Carney: Brief history of U.S. conservation
Our current system of soil and water conservation district offices in every county in Iowa came as a direct result of the passion and drive of the first administrator of what is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Hugh Hammond Bennett.
Bennett, a farmer from North Carolina where the construction of terraces was the primary erosion reduction practice in the 1920s, became convinced that vegetation and improvements in soil tilth were a more economical way to reduce soil erosion. Bennett established demonstration projects across the country to illustrate and test farming methods that improved soil quality and reduced erosion.
The economic depression and the drought of the 1930s that resulted in the Dust Bowl, prompted the United States government to invest more money and manpower into this effort which was led by Bennett. In 1935, he became the administrator of the Soil Conservation Service, which was charged with the protection of the land. The concept of the farmer and the soil conservation technician working together to write a conservation plan for each farm was developed and the current system of voluntary, incentive based conservation began.
During the 1940s, conservation districts were established across the United States. The districts were approved by ballot and run by local farmers, elected soil and water district commissioners. There was a lot of momentum for conservation at the time with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stating, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Nearly 75 years later, the districts are still carrying out their mission to protect the water, land, and air for all of our citizens. The name of the federal agency overseeing districts was changed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, in 1994 to better reflect this mission.
As economic pressures to produce increasing quantities of food, feed, and fuel grow, producers sometimes forget the lessons of the 1930s. Modern farming technologies have reduced the need for tillage, which is the single largest cause of soil erosion. Incentive payments are available to help producers try new practices, such as no-till and cover crops, and there are a wide variety of programs to protect vulnerable lands.
As Hugh Hammond Bennett stated, “Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.”