Hugh Hammond Bennett: The Story of America’s Private Lands Conservation Movement

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Hugh Hammond Bennett: The Story of America’s Private Lands Conservation Movement

Music NARRATOR: American agriculture feeds the world One American farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people Agriculture provides jobs to more than 17 million people in the US It’s the backbone of rural economies and rural communities But the world is changing… The industry will face new challenges The global population is increasing… In the next 25 years, the population is expected to reach 9 billion people Agricultural land is shrinking By some estimates, we lose 40 acres of farmland every hour to development Extreme weather events, like severe droughts and flooding, are becoming the norm American farmers understand that healthy production is sustainable production Protecting our soil, air, water, and wildlife means protecting our future Being prepared for the challenges ahead In the US, much of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned The health and productivity of that land is determined by the decisions farmers and ranchers make every day More than 100 years ago, a young scientist named Hugh Hammond Bennett recognized this Weller: As a young man, as a young scientist, yes – he was way ahead of his time The way farmers were treating their soils was not going to be successful for the long-term NARRATOR: He made it his mission to have that story told… Gillis: He was a big man with a good voice He was a good speaker… Bennett: Much of this destroyed land… Gillis: …and very impressive Bennett: …should never have been plowed… NARRATOR: To change the trajectory of agriculture at a time of great crisis Richards: Well, he had to be a real innovator and he had to be a man with a vision And he was there at a time when our land was really in big trouble NARRATOR: His work set the stage for a new way of farming, one that considered the unique qualities of the soil, that used science and research to achieve maximum results with minimum impact, that put sustainability at the forefront – linking conservation and agriculture together McDaniel: The visionary that Hugh Hammond Bennett was and the things that he did 80 years ago are still pertinent to conservation and taking care of our water quality, our soils and our air NARRATOR: This is the story of a conservation movement It’s the story of a Nation recovering from disaster Mundende: Without him, at that particular time, we would have had a different United States Weckstrom: We all have a lot to learn by things he said and he did and I think we need to continually look back at what he did NARRATOR: It’s the story of determination and perseverance amid a sea of opposing forces White: Bennett persevered in the face of adversity He was 47 years old before anyone really began to take him seriously NARRATOR: It’s the story of the foundation of a national agency dedicated to the needs of American farmers and preserving our natural resources for the future Music swells to finish Music NARRATOR: In the early 1900s, the Great Plains were considered the last frontier of American agriculture Lush, native grasslands held the promise of prosperity for farmers Wheat was in high demand Generous farm policies and a series of wet years created a land boom New machinery meant easier and faster farming Soils that had been covered and protected by grass for thousands of years were exposed to the elements for the first time Cook: There was the homesteading movement and the encouragement to farmers to plow up land that really should not have been plowed initially NARRATOR: According to some reports, between the late 1800s and 1930 more than one hundred million acres of land in the Plains were plowed Music NARRATOR: Hugh Hammond Bennett was a farmer’s son who grew up in Anson County, North Carolina in the late 1800s As a kid, Bennett and his eight siblings worked on their father’s cotton plantation

He helped lay out terrace lines — digging channels in hilly ground to help keep the water in the soil He once asked his father why they had to do this exhausting work “Boy, it’s to keep the land from washing away!” Those words would stick with him His first job out of college was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture He spent his days digging in the soil; classifying the different soil types Two years into the job he was sent to Louisa County, Virginia Crop yields were dropping and farmers didn’t know why White: And it was here that he had his epiphany Bennett came across a field And one part of it was in natural forest and the other part was in cropland And he noticed the soil in the forest was rich with life And over here in the cropland it was dry and friable And yet Bennett knew at one time this has been the same soil And he realized, at that moment, that how we treat the soil will determine our long-term productivity He was into sustainability before we knew what it was Typing sounds NARRATOR: A few years later, USDA released a bulletin stating “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.” Bennett would later say he didn’t know “so much costly misinformation could be put into a single brief sentence.” He tried to spread the word about his revelation, but didn’t get the reaction he hoped for Cook: He was a bright young man but just needed settling down – I think that was the general feeling of his superiors He was officially rebuffed many times, and yet he did not give up He persisted telling the story of soil erosion and what he called a national menace Music NARRATOR: Bennett spent the next 20 years studying soils throughout the U.S. and abroad In 1918, he served in the US Army as a First Lieutenant of engineers Bennett published articles in journals and magazines in hopes of getting national attention of the soil erosion epidemic He took advantage of every opportunity to talk about it From large groups to small town gatherings, his voice resonated When “Big Hugh” got going, his presence alone commanded attention Jim L. Gillis, Jr. of Georgia was an early believer in Bennett’s philosophy Gillis: The extent of my work with him was when we’d go to these joint meetings promoting soil and water conservation We eventually got everybody involved in it But he was a better speaker than I was (laughs) Music NARRATOR: Folks described Bennett as a talented orator who spoke in simple terms He had a knack for telling a good story He wasn’t part of the Washington establishment He was a farmer, with calloused hands and sun-baked skin, who spoke the right language Cook: He was a man who wore many hats – and he seemed to wear the right hat at the right time Weckstrom: We called him granddaddy He always had answers that were down to Earth, but he was very much the farmer in my eyes because I just would always see him out working Music NARRATOR: By 1929, the erosion problem was getting more attention from lawmakers USDA was given funding for soil erosion research and Bennett was asked to lead the work He jumped at the chance and began setting up experiment stations – soil research centers — in the hardest hit areas of the country In October of that year, the stock market crashed The Great Depression followed Wheat prices plummeted Farmers in the Plains plowed up even more land to try to recoup their losses When prices dropped further, many abandoned their fields Between 1930 and 1935, 150,000 people moved out of the Great Plains in a mass exodus From the Dakotas to Texas, millions of acres of native grasses had been wiped out In its place was exposed soil Mundende: And then the droughts came, together with the depression, and obviously then when the wind started blowing, it just blew that soil away from us NARRATOR: Huge sweeping dust storms – called “black blizzards” – became common Music NARRATOR: When President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, he spoke of stabilizing the economy and providing relief to those

who were suffering He implemented a series of experimental programs, known collectively as The New Deal Soil erosion was now recognized as a national epidemic and a national emergency Through the New Deal, funding was set aside for emergency soil erosion work In August 1933, a temporary emergency relief organization called the Soil Erosion Service was set-up in the Department of Interior Hugh Hammond Bennett was asked to lead the work Newsreel Announcer: Listen to the warning of Hugh Bennett, Director of United States Soil Erosion Service Bennett: We Americans have been the greatest destroyers of land of any race or people, barbaric or civilized Unless immediate steps are taken to restore grass to millions of acres of these sun-scorched, wind-eroded lands, we shall have on our hands a new man-made Sahara, where formerly was rich grazing land Music NARRATOR: Bennett swiftly gathered his dream team: a core group of engineers, biologists, economists, soil surveyors and technicians He set forth how business would be conducted: They would work with nature and not against it; They would assess the needs on each piece of land and make recommendations based on what they found There was no one-size-fits-all approach Often several conservation activities, working together as a “conservation system,” would be necessary They would consider that land’s place within the entire watershed Bennett pushed his team to get out from behind the desk They would go on the farmer’s land and walk with him side-by-side Together they would decide what should be done to conserve soil and water and help ensure healthy production Success could only be realized by combining scientific principals with practicality It was as much of an art as it was a science Bennett: Farmers liked the farm plan the way it was made Farmer and conservation technician walking over the farm, field by field, acre by acre, cooperatively developed the farm conservation plan A blueprint for soil conservation action No work was started until the farmer approved the plan NARRATOR: Through demonstration projects in select watersheds, Bennett showcased how conservation practices could turn a farm around This was visible proof to other farmers that these practices worked They would serve to help farmers take the leap to trying something new The first demonstration project was set up in 1933 near La Crosse, Wisconsin: The Coon Creek Watershed Project Weller: And this was a place where there was a lot of erosion challenges And they put in place contour strips, terraces, grassed waterways – a lot of different practices we still use today And they were starting to see real results for landscape-scale conservation Music NARRATOR: Bennett enlisted the help of young men from the Civilian Conservation Corps — the CCC — to work on these projects In speaking to the group he said, “We are not merely crusaders, but soldiers on the firing line of defending the vital substance of our homeland.” As this work went on, the dust storms continued across the country This period became known as the Dust Bowl… Music – ominous drone White: So, on May 12, 1934, everything that Bennett predicted in 1905 came true One of the great dust storms occurred – from Montana in the north to Texas in the south – dust so thick visibility was limited to a few feet There was a lot of concern in the Capitol and a lot of bills were filed And one of the bills was to establish a permanent agency called the Soil Conservation Service Helms: There was a bit of a tussle between the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture as to where it should be And President Roosevelt finally made the decision that it would be in the Department of Agriculture Cook: And there was a Senate committee having a hearing and Bennett was invited to present the case Helms: Now, on that day there was a dust storm which had come through Kansas So they expected it in Washington Bennett: Its’ arrival I thought might settle any Senatorial misgivings Weckstrom: But It didn’t come as soon as he thought it was going to be, so he had to delay the whole Senate hearings He made up things to delay it Cook: Citing a lot of data, biding for time, some of the Senators fell asleep, but he kept on going and finally around mid-afternoon, the storm hit D.C White: And as Bennett was testifying, the room darkens Helms: And he said: we took a little time off and went to the window and saw the dust storm Bennett: A modern miracle One of the senators remarked: its getting dark Another senator ventured: maybe it’s dust

I said: you’re right, Senator It’s another dust storm We went back to that table and I was feeling pretty good White: The bill passed unanimously – not one dissenting vote – establishing the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 Cook: The first soil conservation act in this country or in any country White: And Bennett was put in charge of it Music Newsreel Announcer: From Washington come U.S Department of Agriculture soil experts To prevent the spread of erosion, partially damaged land is terraced and contoured From grasslands, sod is stripped and transplanted to barren ground New vegetation produced by scientific strip planting gives hope to the farmers of the Dust Bowl Music NARRATOR: Bennett and SCS leaders recognized that the work needed to happen faster on the land They needed more local voices… experts who knew the farmers and their families and the history of the soil in their backyards McDaniel: Farming operations are not like a franchise where you might have one size fits all Every one’s different The local people know the land and the people best in their own neighborhood So Bennett had it right by saying: locally led is the way to go Music NARRATOR: They developed a blueprint for creating local organizations to help farmers, called soil conservation districts In support, President Roosevelt sent a letter to state governors urging them to implement the districts in their states He expressed the need to take action to control erosion warning that “The Nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” On August 4th, 1937, the Brown Creek Soil Conservation District, in Bennett’s home town of Anson County, North Carolina, became the first district to implement the blueprint There are now more than 3,000 conservation districts across the U.S Cook: Bennett said himself later on that he considered the establishment of the soil and water conservation districts one of the greatest advancements in all of agriculture Because that did bring the landowner, the farmer, into the picture and really got conservation on the ground, as we like to say Bennett: The districts belong to the farmers, who brought them into existence and they remain under farmer direction and I hope will continue to remain so NARRATOR: Hugh Hammond Bennett served as Chief of the Soil Conservation Service until his retirement in 1951 He continued to work and speak on soil conservation, which included advising the Secretary of Agriculture In 1959, the year before his death, he said, “From every conceivable angle—economic, social, cultural, public health, national defense—conservation of natural resources is an objective on which all should agree.” Mundende: Hugh Hammond Bennett is a national hero because the impact of the programs that he started will live long after, you know, all of us are gone Music NARRATOR: In 1994, Congress changed the name of the Soil Conservation Service to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to better reflect the scope of the agency’s work NRCS’s role in implementing conservation programs has increased, along with funding from Congress Today, NRCS uses many of the same tactics that Bennett laid out more than 80 years ago Hillsman: Our mission has always been voluntary conservation – working with conservation districts to identify what are the local resources concerns And it helps us to have that trust and to maintain that trust with the farmers, where we’re always able to come out on their farms and help them meet their conservation goals on their land NARRATOR: NRCS taps into the latest science and research and proven conservation practices to help them see results for their operations This work is helping American farmers prepare for what’s ahead – from systems that improve the health of the soil and water to restoring wetlands and wildlife populations Through conservation, NRCS and American producers are helping to ensure the health of our natural resources, and the long-term sustainability of American agriculture Richards: You leave things better than you found it, no matter what that is And that is sustainability NARRATOR: Progress is not inevitable It is the result of the choices we make every day And there is much at stake in the choices that lie before us In 1943 Bennett said: “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 an avenue to the greatest food production the world has ever known.” Weller: Today when we look at what the UN forecasts and the need to produce on a landscape to feed a world population 9 billion or 10 billion by the year 2050, how do we do this without destroying our natural resource base? Hugh Hammond Bennett laid out a great vision for where we need to go, and his legacy lives on Music comes to conclusion