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NRCS History Articles - Conserving the Plains

The Soil Conservation Service in the Great Plains

by Douglas Helms

Reprinted from Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 58-73.

Hugh Hammond Bennett, in early April of 1935, found himself on the verge of achieving an ambition that had dominated his professional life for years, the establishment of a permanent agency dedicated to soil conservation. True, his temporary Soil Erosion Service in the Department of the Interior had received some of the money Congress appropriated to put people back to work during the Depression providing him an opportunity to put some of his ideas about soil conservation to work in demonstration projects across the country. But this had never been the ultimate objective; he had from the beginning yearned for something that would survive the Depression and attack soil erosion until it was eliminated as a national problem.1  Friends of the soil conservation movement had introduced bills into Congress to create a specific agency for that purpose. Now, as Bennett sat before the Senate Public Lands Committee, he needed to make a convincing case. The sky darkened as dust from the plains arrived. The dust cloud's arrival was propitious, but not totally unexpected--at least not to the main witness. The Senators suspended the hearing for a moment and moved to the windows of the Senate Office Building. Better than words or statistics or photographs, the waning daylight demonstrated Bennett's assertion that soil conservation was a public responsibility worthy of support and continuing commitment to solve one of rural America's persistent problems. Bennett recalled that, "Everything went nicely thereafter."2

In the beginning, as so often would be the case in the future, the Great Plains seemed to be at the center of developments in soil conservation policies. Probably the soil conservation bill would have passed in any event. Bennett's crusading zeal converged with the opportunity offered by the Depression to get the work started, but the situation in the Great Plains provided the final impetus for legislation. The Depression awoke the nation to the interrelated problems of poverty and poor land use. The public glimpsed some of this suffering in the South in the photographs of the Farm Security Administration and those in Walker Evans and James Agees, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that told a tale of poor land, poor people, complicated by tenancy and racism. But it was the Great Plains that captured the national attention. Newspaper accounts of dust storms, the government-sponsored documentary classic, The Plow That Broke the Plains, and John Steinbeck's novel, Grapes of Wrath, evoked powerful images. For Americans, the Dust Bowl set the image of the human condition complicated by the problem of soil erosion. It remains a powerful historical touchstone for the public's ideas about soil erosion. We may collect data, analyze, and argue, as we do about the relative seriousness of soil erosion in our most productive agricultural regions like the Corn Belt or the wheat region in the Palouse. Occasionally stories appear in newspapers on salinity on irrigated land. But none of these situations compares with the inevitable question that accompanies each prolonged drought in the Great Plains: Is the "Dust Bowl" returning?

The Dust Bowl also proved to be the most popular area in the United States for historians studying soil erosion. Within the past decade historians have produced three books on the Dust Bowl--that section of the plains encompassing western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. If the wheat and grass sometimes wither in the plains, historical interpretation seems to flourish where the fates of man and land are so intertwined and subjected to the vagaries of climate. To summarize the themes briefly, Donald Worster in Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s found the Dust Bowl to be the result of a social system and an economic order, capitalism, that disrupts the environment and will continue to do so until the system is changed.3  For Paul Bonnifield in The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression, plains farmers struggled successfully not only against drought and depression, but also against too much government idealism, whose most threatening manifestation was the soil conservation district with its potential to make plainsmen "tenant farmers for an obscure and distant absentee landlord."4  R. Douglas Hurt in The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History believed that farmers in general learned from the Dust Bowl and adjusted their farming practices, so that when drought returned in the 1950s so did wind erosion, but not the black blizzards."5  These volumes detailed many of the specific farming practices that the Soil Conservation Service advocated in the Great Plains. In this article, I will concentrate on some of the later developments since the Dust Bowl. Finally, on pain of being labeled a geographical determinist, I want to make a few points as to how the Great Plains influenced national soil conservation programs and policies.

The establishment of the Soil Conservation Service created a locus for pulling together all the information on the best methods of farming, but farming safely within the capabilities of the land. The Soil Conservation Service at first worked through demonstration projects and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 encouraged the states to pass a standard soil conservation districts act. Afterward, the U.S. Department of Agriculture could sign a cooperative agreement with the district. Much of the SCS's contribution to the districts has been providing personnel to the district. In this manner an agency concentrating on conservation established a presence in the countryside working directly with farmers and ranchers in a relationship that had two fortunate results. First, it made all the disciplines work together on common problems. Thus on the demonstration projects, it drew together the engineers, agronomists, and range management specialists. They were to work together on common problems rather than concentrating solely on their own discipline. Second, the Soil Conservation Service provided a means to work on what we now call technology transfer from both ends of the spectrum. This seemed particularly appropriate in the plains where farmers had struggled with wind erosion and devised a number of methods to combat it. State agricultural experiment stations and later USDA stations specializing in soil erosion provided answers. When SCS began operations, there were already some ideas on answers. To provide vegetative cover SCS advocated water conservation through detention, diversion and water spreading structures and by contour cultivation of fields and contour furrows on rangeland. The vegetative strips in stripcropping and borders of grass, crops, shrubs, or trees served as wind barriers. The young soil conservationists also encouraged the adaptation of crops and cultural practices to fit the varying topographic, soil, moisture, and seasonal conditions. Organic residues should be used to increase organic content and they should also be kept on the surface, as in the case of stubble-mulching, to prevent wind erosion. Critically erodible land should be returned to permanent vegetative cover. Rangelands could be improved by good range management through distribution, rotation, and deferment of grazing. Probably the most far-reaching recommendation was that farmers shift from extensive cash crop farming, wheat in particular, to a balanced livestock and farming operation, or that they shift to a livestock operation and the growing of livestock feeds only.6 While technology has changed through the years, these essential elements still guide the soil conservation program.

In retrospect, progress in using rangeland more within its capabilities seems one of the more obvious achievements since the 1930s. By most measures, the condition of rangeland in the Great Plains and elsewhere has improved since the 1930s. Henry Wallace's preface to the Western Range report in 1936 predicted it would take fifty years to restore the range to a condition that would support 17.3 million livestock units. That goal was reached in the mid-1970s. Other assessments by the Soil Conservation Service over the last twenty years reveal improvements in rangeland conditions.7

It would be difficult to attribute responsibility for this to particular agencies, be they federal or state. Even today, SCS works with approximately half of the ranchers in the Great Plains, though many of those not participating are part-time farmer-ranchers, with other sources of income. What is clear is a growing appreciation for the principles of range management in livestock raising. That is a definite shift from the attitude of the early-twentieth century when the concept that rangeland could be grazed too intensively was anathema to many cattlemen. The controversy about grazing intensity was such that Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson in 1901 wrote on the manuscript of a USDA bulletin on the subject: "all too true, but not best for us to take a position now."8  Shortly after the dust storms in 1935, SCS Associate Chief Walter C. Lowdermilk was addressing a group of plains cattlemen only to have them terminate the meeting when he mentioned the baleful term "overgrazing "9

It has been quite a journey from that attitude to general acceptance of range management as being in the interest of the land and the rancher. Several elements seemed crucial to the development. SCS people working with local soil conservation districts and ranchers had to convince them that range management was in their best interests. The field people work for the most part with owner-operators and consequently in a less adversarial climate than the Forest Service and Department of the Interior range specialits, who had to try to improve range conditions by imposition of stocking rates and grazing fees on federal lands. Also, knowing that an educational job lay ahead, the range specialists had to develop a system to promote range management that was understandable to the SCS field technicians and ranchers alike. That necessity took what had generally been regarded as a research activity into the farm and ranch setting. The key for ranchers in wisely using rangeland was to know the condition of the range, so as to know when and how much it might be grazed without further deterioration. Thus, SCS needed to develop a system of range condition classification, based on scientific principles, that field staff of SCS and ranchers could understand and use.

Early range management pioneers recognized that the composition of the range changed with heavy grazing as cattle selected the taller, more palatable grasses, leaving the shorter, less palatable ones.10  Following thirteen years of research on National Forest rangelands in the West, Arthur W. Sampson elaborated on this concept and observed that the surest way to detect overgrazing was by observing succession, or the "replacement of one type of plant by another." Furthermore, the grazing value of rangelands was highest where "the cover represents a stage in close proximity to the herbaceous climax and lowest in the type most remote from the climax."11  Sampson's research prefaced the application of Frederic Clement's ideas about plant communities to practical range problems. A pioneer in prairie ecology, Clement theorized that grasslands were a community of plants in various stages of plant succession progressing toward a climax stage.

Range management experts in the Soil Conservation Service needed a classification system that could be used in the field in working with ranchers. Most range management systems in the 1930s and 1940s recognized the validity of ecological concepts for range management. The distinctiveness of the SCS system was that it would be a quantitative system that applied ecological concepts to range classification and management. Other systems were judged to be too qualitative for practical application in the field. The idea was to develop floristic guides of plant population for the various range condition classes. For instance, as rangeland is grazed by animals certain plants will show an increase in the percentage of cover under heavy grazing; others will decrease, and in other cases heavy grazing leads to an invasion of plants onto the site. Thus, SCS field staff learned to inventory rangeland for particular "decreasers, increasers, and invaders" in determining whether the range condition fell into one of four categories--poor, fair, good, or excellent.

So as not to make too general a recommendation that would be of limited value, SCS added the concept of "range site" to the study of range management and improved range management practices. Foresters had originally developed the concept of site as an ecological or management entity based on plant communities.12  Soil type, landscape position, and climate factors would be involved in determining the climax vegetation and should be taken into account when making recommendations for using rangeland following general instructions the local SCS soil conservationists had to delineate range sites in their soil conservation district. Field staff could then work with ranchers to develop a conservation plan that included advice on how best to use the land for grazing and at the same time maintain or improve range condition. In working with farmers SCS tried to ensure that ranchers understood the key plants and their response to light or heavy grazing and deferment. Overall the system was not supposed to focus solely on those plants that benefited cattle most. In concept it adhered to the suggestion of Clement that "There can be no doubt that the community is a more reliable indicator than any single species of it."13  Advice to farmers might also include information on fencing, development of water supplies, and rotation grazing as range management theories changed over the years. But the reliance on range site and condition as the foundation has persisted to the present.

The range management experience illustrated two important points about the desirability of an interdisciplinary approach to problems and the need to link scientific theory to practical application. Because of its large field staff, SCS was able to test its ideas about using ecological quantification for range classification at numerous sites in the Great Plains. Isolated researchers have no such means for testing theory and classification in practice. The other point involves the emphasis on soil in range classification. Certainly the early ecologists emphasized soil as a part of the biotic environment. Nonetheless, it is quite likely that having both soil scientists and range managers in the same agency led to greater recognition of the importance of soil in site identification than might have been the case otherwise. Range management was but one of the cases in which the so-called action agencies such as SCS had to translate the scientific into the practical. In so doing it removed the prejudice often held toward what was considered strictly research or theoretical musings. The ecological emphasis and the recognition of the other values of rangeland for wildlife and water, not just the forage produced, seem to have increased the popularity of range management with ranchers.

Cultural practices, especially tillage methods, that reduced wind erosion found favor with farmers. Subsurface tillage, or stubble-mulch farming, eliminated weeds that depleted moisture during the summer fallow period while at the same time leaving wheat stubble on the surface to control wind erosion. Farmers employed the rotary rod weeder, or the large V-shaped Noble blade, or smaller sweeps in this work. Developments in planting and tillage equipment and in herbicides have added a whole array of planting and cultural methods that leave crop residues on the surface as well as increasing the organic content of the topsoil. These practices, such as no-till, ridge-till, strip-till, mulch-till, and reduced tillage fall under the general rubric "conservation tillage." The Conservation Technology Information Center, which promotes conservation tillage, estimated in 1988 that 23 percent of the acreage in the southern plains and 32 percent of acreage in the northern plains was planted with conservation tillage.14  Larger farm equipment can have some adverse effects on conservation, but the powerful tractors make for timely emergency tillage operations to bring moist soil to the surface to control wind erosion.

SCS's work in the Great Plains always emphasized retiring the most erodible soils to grass. Thus they worked on introducing grass and devising planting methods for the range. The land utilization projects provided a means to test some of these methods. But some plains farmers and absentee owners have continued to use erodible soils for cropland that would be better suited to rangeland or pasture. Nonetheless, as farmers have learned about their land through the hazards of erosion or poor crop production potential, or perhaps through the teachings of the Soil Conservation Service, there have been some adjustments from the homesteading days or the World War I era of wheat expansion. The system of land capability classification developed by the Soil Conservation Service in the late 1930s and recent surveys of land use provided some clues to this shift. In making recommendations to farmers, SCS learned to classify land. In class I are soils with few limitations that restrict use, class II soils require moderate conservation practices, class III soils require special conservation practices, and class IV soils have very severe limitations that require very careful management. Soils in class V and VI are not suited to common cultivated crops. The system takes into account several limitations on use. Where the major limitation is susceptibility to erosion, the subclass designation "e" is used. Generally less than 20 percent of the land in the worst classes, VIIIe and VIe is currently used for cropland, and less than half of the IVe land is used for cropland.15  So there have been some adjustments.

Wind erosion is still a problem on the plains. While dust storms are not common generally, several years of drought, such as occurred recently can still set the stage for dust storms such as the one that occurred in Kansas on March 14, 1989.16  The 1988-1989 wind erosion season was the worst since 1954-1955 when SCS started keeping records.17  Nonetheless, one can perceive the cumulative effects of conservation practices that break up the flat, pulverized landscape and thus prevent dust storms from gathering force uninterrupted. Chief among them seem to be leaving crop residues on the surface, higher organic content of the soil, wind stripcropping, field windbreaks, and interspersed grasslands. The Conservation Reserve Program, authorized in the 1985 farm bill, that pays farmers to keep highly erodible land in grass has proven most popular in the Great Plains. This is not surprising, because the plains influenced it as they did so many other conservation programs.18

The drought that struck the Great Plains in the 1950s led once again to emergency drought measures, but also eventually to new soil conservation programs and policies. The Colorado legislature made $1,000,000 available to plains farmers in March 1954. The U. S. Department of Agriculture spent $13.3 million on emergency tillage in 1954, and another $9,275,000 in 1955. The Agricultural Conservation Program spent $70,011,000 on drought emergency conservation measures in twenty-one states during 1954-1956. Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas used $37,848,000 of the funds. Additional funds went to other drought relief measures.19

As it turned out, the 1950s drought provided an opportunity for SCS to promote a new program for dealing with conservation and drought in the Great Plains. They suggested to USDA's drought committee that any financial assistance be used to assist farmers to convert cropland back to grassland by paying 50 percent of the cost with the proviso that it remain in grass at least five years.20  The full committee's report seized on the idea of long-term contracts for restoring grass. It went even further in saying that to discourage a subsequent plow-up it might be necessary to use "restrictive covenants and surrender of eligibility for allotments, loans and crop insurance."21  Meanwhile, USDA representatives met with members of the rejuvenated Great Plains Agriculture Council to work on a program. It called for measures it was hoped would prove more lasting than the cyclical assistance in emergency tillage and emergency feed and seed programs. The report called for "installing and establishing those practices which are most enduring and most needed but which are not now part of their normal farm and ranch operations."22 President Eisenhower introduced the bill that was to become the Great Plains Conservation Program into Congress on June 19, 1956. Under the bill, the Secretary of Agriculture could enter into contracts, not to exceed ten years, with producers. No contract could be signed after December 31, 1971. The Secretary was to designate the counties in the ten Great Plains states that had serious wind erosion problems. The contracts were to stipulate the "schedule of proposed changes in cropping systems and land use and of conservation measures." The House Committee reported favorably on the bill with a few reservations. Only one major farm group showed up to testify in favor of the bill. John A. Baker of the National Farmers Union favored the bill, but even he reported that plains' farmers and ranchers had "some qualms and some apprehensions about these master plans."23

After the President signed the bill on August 7, 1956, (Public Law 84-102) Assistant Secretary Ervin L. Peterson designated the Soil Conservation Service to implement the program.24  Cyril Luker, a native Texan who had worked in Amarillo in charge of erosion control practices, chaired an inter-agency group that would write the basic guidelines and program structure. Jefferson C. Dykes, Assistant Administrator and a student of the history of the Great Plains, chaired the work group on farm and ranch planning. Donald Williams, Administrator of the Soil Conservation Service, ordered the state conservationist of the ten Great Plains states to make proposals to the inter-agency group.25  The government officials also held meetings with cattle- and sheep-raising groups as well as farm groups.26

In working with the inter-agency committee, SCS wrapped nearly two decades of experience into the program guidelines. Essentially, they wanted the individual contracts with farmers to bring about soil conservation while at the same time assisting in the development of economically stable farm and ranch units. Though he did not work on the Great Plains program, H. H. Finnell, former head of SCS's regional office at Amarillo, wrote in Soil Conservation, the official magazine of the Soil Conservation Service:

A more logical and permanent remedy would be the development of an intermediate type of agriculture to use marginal land. This land is just as capable of being efficiently operated as any other lands, provided the demands made upon it are kept within its natural moisture and fertility capabilities. Ranching is not intensive enough to resist economic pressures; while grain farming is too intensive for the physical limitations of the land. A special type of agriculture for marginal land is needed. It must use the land more intensively than ranching and at the same time more safely than grain farming. Men of stable character and more patience than those who ride on waves of speculation will be needed to work this out.27

The contracts with farmers certainly did not dictate what was to be done; there would be mutual agreement. But it would nonetheless be a contract, and the contract would promote the idea of soil conservation and stability. The idea of risk reduction through diversification was certainly not new in the plains, or to other agricultural areas of the United States. Diversification helped farmer-ranchers withstand fluctuations in weather and prices. Surveys during the 1930s showed that failure in the plains came primarily among two groups, strict dry farmers who had no cattle, and cattlemen who grew no feed. Those who combined ranching and farming most often succeeded.28 SCS people such as Luker and Dykes recognized that stability was good for soil conservation. The Great Plains Conservation Program was to aim for both. The debate in the work group about farm and ranch planning over sharing the cost of irrigation illustrated the emphasis on the stability of operating units. Many members of the work group believed irrigation should be ineligible for cost-sharing, since it could not be considered a soil conserving practice. Dykes, however, argued that irrigation would be needed on some of the small ranches to achieve the goal of economic stability by providing supplemental feed.29

Irrigation was of course only one of the farming and ranching practices that contracts with the Great Plains Conservation Program would include. USDA would share the cost of some of these practices with the farmer. Assistant Secretary Patterson also decided that SCS should be responsible for making the cost-sharing payments for soil conservation practices to farmers and ranchers. It was a decision to which SCS attached the utmost importance. USDA began paying part of the cost of soil conservation practices under the Agricultural Conservation Program which was provided for in the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. USDA seized on the soil conservation rationale to reenact production controls after the Supreme Court invalidated portions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Farming practices that were eligible for conservation payments became a point of contention between SCS and the agencies responsible for administering the Agricultural Conservation Program. Currently it is the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. SCS regarded some practices, such as liming, as annual production practices. SCS preferred sharing the cost of "enduring" soil conservation practices, such as terracing, that brought long-term benefits. Another long-held preference SCS people brought to their task was the matter of the whole farm conservation plan. Since the 1930s they taught that farmers should regard all their needs and concerns in planning for soil conservation while at the same time taking the need for cash crops, pasture, forage, and other needs into account. Of course, farmers could start using this plan at the rate they preferred. But the Great Plains program would involve a contract that provided for rather generous cost-sharing. Thus, it was required that the farmers and ranchers have a plan for the whole farm and that they install all the conservation measures, though the government might not be sharing the cost of all of them.

The three- to ten-year contracts called for a number of conservation practices--field and wind stripcropping, windbreaks, waterways, terraces, diversions, erosion control dams and grade stabilization structures, waterspreading systems, reorganizing irrigation systems, wells and water storage facilities, fences to distribute grazing, and control of shrubs. But by far the greatest emphasis was on converting cropland on the erodible sandy and thin soils back to grassland and improving rangeland and pastures to further diversified farming-ranching in the plains.30  A recent program appraisal revealed that 53 percent of the GPCP contracts had been with combination livestock-crop farms, 30 percent with principally livestock farms or ranches, and just over 10 percent with crop and cash grain farms. About 85 percent of the units were under the same management when the contracts expired.31

The Great Plains, and more especially the Great Plains Conservation Program, influenced national soil conservation policies and programs as the long-term contracts to maintain cost-shared conservation practices became the standard procedure in other conservation programs. Soil conservation district people and SCS looked on the concept of a special program designed for a special conservation problem area as a model that could be used in other sections. Congress never approved any of the proposed programs for other sections of the country. The Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 included a section on Special Areas Conservation Program based in part on the GPCP experience. USDA did not request funds for the special areas, but did target some problem areas for extra funds.

The Great Plains, its climate, geography, and history, influenced another national program, the small watershed program as it is generally called. The Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 made USDA one of the federal participants in flood control work. SCS took the leadership in working in upstream tributary watersheds of less than 250,000 acres. The flood control side of the project provided federal funding for floodwater retarding structures, channel modifications, and other engineering works to reduce flooding along streams. Watershed protection involved soil conservation practices on farms and ranches in the watershed to reduce the sediment moving to the streams and reservoirs. For much of its history, SCS has generally added soil conservationists to these watershed project areas to assist farmers with the soil conservation practices. USDA has been involved in 1,387 projects covering more than 87 million acres.

The Flood Control Act of 1936 gave USDA authority to work on flood control in the upstream areas. Some SCS people certainly favored retarding structures as part of the program to be submitted to Congress for approval, but they were stymied at the department level. The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized eleven projects for work by the Department of Agriculture. SCS did build a few retarding structures, but the USDA General Counsel ruled against building any additional ones. In the late 1940s and early 1950s SCS was having difficulty getting additional programs approved. There the matter rested until floods hit the Missouri River in the early 1950s. Kansas City, Topeka, and Omaha demanded completion of the Pick-Sloan plans for flood control on the tributaries of the Missouri. Farmers and residents who would lose their farms and homes stridently resisted. They offered soil conservation and small dams in the headwaters as an alternative. The most vocal were the residents of the Big Blue Valley, north of Manhattan, Kansas. They were joined by residents of Lincoln, Nebraska, who had formed a Salt-Wahoo group to promote a small watershed program. Elmer Peterson, a journalist from Oklahoma, promoted small dams as an alternative in Big Dam Foolishness.32

That this debate should emanate from Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska was in part related to the climate and geography of the plains where farmers could raise corn in the moist bottomland to supplement the hilly grasslands that were too dry to support crops. A small watershed program would provide flood protection to land already used for agriculture, while large dams would inundate the best agricultural land and leave the land suited to grazing or wheat. Because of soil type and moisture the flood plains of the Missouri River tributaries were prized by farmers. Consider the case of N. A. Brubaker, who had 283 acres of land on the Vermillion River in Kansas. The 83 acres of bottom land that supplied feed for his livestock were about to be lost to the Tuttle Creek Dam. His 200 acres of hill land was nontillable. He posed this dilemma to Senator Arthur Capper, "Now if my bottom land will be effected by the water from the Dam, and taken away from me, what use would I have for the 200-acre pasture, as I would not have any land to raise feed for the live stock, and as there would be so much pasture land left in the same way, there would not be much chance of leasing it."33 A chemistry professor at nearby Kansas State College believed similarly, that the bottomland was the only productive cropland in the Blue River watershed. "The Flint Hills upland provides grazing for cattle but is useless for cropping. There farmers must raise corn on bottomland to finish their cattle. This combination of bottom land for corn and truck farming, and upland for grazing has made the Blue Valley a productive, prosperous region. Without bottom land the entire region will be impoverished and depopulated."34 The Tuttle Creek Dam and others of the Pick-Sloan plan were built, but the small watershed forces persisted. They met with President Eisenhower and secured his blessing. The small watershed program, authorized in the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954, spread to the rest of the country. In addition to flood control on agricultural land, it has been used for protection of rural communities, small towns, recreation, water supply, irrigation, and drainage.

The Great Plains also influenced the conservation provisions in the recent Food Security Act of 1985. The plains have been central to questions of landowners' responsibilities to neighbors in not letting erosion impact on their farms. This, of course, can happen with water erosion, with one farmer in the upper part of the watershed influencing the runoff and sedimentation taking place on a farm in the lower part of the watershed. But the most dramatic examples are usually wind erosion from cropland affecting a neighbor's fields. Generally the cases cited have laid the blame on outside investors looking for a quick profit in wheat. Whether this is an accurate portrayal in all cases, the breaking of rangeland for cropland did in part speed passage of some drastic changes in soil conservation laws and policies. It was undoubtedly one of the factors influencing the conservation provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985.

Probably the opening wedge in events that would change the conservation programs took place with the rise in grain prices following the large Soviet grain deals in the early 1970s. Grain exports for 1973 were double those of 1972, and the price quadrupled from 1970 to 1974.35  At the time Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz released production controls, including the annual set-aside acres. He declared, "For the first time in many years the American farmer is free to produce as much as he can."36 Farmers in many sections of the country responded, but the plains received the most publicity, mostly for the removal of wide windbreaks for center pivot irrigation system.37  A Soil Conservation Service survey later found that new, narrower windbreak plantings between 1970 and 1975 offset the losses.38

As stories of increased soil erosion spread, groups that had played a large role in the environmental movement increasingly turned attention to soil erosion. They--along with allies in Congress--questioned the effectiveness of existing soil conservation programs. The Soil and Water Re-sources Conservation Act of 1977 mandated studies of the soil and water conservation programs and the development of new policies to attack the problem. The lobbying and studies resulted in some changes in policies, but the drastic changes came with the 1985 farm bill. Events in the plains played a key role in the new conservation authorities that would appear in the bill. Between 1977 and 1982 wheat farmers planted large tracts of grassland in Montana (1.8 million acres), South Dakota (750,000 acres), and Colorado (572,000 acres). In some places the resulting wind erosion proved a nuisance to neighbors. Some vocal and effective local landowners such as Edith Steiger Phillips of Keota, Colorado, wanted action. The Coloradans persuaded Senator Williams Armstrong in 1981 to introduce a bill that would deprive those who plowed fragile lands of price support payments. Such payments have long been seen as inducing speculation and reducing normal caution in planting very erodible land to wheat. Mainline groups like the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation supported the legislative effort. Several counties in Colorado, including Weld County where Edith Phillips lived, and Petroleum County in Montana passed ordinances to try to prevent plowing on grasslands.

The Armstrong bill, finally dubbed the "sodbuster bill" did not become law. USDA wanted to wait for the next reauthorization of the general farm bill to consider any new provisions, but the pressure from the Great Plains gave some grass roots support for changes in the conservation provisions. The Food Security Act linked soil conservation to eligibility for other USDA programs. The act included sodbuster as well as other conservation provisions. The framers of this act especially wanted to eliminate the possibility that commodity price support programs encouraged poor soil conservation practices. Under the conservation compliance section farmers have until 1990 to begin applying a conservation plan on highly erodible land, and until 1995 to fully implement the conservation plan in order to stay eligible for other USDA programs.

The sodbuster provision applies to any highly erodible field that was neither planted to an annual crop nor used as set-aside or diverted acres under a USDA commodity program for at least one year between December 31, 1980 and December 23, 1985. If farmers wish to bring such land into production, they would lose eligibility for USDA programs unless they applied an approved conservation system to control erosion on the fields. The swampbuster or wetland conservation stipulated that farmers would lose eligibility for USDA programs if they drained wetlands after December 23, 1985, the date of the passage of the act. A conservation coalition that lobbied for this provision included old-line soil conservation organizations like the Soil and Water Conservation Society of America and the National Association of Conservation Districts as well as environmental groups. Prominent officials in USDA such as John Block and Peter Myers favored many of the provisions. But the grass roots examples of support from the plains influenced Congress even more. This is a prime example but not the only one of the way commodity programs instigated the use of land for cropland that would be better suited to rangeland. Emotionally, the conversion of rangeland to cropland has an appeal that catches the public attention more than erosion from cropland in the humid east. The 1985 provisions are some of the most far-reaching we have seen in agriculture. They are premised on the idea that some USDA programs induced the use of erodible land that would not have occurred otherwise. The Great Plains, as they so often did, served as the prime example for changes in soil conservation policies.39


1 Hugh H. Bennett, The Hugh Bennett Lectures (Raleigh, North Carolina: The Agricultural Foundation, Inc., North Carolina State College, 1959), 23.

2 This episode is agency folklore around the Soil Conservation Service. I was skeptical of its veracity. In the records of the Soil Conservation Service in National Archives, I located some telegrams which indicated that Bennett was usually informed about the location of dust storms. Then I found that Bennett had told fellow North Carolinian and author Jonathan Daniels about the episode. Another variation of the story, which I have not confirmed, is that Bennett had the Senate hearing delayed until the dust storm's anticipated arrival. Jonathan Daniels, Tar Heels: A Portrait of North Carolina (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1941), 188. Wayne Rasmussen also investigated this question and concluded from Senate hearings that the story was probably true. Wayne D. Rasmussen, "History of Soil Conservation, Institutions and Incentives," in Harold G. Halcrow, et al., eds., Soil Conservation Policies, Institutions, and Incentives (Ankeny, Iowa: Soil Conservation Society of America, 1982), 7.

3 Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1979), 5.

4 Paul Bonnifield, The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), 130.

5 R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History (Chicago, Illinois: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1981), 156.

6 Hugh Hammond Bennett, Soil Conservation (New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939), 739.

7 Donald T. Pendleton, "Home, Home on the Range," Journal of NAL Associates 7 (1982): 78-93.

8 Russell Lord, To Hold This Soil, USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 321 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1938), 67.

9 Lord, To Hold This Soil, p. 67.

10 Donald T. Pendleton, "Range Conditions and Secondary Succession as Used in the Soil Conservation Service," in press, 4.

11 E. J. Dyksterhuis, "Condition and Management of Range Land Based on Quantitative Ecology," Journal of Range Management 2 (July 1949): 104.

12 Thomas N. Shiflet, "Range Sites and Soils in the United States," in Arid Shrublands: Proceedings of the Their Workshop of the United States-Australian Rangelands Panel (Tucson, Arizona, 1973), 26-33.

13 Dyksterhuis, "Condition and Management of Range Land," 111.

14 National Survey, Conservation Tillage Practices, 1988 (West Lafayette, Indiana: National Association of Conservation Districts, 1988), 6.

15 Data Base, National Resources Inventory, 1982. Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

16 Salina (Kansas) Journal, March 15, 1989, 1.

17 "Wind Erosion Worst in Over 30 Years,.' USDA News Release 789-89. June 19, 1989.

18 For a view that questions the presumptions of the early soil conservationists working in the Great Plains see especially James Malin's "Men, the State of Nature, and Climate," and other essays in Robert P. Swierenga, James C. Malin, History and Ecology: Studies of Grassland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 1-374.

19 R. Douglas Hurt, "Return of the Dust Bowl: The Filthy Fifties," Journal of West 28 (1979): 89-90; "Federal Cost-Sharing for Drought Emergency Conservation Measures, 1954-1956, Agricultural Conservation Program," Drought File, General Correspondence, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, Record Group 16, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

20 Recommendations of the Soil Conservation Service to the Departmental Committee on Land Use Problems in the Great Plains, May 12, 1955, Historical SCS Reports File, Great Plains Conservation Program Files, Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

21 Preliminary Report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Possible Solutions for Agricultural Problems of the Great Plains, May 1955, Historical SCS Reports, Great Plains Conservation Program Files, SCS, Washington, D.C.

22 Program for the Great Plains, U.S. Congress, House Document No. 289, 84th Cong. 2d. sess., 1956, p. 4.

23 Great Plains Conservation Program, U.S. Congress, House, Hearings before the Committee on Agriculture, 84th Cong., 2d. sess., 1956, pp. 1-36.

24 Interview with Ervin L. Peterson, September 9, 1981, History Office, Soil Conservation Service. Washington, D.C.

25 Minutes. Great Plains Inter-agency Group, December 17, 1956, Great Plains Conservation Program Files, Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

26 Minutes, Great Plains Inter-agency Group, December 17, 1956 and February 17, 1957, Great Plains Conservation Program Files, Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

27 H. H. Finnell, "Pity the Poor Land," Soil Conservation 12 (September 1946): 31-32.

28 John T. Schlebecker, Cattle Raising on the Plains, 1900-1962 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 149.

29 J. C. Dykes and J. B. Slack, A minority report from the Farm and Ranch Planning Task Force, February 19, 1957, Great Plains Inter-agency Group, Great Plains Conservation Program Files, Soil Conservation Service, Washington, D.C.

30 Douglas Helms, Great Plains Conservation Program (Washington, D.C.: Soil Conservation Service, 1981), 1-22.

31 Great Plains Conservation Program Evaluation: Part II: Background and Summary Statistics (Prepared mainly by James A. Lewis) (Washington, D.C.: Soil Conservation Service, 1987), 19-20.

32 Douglas Helms, "Small Watersheds and the USDA: Legacy of the Flood Control Act of 1936," in The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present, and Future (Chicago, Illinois: Public Works Historical Society, 1988), 67-88; Homer E. Socolofsky, "The Great Flood of 1951 and The Tuttle Creek Controversy," in John D. Bright, ed., Kansas: The First Century, Vol. II. (New York, N.Y.: Lewis Publishing Company, Inc., 1956), 494-502.

33 N. A. Brubaker, Bigelow, Kansas, to Arthur Capper, January 24, 1946, Albert Cole Collection, Kansas State Historical Society. Topeka, Kansas.

34 J. L. Hall, Department of Chemistry, Manhattan, Kansas to Clifford R. Hope, May 7, 1953. Clifford R. Hope Collection, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.

35 Sandra A. Batie, Crisis in America's Cropland (Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation, 1983), 5.

36 Earl L. Butz, "Produce and Protect," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 28 (1973): 250-251.

37 Kenneth E. Grant, "Erosion in 1973-1974: The Record and the Challenge," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 30 (1975) : 29-32.

38 Field Windbreak Removals in Five Great Plains States, 1970 to 1975 (Washington, D.C.: Soil Conservation Service, 1980), 1-15.

39 Douglas Helms, "New Authorities and New Roles: SCS and the 1985 Farm Bill," in press. In an issue titled Implementing the Conservation Provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985 (Ankeny, Iowa: Soil and Water Conservation Society).

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