Speeches of HHB, Erosion and Rural Relief


Speeches of Hugh Hammond Bennett

Erosion and Rural Relief

The plight of migrant farmers; Photo by Dorthea Lang

I am very glad for the opportunity to appear before this Committee because the problem of soil erosion and its control, with which the Soil Conservation Service is concerned, is so intimately related to the problems of rural poverty and relief.

Soil erosion is a serious cause of rural impoverishment. To the nation as a whole, uncontrolled erosion has brought a gradual and continuing reduction of productive agricultural land. Estimates based on a reconnaissance erosion survey of the United States, made in 1935, show that approximately 50 million acres of once productive agricultural land has been virtually ruined for further cultivation. Most of this area has been abandoned, although an occasional farmer hangs on to patches left between gullies. Another 50 million acres is in about as bad condition, but the severely eroded areas are intermingled with patches of better land, so that abandonment has not been so nearly complete. On the latter, considerably more impoverished agriculture is continuing. From a second 100 million acres a large part or all of the topsoil has washed off, and on this many thousands of farmers struggle for a meager living. Erosion is getting actively under way on still another vast area, aggregating something over 100 million acres, and will continue its depredations if agricultural practices are not altered to check the process of land wastage.

To the individual farmer erosion brings increased costs, lowered productivity, and on many farms outright ruin of the land, piece by piece, until frequently, abandonment of entire fields or the whole farm is forced. Erosion is not confined to the poorer and economically sub-marginal farms, but its incidence is greater and its effect most serious in the economically distressed areas of the country. An examination of the land of the United States classed as economically sub-marginal shows that most of it is physically poor land, either originally or as the result of erosion. Economic factors, such as low prices, reduced markets, or agricultural surpluses, are perhaps the most serious immediate causes of rural economic distress, but in the long run soil wastage is the most certain cause of permanent agricultural impoverishment. Even in times of great agricultural prosperity, land destroyed by erosion will fail to support a prosperous agriculture. Moreover, a subsistence type of agriculture relatively little affected by the fluctuations of the economic cycle is impossible on land riddled by gullies or stripped to stubborn clay subsoil or to bedrock by continuing sheet erosion.

Some of the findings of a recent study of Avery County, North Carolina, illustrate the relation between erosion and rural relief. Avery county is not a rich agricultural county, but it is fairly representative of much of the southern Appalachian region. The county was established in 1911. By 1930, it had attained a population of nearly 12,000 people and in 1935 its are of cropland comprised 25,000 acres, about half of it unsuitable for permanent cultivation under present agricultural practices. In 1935, part of the county, some 17,000 acres, comprising 592 open-country households near Cranberry and Hughes, was studied intensively. Approximately 80 percent of the 5,000 acres of cropland in this special area was found to be subject, in dome degree, to erosion. The Linville and Toe rivers, which drain this and other similar areas, carry heavy loads of silt—erosional debris—after every rainstorm. The farms of this special area ranged from 3 acres upward in size, averaging 33 acres.

Most of the relief cases in the Cranberry-Hughes area were found to be from the smaller, more rolling, and more seriously eroded farms. In fact, when the farms of the area were classified on the basis of existing erosion, more than 60 percent of the families living on farms classed as seriously eroded were found to be on relief, while on farms classed as having little or no erosion 44 percent of the families were on relief. Even more significant information was revealed when the farms were classified according to the three factors of erosion, available land resources, and topography (which is a fair measure of potential erosion). Only 23 farms were classed as having good land resources, level topography, and no erosion. From those 23 farms, only two million (10 percent) were on relief. At the other extreme, 78 farms were classed as having poor land resources, rough topography, and severe erosion. From these farms 65 families (83 percent) were on relief.

The results of an applied program of erosion control, taken from a large number of demonstration projects in various distinctive problem areas throughout the country, will illustrate the relation of this kind of work to the alleviation of rural difficulties cause by excessive soil erosion.

A demonstration of soil and water conservation was started by the Soil Conservation Service late in 1935 on the watershed of Pecan Creek, near Muskogee, Oklahoma. Cooperative work has been carried out on 203 of the 268 farms in the watershed. Of these, approximately 70 percent were tenants or share-croppers, most of them operating on the basis of one-year arrangements with their landlords. Every year, between cropping seasons, many of the tenants were in the habit of moving to some other farm, for a new start in life. Erosion was very severe on most of the farms, and serious on all of them. Prevailing farm practices were such that the evil was spreading at a progressively increasing rate. Fields and parts of fields were being abandoned to an increasing extent every year. Most of the land was definitely on the way out, insofar as further crop use was concerned.

After two years of cooperative soil and water conservation work, soil washing has been largely controlled with practical farm measures, which at the same time have caused much of the rainfall that formerly ran to waste immediately after every rain of any importance to be stored in the reservoir of the soil for use by crops during dry summer periods.

Better yields are being obtained—more production per acre—as the result of water conservation and stabilization of sloping land, by reason of the introduction of crop rotations, contour cultivation and strip cropping; by the building of protective field terraces and waterways safeguarded with grass; and by closing gullies and retiring highly erodible steep lands to the permanent protection of grass or trees.

All of the farmers with whom the Service has cooperated in Pecan Creek Watershed now have 5-year cooperative working arrangements, under which it has been agreed that the protective installations, and soil-building and water-conserving practices will be carefully maintained over a period of five years. These agreements have been made with the approval of the landlords and have had the effect in many cases of changing the term of tenancy from a one-year to a five-year basis.

Thus, many operators who were moving from farm to farm every year, without getting anywhere on the economic ladder, now have at least the opportunity of a longer stay on a given tract of land. Actually, as well as can be determined, both tenant and landlords are pleased with this new situation of land safe-guarded from the ravages of erosion and excessive loss of rainfall. Annual moving of families has practically ceased; outside tenants are trying to rent land within the project area. Apparently, both landlord and tenant have come to see increased opportunity and security in this new type of agriculture, with its better yields and protected land. They have come to a better understanding, and many landowners are telling their tenants they can remain where they are so long as they go ahead with these new and helpful practices. A greater love for the land has sprung up in that community, and a consciousness of man's responsibility to defend the soil he tills against the destructive effects of erosion.

Economically, both landlord and tenant have been materially helped, and it is significant that the stability and security given the land of the area have given an increased measure of stability and security to the farm population of the area.

In some parts of the United States the problem of rural distress is more acute. Perhaps there is no extensive area in which the problem is more widespread than in the wind-erosion region of the Great Plains. In that vast area, extending from the Panhandle of Texas to the Canadian border, about 70 percent of the land is affected in some degree by wind or water erosion, and approximately a quarter of the area is affected severely. Social and economic problems of the greatest seriousness exist through the region. Despite the fact that thousands of farm families have left the area in recent years the Federal Government is reported to have spent more than $130,000,000 in various forms of work and drought relief in the Great Plains counties in the three years from April, 1933, to April, 1936.

As the report of the Great Plains Committee points out, conditions in the plains are the result of a complex of physical, economic, and cultural factors which must be taken into account in solving this problem. I think it is evident, however, that the problem of soil erosion—particularly by wind—as well as that of water conservation, must be solved if the agriculture of the Great Plains is to be economically stable and secure. Moreover, the experience of the Soil Conservation Service in its erosion-control demonstration projects indicates that those practices necessary to prevent wind erosion at the same time contribute to the solution of many of the economic problems of the region.

The Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico is still another area in which serious social and economic problems are accompanied by serious problems of erosion. That portion of the watershed above Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico has approximately 92,000 inhabitants, the bulk of them Spanish-Americans. Irrigated agricultural land supports most of the rural population, but grazing is indispensable to the economy of the area. Except in the National Forests, the range land of the watershed is seriously over-grazed and damaged by erosion. As a result, the direct economic return from grazing has been seriously affected.

Of even greater seriousness, however, particularly from the point of view of rural relief, is the indirect effect of erosion on the rangelands. With increasing frequency in recent years the eroding uplands have been pouring erosional debris over the irrigated lands of the valleys. During the heavy floods in 1912, 1929, and 1937, silt carried by the flooded river destroyed hundreds of acres of the limited extent of irrigated land, much of which had been in cultivation since the seventeenth century. Irrigation ditches have been filled, the capacity of large reservoirs greatly reduced, and measurements indicate that between 1906 and 1937 the bed of the middle sector of the Rio Grande rose nearly 12 feet.

The effect of this sedimentation on the small, subsistence-type native communities in the Rio Grande Valley is illustrated by the case of the community of San Marcial. In 1910 San Marcial, situated near the head of water in Elephant Butte Reservoir, had a fairly stable and self-sufficient population of 1,650 people. By 1937, after successive floods had laid down deep layers of silt and sand within the town its population had dwindled to less than 300. For a short period it was completely abandoned.

From San Marcial and other communities whose experience has been similar, large numbers of the Spanish-American population have been displaced to swell the relief burden of the area. In the years 1935 and 1936 the Federal Government contributed more than $3,600,000 to relief of the rural population of the Rio Grande Watershed area above the Elephant Butte.

To state and local governments erosion brings a reduction in the local tax base through land destruction and abandonment. Even before soil wastage reaches the stage of land destruction, declining productivity may cause a reduction in tax revenue and an increase in tax delinquency. A study of erosion and tax delinquency in eleven agricultural counties in the South Carolina Piedmont during the years 1928 to 1932 provides some significant data in this connection. During the five-year period nearly 30 percent of all tax payments on the eroded farms were delinquent. On the less eroded farms 18 percent of the tax payments were delinquent during the same period. To the problem of local relief these data have a double significance, showing both the increasing impoverishment of the rural community and the declining resources available to the agencies of the local government for relief purposes.

Erosion may be a result as well as an important cause of rural impoverishment, for farmers may be forced by economic circumstances to disregard the need for soil conservation and to farm their lands exploitatively for as long as they can be made to last under such practice. The impoverished farmer on impoverished land may not have the resources to stop the erosion on his land. He frequently has only a small tract of land and his holding is usually located within some critical erosion area, such as the steeper portion of a watershed. Because the land is poor the farmer is driven to greater efforts to force from it what livelihood he can. This, in turn, further impoverishes what little land is left. Thus, intensive cultivation of sloping land without proper erosion control accentuates both the erosion problem and the relief problem. The poor farmer on poor land frequently is unable, without assistance, to check an impoverishing process which drives both himself and his land from worse to worse. Even in comparatively prosperous communities the occasional poor farmer stands as a special obstacle to adequate soil conservation in the community.

It is on steep land that water erosion usually gets out of control most rapidly, to ruin not only that farm but to damage lower slopes, to cover neighboring valley lands with unproductive sand or clay, and to fill stream channels with the products of wasted land. Where the land is steep, poor, and of complicated topography, the per acre cost of erosion control is far greater than on a comparable downstream area of smoother surface features. Thus, even if all farmers were possessed of equal funds per acre of holdings, the operator on steep land would be at a relative disadvantage in paying for the installation and maintenance of measures and practices necessary for controlling erosion, because of the physical disadvantages of his land. In humid regions, it is on the steeper uplands as a rule that the poorest farmers are concentrated. Where wind erosion is the principal menace, topography is not an important factor, the poorer farmers being located on lands which too generally have been bared of vegetation. Hence, on lands where the need for controlling erosion is most imperative, where the danger to the countryside is greatest, and the cost of control highest, we find poverty preventing a recognition of the need for soil conservation; we see a desperate struggle to wrest a livelihood from eroding hillsides intensifying the danger of downstream damage; and we discover an impoverished citizenry which, irrespective of how keenly it may sense the danger or wish to correct it, is economically unable to do so.

If our erosion control program is made adaptable to such small holdings and to persons without means, or with inadequate means, by permitting greater Federal contributions to impoverished farmers, such unfortunate operators may be able to continue on a subsistence basis without being forced onto relief. Conversely, if sufficient relief should be provided, it is possible that such individuals might be able to contribute enough to the current erosion-control program to check the loss of their soil and eventually to emerge as self-sustaining subsistence units. If assistance is provided neither from an erosion-control program, nor from relief sources, it is difficult to see how such individuals and their land can avoid progressive deterioration.

In addition to this large class of "relief" or "submarginal" farmers who find themselves in a position to do little or nothing either for their land or themselves, there is probably a larger group which, due to a combination of erosion, soil exhaustion, and adverse economic factors (as low prices) is progressively approaching this meager subsistence level. An adequate program for this group is important because if nothing is done to arrest their declining economy they, themselves, will soon descend to a relief status, and further costs for relief and rehabilitation, otherwise preventable may have to be assumed.

The connection between rural relief and soil erosion cannot, however, be considered exclusively in terms of individual cases. The problem exists on an area-wide basis. Thus, there is a recognizable degree of correlation between critical erosion areas and areas where the bulk of the farmers are on a marginal or near-subsistence basis. The assumption that farmers of a community are essentially able to control erosion themselves if correctly advised and organized may in some instances overlook the economics of the locality. Where the bulk of a community consists of impoverished farmers on eroding soil, as is true over a large part of such extensive areas as the Appalachian highlands, the middle and upper Rio Grande watershed, and drought and dust stricken portions of the Great Plains, assistance for the correction or arrest of this condition must be sought outside, as well as inside, the community involved. If adequate steps are not taken to better these situations, the passage of time can only witness a progressive intensification of such unfavorable situations, both for the land and for the people on the land.

Any consideration of the connection between rural poverty and soil erosion should not overlook the possibilities of erosion-control programs being carried out by the rural relief workers themselves. Our experience over a period of four years has shown conclusively that soil conservation work can well be adapted to relief programs. Including CCC camps engaged in erosion work, the Soil Conservation Service at one time was employing over 123,000 persons on a relief status. Today, the Service is still furnishing employment to more than 70,000, largely in CCC work. Erosion-control work requires largely unskilled labor and is a relatively inexpensive form of work relief (current average man-year cost is $696). It provides a type of work which rural relief persons can recognize as being of immediate benefit to themselves, their neighbors, and the community, and it is work for which they have had considerable training. From the standpoint of administration of relief, if supplies projects in areas where other work programs are difficult too organize or supervise. Indeed, it is one of the few programs in which the relief work itself is carried on in sparsely populated and impoverished regions where so many rural relief cases are found.

Specifically, in December, 1935, the Soil Conservation Service was employing from relief funds more than 32,000 workers (not including CCC enrollees) on erosion-control demonstration and work projects. These men were engaged in such outdoor tasks as:

  • Tree and shrub planting, together with seeding and other improvements, on depleted pastures and steep cultivated fields retired from cultivation to permanent stability as woodland, wildlife, and pasture areas;
  • Building field terraces and diversion waterways;
  • Sodding the outlets of such water-control channels;
  • Constructing check-dams of brush, rock, or concrete;
  • Building stock-water reservoirs;
  • Building dikes for diverting water running to waste along expanding gullies, for cheap irrigation;
  • Laying out lines for contour cultivation and strip cropping;
  • Relocating fences;
  • Re-sodding worn-out fields for protection or for permanent pasture.
From a beginning, in August, 1935, when no labor of this kind was employed, the Service developed its relief labor program at the rate of a thousand new workers a week, until by December of that year the organization was the first of all the Federal agencies to reach the quota set for it by the WPA; and for a long time thereafter it employed a larger number of workers than many agencies which had larger emergency allotments. This was partly due to a helpful spirit of enthusiasm in getting the program started, but primarily to the fact that soil-conservation operations require relatively little expensive equipment. Once technical supervisors are available, a great number of unskilled and semi-skilled persons can be furnished quick employment on work of permanent public value, in those communities prepared to provide the necessary limited cooperation.

An example of the speed with which relief persons may be employed on a soil and water-conservation program is illustrated by the Service's experience in the fall of 1936 with drought relief. Covering a space of four and a half months the Soil Conservation Service expended approximately $2,200,000 in furnishing employment too about 10,000 drought-stricken farmers in twenty states. In Colorado, however, money was not made available until November 12. There, the technical staff was gathered together, a program developed, tasks assigned, and supervisors sent to their respective field stations to select their drought-relief areas. On November 19, just one week later, the first stock-water dam was started.

This money remained available for six weeks only, but during that time 137 greatly needed dams were constructed at advantageous points, and employment was furnished to 679 needy persons. The wide distribution of this work demonstrated the value of water-conserving dams and soil-conserving methods to almost every problem area through the Plains section of the State, and greatly increased interest in practical erosion control. Work, most of it construction of dams for impounding water supplies, was only engaged in with cooperators who were willing to sign the customary five-year working plan agreement of the Service, which provides for the application of an integrated erosion-control program for an entire farm or ranch.

These cooperators continue to furnish the Service with yearly reports on the performance of these dams, and the field staff keeps in touch with them to encourage them to carry the farm or ranch program to completion. The farmers and ranchmen have carried on splendidly; they have written many letters describing their appreciation of the benefits this work has brought them. Local public opinion is said to consider this type of work as being almost universally satisfactory, not only to farmers and ranchmen but to the general public of the drought stricken area. Experience has shown that where the relief workers were actually farmers, and where they were e1ngaged in constructing dams and other drought relief and erosion-control operations on farms of their own community, the enthusiasm was such that, with the training acquired through actual work, a number of them continued to install similar structures cooperatively on each other's farms after the paid program was over.

The Soil Conservation Service was set up by Congress primarily to demonstrate to the farmers of the country how soil erosion could be controlled or prevented. This necessitated the carrying out of an extensive field operations program, and it was in this program that relief workers were found to be so useful. In any extension of conservation operations, as there must be if the Nation's soil is to be conserved, opportunities can be provided for important utilization of rural relief labor. In this connection, it should be pointed out that a number of soil conservation districts have been formed as legal subdivisions of states. Many of these districts will need all possible assistance including labor to establish effective control measures under an applicable, organized plan, and with the technical aid of these agencies equipped for such service.

The matters to which I have referred give some indication of what has been and what can be done to mitigate the impoverishing effects of erosion, both on the land and on the rural population. A final observation with respect to the relationship between soil erosion and rural human impoverishment is that, if left alone, the one accentuates the other, where as if proper steps are taken the amelioration of either provides a basis for the curbing of both.

Statement of H. H. Bennett, Chief, Soil Conservation Service, on March 9, 1938, before Special Senate Committee to Investigate Unemployment and Relief.


< Other Speeches
< Back to History