leaders telling him to just abandon the region and let it go, it wasn’t worth the effort. Roosevelt said he could see in the people’s eyes that they intended to stay and survive. Hugh Hammond Bennett and other visionaries scheduled Congressional Hearings in 1935 on the creation of the Soil Conservation Service. They delayed those hearings to coincide with the day that a dust storm would be blowing through Washington D.C., a storm later termed “Black Sunday.” This single storm moved 800 million tons of soil from the central plains of this country. That storm, and many others, blacked out the sun and deposited several inches of dust on the President’s desk, the halls of Congress, and even on the decks of ships 300 miles off the Atlantic coast. Needless to say, the Soil Conservation Service was formed. Similar storms, called dusters, numbered in the hundreds during the Dust Bowl.
What grew from this decade-long disaster were the world’s models in agricultural and conservation. It grew a system of university researchers looking for better crop varieties, tillage systems and better and safer pesticides. It grew farming organizations asking farmers to join together to share what they learn for the benefit of their neighbors. It also established a conservation agency, now called the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which works through locally established Soil and Water Conservation Districts. These Conservation Districts provided the local support needed to get federal help for the problems local people identified in a way that would benefit the local area so they might individually and collectively become better stewards of the land.
Locally, the farmers in Highland County formed the first Conservation District in Ohio in April, 1942, and The Gallia County Conservation District was formed in December of 1944. The problem here in Ohio and the Corn Belt was not the wind, but the water erosion that was creating gullies so big they could hide a truck and a tractor. The solutions to these problems required local knowledge, and they transformed agriculture across this country, making it a model for the entire world to follow.
In the 1930s, they asked farmers to plow on the contour, to build terraces that held the water, plant over 18 thousand miles of windbreaks to help stop the wind, to leave crop residue on the surface, and yes, to turn the most fragile areas back to their natural state of native prairie grass.
The country made a pact with the American farmer: “We will help pay for the application of conservation practices if you will install them, maintain them and become better stewards of the land.” I am most proud of the fact that all of these programs remain voluntary. As farm groups began to see these conservation systems begin to heal the land, some wanted to even take farms away from producers that didn’t install these practices. They could see that if some did wrong they would all suffer the consequences, but in the end the programs are still voluntary today.
I have played a very small 34-year role in this evolution, and by the time my career began in the late 1970s, we were not seeing these huge forms of erosion. By that time we realized that even very small amounts of erosion were transporting fertilizers and pesticides into our public waters, and we were developing advanced tillage practices that left almost all of the crop residues on the surface. Our agency and university researchers promoted no-till for 20 years before it became the standard used today. Until we perfected chemicals for weed control such as the Round-up we all use today and better no-till equipment, it wasn’t the most economical tillage method to use — today it is. Farmers have less equipment, they spend less fuel by reducing trips over the fields, they target the weeds they have and not every possible weed they might have, and yes, they keep much of the precious water on their fields and out of our road ditches and streams.
Livestock producers rotate their pastures so they don’t simply provide a place for the cattle to graze but manage pastures and let them rest and grow back before regrazing them. They soil test and fertilize the grass to maximize the tons of forage they graze or cut for hay. They fence out streams and good woodlots to protect them from the damage cattle can do, and they let the cattle spread their manure over the entire pasture (as they naturally do) as fertilizer, instead of sending it into our steams as pollution.
The trial and error over the years did bring us some mistakes such as multi-flora rose and autumn olive, with their invasive presence in our pastures and woodlots. Our conservation agencies take grief for introducing these species still today, but these trials improved varieties of apples and berries, cultivated new varieties of trees that form more effective windbreaks, and developed better ways of growing these plants to the benefit of the environment. It all took fight in the effort to recover from “The Dust Bowl.”
As you drive down any road today, you don’t see these huge problems I preface above, but that is because individual farmers have collectively adopted an evolving system of conservation practices to ensure we never suffer through such a disaster again. Also, know that these practices have to be repeated year after year or they become ineffective. They must also be taught to our sons and daughters so they can teach their sons and daughters.
I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s statement during the Battle of Britain that, “Never in the course of human history have so many owed so much to so few.” No, the Dust Bowl was not WWII, but perhaps we owe the best conservation program in the world today to the people of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas who almost destroyed the western prairies of the U.S. Their mistakes prior to the Dust Bowl had to reach almost biblical proportions before we were brought to act.
I am proud of the role that my fellow conservationists play in providing the technical expertise to the American Farmer and the fact that they have collectively taken that knowledge and continue to protect our precious soil and water resources. This allows future generations to continue to reap the benefits of this bounty of food and a clean environment. Lest we ever forget, please take the time to watch the documentary “The Dust Bowl” or read the book by Timothy Eagan, “The Worst Hard Time.” It will be an uncomfortable experience, but one that will be well worth your time.
John Kellis is the Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council.