Soil Conservationist: Hugh Bennett


Hugh Bennet

Hugh Bennett was the first Soil Conservation Service (SCS) director. SCS was created by our U.S. Congress in 1934. SCS later became known as the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Hugh was an outspoken proponent of stopping soil erosion. In 1934, Hugh testified before congress during the Great Depression when the Dust Bowl was at its peak. The whole country was hot and dry during the 1930’s, hotter and dryer than today. The long-extended drought of the 1930’s (11 years, 1930-1940 with 15% to 25% below average rain per year) plus the over grazing and the tillage allowed USA soil to blow away.

The previous decade, a large swath of the Southwest was converted from permanent prairie with long fibrous roots to wheat which was seasonal and corn, and oats (other seasonal crops). At that time, land was grazed heavily until the soil was almost bare. Once the roots and plants were gone, the wind started blowing and it carried the soil with it. Over 350 million tons of topsoil in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma blew eastward. It darkened the streets of Chicago, New York, and Boston, so much during the day, the street lights came on.

Hugh Bennett was giving testimony to congress when a large wind storm was approaching. His friends got word to him as he was talking. He stalled his testimony until the fiercest part of the storm hit, and then then he talked about the dust storms just as it hit. Hugh Bennett was a showman and that how the SCS legislation got immediately passed and eventually it became NRCS.

The No-till Farmer (2023) did a tribute to Hugh Bennett. Here are some of his best quotes: “Out of the long list of nature’s gift’s to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil!” Hugh Bennett also advocated for soil conservation stating, “Permanent soil conservation is an essential first step towards the solution of the farm problem.” Low yields and low prices were a common problem back then. Hugh continued, “I consider the soil conservation districts movement one of the most important developments in the whole history of agriculture.” Most SCS districts started after World War 11 but the first SCS district was started in Brown County, North Carolina in 1934. Ohio got it first SCS district established in Highland County followed by Clark County, after Ohio legislation in 1941.

Hugh did not mince words, “And usually, it takes no more labor or machinery to carry on conservation farming, than it does to farm the wasteful way without out consideration of conservation needs.” Hugh also said, “Most farmers needed some technical help in making the change to this efficient, easier and more productive type of farming, and they need also the moral support and encouragement.” Technology has come a long way and most our of our farmers are much more educated than in the early years, but the moral support and encouragement is still needed.

Towards the end of his career, Hugh stated, “After 24 years spent in studying the soil of the United States, ...soil erosion is the biggest problem confronting the farmers of the Nation.” Hugh also asked, asked how we would feel “If a foreign nation suddenly entered the Nation and destroyed 90,000 acres of land, as erosion has been allowed to do in a single county.”

Hugh had some simple quotes, “Land is to be nurtured; not plundered and wasted.” Also, “Productive soil is life, and productive soil is vanishing with each passing year!” A retired NRCS soil scientist, Don McCluer, who helped do the soil survey maps in Northwest Ohio; did one final survey before he retired. He went back to some of the original soil survey spots, and re-evaluated the soil. He found that in every single case, the soils had changed. Not for the better, but for the worst. Where there was some erosion, now it was moderate or severe. The soil had less soil organic matter, infiltration was slower, and soil structure was poorer.

On average in this country, we are losing about 7.6 tons of topsoil per acre per year. In Ohio it is closer to 2.6 tons per acre. At 7.2 tons that is about 5 pounds of top soil for every 1 pound of soybean produced (based on 50-bushel soybeans); for 2.6 tons, the ratio is 1.7 pounds topsoil per pound of soybeans produced.

Hugh Bennet concluded, “If we are bold in our thinking, courageous in accepting new ideas, and willing to work with—instead of against—our land, we shall find in conservation farming ...the greatest food production the world has ever seen!”