The Soil Conservation Act of 1935 played a key role in stemming the desertification and topsoil loss in depression-era America.
Let's take a closer look at this forward-thinking legislation; why was it introduced, who was behind it, and was it a success?
What Was The Soil Conservation Act?
The Soil Conservation Act was formed to combat soil erosion and protect our land resources. It was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 27, 1935, as part of his New Deal initiative in response to the Great Depression.
The legislation emphasized the need for soil conservation and provided compensation to farmers who planted crops like legumes that helped slow the loss of topsoil and promoted soil health over industrial farms that employed harmful practices.
It also established the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), a permanent USDA agency dedicated to evaluating soil conservation and devising flood plans.
The agency is now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) after a name change in 1994.
Why Was The Soil Conservation Act Introduced?
The Soil Conservation Act was formed following the events of the Dust Bowl in the early 1930s.
Many farmers across the Midwest were impacted by a series of dust storms that damaged the Great Plains, ultimately leading to a severe drought and food shortage. Over two million families were left homeless, and thousands of livestock were left starved due to a lack of grass during this six-year period.
The Dust Bowl also caused an irreparable loss of topsoil, the upper outermost layer of the earth’s surface.
Image: 1930' Dustbowl. Credit Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Digital Archives
Topsoil is quintessential for growing our food and, unfortunately, was (and still is) disappearing at an alarming rate. On Black Sunday alone, the worst dust storm that occurred on April 14, 1935, approximately three million tons of topsoil were blown away.
While we could not have foreseen thunderstorms or a nationwide economic depression, the erosion crisis may have been avoided with proper farming systems in place.
The Importance of soil cannot be underestimated; it has a vibrant underground ecosystem with microorganisms and plant roots that capture atmospheric carbon and feed us all daily. Hence why we need to prioritize soil health in our farming practices. Since no one wanted to experience the harmful effects of the Dust Bowl again, the Soil Conservation Act was enacted in 1935.
However, soil conservation came into question again in the late 1970s, leading to the development of the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) of 1977. This legislation promised to monitor soil trends and develop conservation programs. It is a tad vaguer but leaves room for the federal government to step in and implement necessary soil conservation programs.
Who Was Responsible For The Soil Conservation Act?
Hugh Hammond Bennett, also known as the “father of soil conservation,” played a significant role in the formation of The Soil Conservation Act. He had seen the harmful effects of soil erosion throughout his career as a surveyor for the USDA Bureau of Soils.
Image: Hugh Hammon Bennet - the Father of Soil Conservation
Bennett was among the first to speak out on the erosion crisis, writing influential publications like his 1928 USDA circular entitled “Soil Erosion: A National Menace.” His work inspired congress and, eventually, President Roosevelt to take action.
Unlike some past U.S. Presidents, FDR’s administration prioritized environmental issues like soil erosion with his New Deal policies.
After witnessing the events of the Dust Bowl first-hand, it was impossible to ignore the damage done to our soil. So, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935 was born.
What Are Soil Conservation Districts?
Image: Dust bowl refugees, Nov. 1935, Courtesy: Library of Congress
As part of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, the SCS formed soil conservation districts comprised of community members and state representatives.
They aim to spread awareness regarding soil erosion issues, implement organic farming practices, restore wetlands, protect groundwater resources, and generate conservation efforts in schools and community centers.
The first district, St. Mary’s Soil Conservation District, was established by Bennett in North Carolina in November 1941.
Today, there are approximately three thousand soil conservation districts spread out across the nation, with one in nearly every state county. These districts may have different names depending on their state, yet all aim to protect our earth’s natural resources.
Was the Soil Conservation Act a Success?
While the legislation was initially a success, with soil erosion rates dropped by 65% in the United States. Although, its progress was hindered over time through practices like monocropping and industrial livestock farming.
These commercial farming methods can pose detrimental effects on our earth’s topsoil, which is responsible for producing over 95% of our food supply.
Organic farmers, no till, no dig gardeners, and agriculture enthusiasts should strongly urge our legislators to implement better policies to protect our soil.
The current Soil Conservation Act does not do enough to keep our soil nourished and maintained. Pausing food production by paying off farmers does not restore damaged soil.
Instead, we need legislation like the ‘Soil and Regenerative Farming Act’ that enforces stricter food farming guidelines, utilizing the core principles of permaculture and regenerative organic practices like the use of cover crops, planned and holistic grazing, no-tillage farming, and the outright ban of toxic chemicals on tillage and livestock farms.
A sweeping new act like this would not only better protect our soil and improve the quality of the food we consume every day but also ensure our all systems of food farming are safe, secure, and sustainable for future generations.
Looking to learn more on the subject of Soil Conservation and Regenerative Agriculture? Check out our article on our Top 5 Books on Regenerative Agriculture which is a shortlist of easy to read titles we highly recommend to anyone looking to lean more on this critically important topic.
- During a time in depression ear America, topsoil loss and desertification became so bad it earned the nickname "The Dust Bowl".
- The Soil Conservation Act of 1935 was introduced to slow the rate of soil erosion in the farming heartland of America.
- Hugh Hammond Bennett, also known as the “father of soil conservation,” played a key role in the formation of The Soil Conservation Act.
- The Act was successful in slowing the rate of soil erosion by 65%.
- Due to modern farming methods which rely heavily on mono cropping and chemical inputs, a new forward-thinking and far reach Soil Conservation Act is needed.