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

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


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