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NRCS History Articles - Coon Valley, Wisconsin

A Conservation Success Story

by Douglas Helms

Reprinted from Readings in the History of the Soil Conservation Service. Washington, DC: Soil Conservation Service, 1992 pp. 51-53.

Prepared for a talk at the 50th Anniversary of the Coon Valley Demonstration Project, Coon Valley, Wisconsin, August 13, 1983.


The town of Coon Valley hosted a celebration yesterday to mark the 50th year of one of America's conservation success stories. Coon Valley is located in the Coon Creek watershed in southwestern Wisconsin. The picturesque valley with fields of stripcropping winding around the hillsides, offers a startling transformation from the 1930s' scene of rectangular fields with straight rows that induced soil erosion.

In 1933 a new federal agency, the Soil Erosion Service, selected Coon Creek as the first watershed in which to demonstrate the values of soil conservation measures. This agency became the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1935. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, soil erosion control was included as one means of public employment. The announcement caught the attention of a soil scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hugh H. Bennett. For years Bennett had been making speeches and writing articles to alert Americans to the need to do something about soil erosion. After discussions between public works administrator Harold L. Ickes and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, Bennett became head of the Soil Erosion Service in September 1933.

Bennett had $5,000,000 to demonstrate how farmers could plan farming operations to include soil conservation for long-term productivity. He decided to select a number of erosion-prone areas for demonstrations. Through cooperation with farmers, he would demonstrate the validity of his ideas about soil conservation. In addition to the long-range value of sustained productivity, Bennett was convinced soil conserving measures would increase the farmers' incomes.

To head the watershed-based demonstration projects, Bennett would appoint acquaintances who were also working on soil erosion problems. At La Crosse, Wisconsin, Raymond H. Davis was conducting research on soil conservation as superintendent of the Upper Mississippi Valley Erosion Experiment Station. Thus, Bennett wanted one of the demonstration projects in the Driftless area of narrow, fairly steep valleys where research results from the La Crosse experiment station could be tried. As the Coon Creek watershed was representative of a much larger area, the methods that proved successful could be spread throughout the unglaciated section of the Midwest.

Davis responded enthusiastically. He soon seized on the 91,000-acre Coon Creek watershed as the best location for a successful demonstration. Important in his decision was the cooperation he anticipated from farmers. They seemed to be ready for a change. A few farmers were already attempting stripcropping. The strips of hay, alternated with strips of corn, slowed the runoff of water and reduced erosion from the corn strips. But most of the area was beset by erosion problems. Gullies hindered farming. Coon Creek was subject to frequent, intense floods. Some valuable bottom land had reverted from cropland to pasture due to floods. Trout abandoned the sediment clogged stream.

That the Coon Creek farmers raised dairy and beef cattle and thus needed hay and pasture encouraged the prospect for contour stripcropping and retirement of the steeper fields to pasture. Davis wrote to Bennett, "If it were not for the diversified type of agriculture generally practiced and the relatively large areas of timber, the entire area would be a barren waste within a short time. Since most of the farmers here try to diversify their farming operations, any comprehensive erosion control program should be relatively easy of accomplishment because it would mean only a change in certain farming methods rather than a complete change in the agricultural set-up."

Initiatives by Coon Valley farmers and businessmen and officials at the University of Wisconsin led to Coon Creek's selection. Noble Clark, assistant director of the experiment station, and biologist Aldo Leopold welcomed Davis' proposal. Davis and Clark traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Hugh H. Bennett on October 3, 1933. On October 10, Bennett appointed Davis a regional director with authority to select a demonstration area in the Driftless area.

Enthusiastic response by Coon Valley area farmers decided the issue as to where the project would be located. In mid-October, Regional Director Davis met with 125 farmers at Coon Valley who listened to his proposal for soil conservation work. They promised to present a petition by 500 to 600 of the valley's 800 farmers requesting that the project be located at Coon Valley. Davis was pleased beyond expectation. He wrote to Bennett, "In fact, I was surprised at the way the farmers grasped the importance of such a program. They all realize the necessity of something (sic) being done....I feel that we need not worry about lack of cooperation in this particular area."

With the decision made, I. N. Knutson, Coon Valley banker, urged farmers to cooperate. Mail carrier Ben Einer notified farmers. Davis began preparing for the spring work. Aerial photographs were to be made for the farm planning. Seed, fertilizer, and equipment had to be acquired. Davis also needed specialists to visit each cooperating farmer to determine the needed work to reduce erosion. To do this work, Davis hired Herbert A. Flueck, Marvin F. Schweers, Joseph P. Schaenser, and John R. Bollinger. Others hired during the initial days were Gerald E. Ryerson as agricultural engineer and Melville H. Cohee. Aldo Leopold believed that the program could be used to increase wildlife in the area. At his suggestion, Ernest G. Holt became the biologist for the staff.

Through the winter of 1933-34, the erosion specialists contacted farmers to arrange 5-year cooperative agreements. The agreements often obligated the government to supply fertilizer, lime, and seed. Farmers agreed to follow recommendations for stripcropping, crop rotations, rearrangement of fields, and retirement of steep land to pasture or woodland. Alfalfa was a major element in the stripcropping program. Farmers were interested in alfalfa, but the cost of seed, fertilizer, and lime to establish plantings had been a problem during the Depression.

Another key element in reducing erosion was building up the water absorbing capacity of the soil by lengthening the crop rotations and keeping hay strips in place longer. A typical three year rotation on the farms had been corn--small grain--hay (timothy and red clover). Conservationists advised farmers to follow a four- to six-year rotation of corn--small grain--hay (alfalfa mixed with clover or timothy for two to four years.)

Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees and emergency employment workers were available. The town of Coon Valley rented land for a CCC camp. The young men and other workers were quite useful in a number of phases of the conservation work. They crushed the locally available limestone to provide the lime needed to establish the hay and pasture planting. Terracing required considerable labor, as did the fencing and reforestation work.

Grazing of woodland had been a contributing factor to erosion from cropland. Trampling down the ground and stripping ground cover reduced the forest's capacity to hold rainfall. Moreover, the grazing delayed tree growth while providing little feed for cows. Most of the cooperative agreements provided that the farmer would not graze the woodlands if the CCC workers fenced them off and planted seedlings where reforestation was needed.

The workers also tried to control gullies, especially where they hindered farming operations. Streambank erosion presented another problem. While the soil conservation measures would reduce sediment flowing into Coon Creek, there was still the problem of bank cutting and deposition in the stream. Wing dams, willow matting, and planting willows were the most used methods of control.

Workers also established feeding stations to carry birds through the winter. Gullies and out of the way places, not conveniently farmed, were used for wildlife plantings. Some farmers agreed to plant hedges for wildlife which also served as permanent guides to contour stripcropping. In so far as possible the trees selected for reforested areas were also ones that provided good wildlife habitat.

What then were the results? Clearly the farmers of Coon Valley came to believe stripcropping with longer crop rotations was the system of farming best suited to the area. From fall 1933 to June 1935, 418 of the valley's 800 farmers signed cooperative agreements. Others would have joined, but the Soil Conservation Service shifted new funds to other projects. Aerial photographs reveal that long after the demonstration project closed, additional farmers began stripcropping. From Coon Valley this practice spread during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s into adjacent valleys of the Driftless area. It is now the commonly accepted way to farm hillsides. Gradually the demonstration projects were phased out. But beginning in the late 1930s SCS provided technicians to locally authorized conservation districts to assist farmers with conservation measures.

Since Coon Valley is one of the nation's most studied watersheds, we know the effects of the conservation practices on erosion and sedimentation of streams. In a 1982 study, Stanley W. Trimble, geographer at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Steven W. Lund, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, used earlier sedimentation studies by Vincent McKelvey and Stanford Happ in assessing the current situation. They calculated that erosion has been reduced at least 75 percent since 1934. Sediment reduction came without converting much cropland to other uses. There has been a 6 percent reduction in cropland since 1934. With less sediment flowing into Coon Valley, the trout returned as Raymond Davis had hoped and expected.

The young conservationists gained valuable experience at Coon Creek and the other 174 demonstration projects. On the cooperating farms, they tried numerous ideas. A few failed, but many are in use today. SCS people who started at Coon Valley moved on to other responsible positions. Marvin Schweers became SCS's state conservationist in Wisconsin and Herbert Flueck held the sane position in Minnesota. Gerald Ryerson and Melville Cohee eventually moved to SCS's national headquarters. Leopold's friend Ernest Holt became head of SCS's wildlife work and earned an international reputation. Numerous others took the Coon Creek experience and moved to other demonstration projects.

Coon Creek and the other projects were designed to demonstrate the value of soil conservation to farmers. In doing so, they also attracted a larger audience and contributed to the passage of the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, which made SCS a permanent agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But one need not look to legislation and landmarks for the significance of the Coon Creek project. Its heritage is available for all to see who venture that way.

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