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USDA NRCS Celebrates Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett's Birthday

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April 15, 2021

NRCS Celebrates the Birthday of Hugh Hammond Bennett

Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett: Sparked the Creation of a Conservation Agency and a Conservation Movement

Today’s farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners are better prepared to maintain healthy and resilient soil due to the tireless efforts and contributions of Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the Soil Conservation Service’s (SCS) first Chief and the Father of Soil Conservation, who was born 140 years ago on April 15, 1881.

A maverick and visionary, Bennett knew that productive soils would help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners protect their livelihoods. Protecting soil and water resources served as the foundational mission of the agency he led for 16 years. Even then, Bennett, a scientist, knew good science must be the foundation for voluntary conservation on private lands.

Bennett’s mission was to reduce or prevent soil and water erosion on the nation’s agricultural land and grasslands. He was so driven by this purpose that he made conservation his life’s work. He saw the devastating impacts of soil and water erosion such as the huge gullies and loss of productive agricultural land.

Among his stellar achievement was his leadership of SCS, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Enduring concepts that resulted from his leadership was that agency employees must walk the land, engage with the landowner/land-user, and see firsthand the natural challenges and opportunities they faced. Bennett also understood that natural resource concerns could not be treated in isolation; soil, water, air, plants, animals, and humans are all part of an integrated system with interdependencies.

Bennett also designed the blueprint to establish the soil and water conservation district structure nationwide and is credited as the founder of the Soil Conservation Society, the predecessor of the current Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Bennett was born on a cotton farm near Wadesboro in Anson County, North Carolina, the home of the nation’s first soil and water conservation district. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree with emphasis in chemistry and geology from the University of North Carolina in June 1903. After graduation, he accepted a position as a soil scientist with the Bureau of Soils within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

He loved working outdoors mapping soils. He completed many soil surveys but the soil survey of Louisa County, Virginia, profoundly affected him. Convinced that soil erosion was a national menace, he was determined to pursue his theory until he found solutions to correct the devastating impacts of soil and water erosion on the nation’s agricultural lands and grasslands.

Bennett was also a gifted orator and prolific writer. His highly publicized testimony about the importance of soil conservation spurred Congress to pass the Soil Conservation Act of April 27, 1935, which created the Soil Conservation Service. On the day Bennett testified, he knew a dust storm would travel from the bare fields in the Great Plains all the way to Washington, D.C. He stalled his testimony until the dust clouds darkened the sky over the U.S. Capitol. Once the senators saw the darkened skies, the enabling legislation to create SCS, a permanent agency under USDA, passed unanimously.

Bennett changed the trajectory of agriculture at a time of great crisis. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. Bennett understood that the treatment of soil determined its long-term productivity.

Hugh Hammond Bennett, thank you for your vision and your dedication. Happy 140th birthday to you. Your voluntary, incentive-based approach to conservation still exists today.

To learn more about Hugh Hammond Bennett’s remarkable life, read his biography or this article on the NRCS website.

Quotes by Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett

Note – These quotes remain as relevant today as when he spoke them more than a century ago. Bennett was the first chief of the Soil Conservation Service. He is considered the Father of the Conservation Movement.

➢ “Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.”

➢ “National action may be led and aided by government, but the soil must be conserved ultimately by those who till the land and live by its products.”

➢ “In this democracy, national action to conserve soil must be generated by these millions of land users. If they are active and willing participants in such a movement, it will endure; otherwise it will fail.”

➢ “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.”

➢ “Conservation farming put first things first by attending to the needs of the soil—by seeing to it that the starting off place, the base, is put into sound health and kept that way. Any other approach, no matter what it may be, always has and always must lead eventually to agricultural disaster.”

➢ “Too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food.”

➢ “Almost invariably, conservation farming—which, after all, is common sense farming with scientific methods—begins to show results the very first years it is applied.”

➢ “…land must be nurtured; not plundered and wasted.”

➢ “Before any work is done, each farm or ranch is carefully analyzed, both as a piece of land and as a business enterprise.”

➢ “I consider the soil conservation districts movement one of the most important developments in the whole history of agriculture.”

➢ “One of the best, and certainly the most promising, of the devices yet invented by man for dealing democratically and effectively with maladjustment in land use, as well as for carrying forward positive programs of desirable conservation, and for maintaining the work, is the soil conservation district.”

➢ “…soil conservation is not just an incidental bit of the mechanics of farming; it becomes part and parcel of the whole business of making a living from the land, and is the only way by which we may have permanently productive land for a permanent agriculture to support a permanent nation.”

Additional Resources

Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett’s Biography

NRCS History on the NRCS website

Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett Quotes

Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett Speeches


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