This is the time of year when awards are given for those working to conserve the most valuable resource in agriculture – the soil. Hopefully you had the opportunity to review the winners and articles recently in the Tribune. There are several categories of awards with the focus on protecting soil and providing habitat for wildlife. Many probably wonder why this matters. The answer is simple – even if you live in Manhattan, Kansas or New York, your life is impacted everyday by the soil and what it provides. It isn’t an accident that banks help sponsor many of these awards as they realize soil impacts the bottom line for crop and livestock production. To help understand this, a brief bit of history is helpful.
These awards are linked to the NRCS, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, formerly the SCS, the Soil Conservation Service. The SCS was founded in the 1930s to deal primarily with the problem of soil erosion. Two major factors came together to help this happen. The country was in the Great Depression, an economic crisis much of agriculture was experiencing before 1929. And perhaps more importantly, the public was made aware of problems in agricultural production through a major catastrophic event – The Dust Bowl and its effects such as the migration of people from the Great Plains to states like California. Just as important though was the loss of soil from water erosion in much of the U.S., particularly in the Corn Belt. Soil erosion, by wind and water, were becoming more problematic as mechanization replaced real “horse” power. This allowed aggressive tillage, primarily moldboard plowing, to be more easily conducted leading to bare soil very susceptible to wind and water erosion.
At this time, herbicides to control weeds were several decades away so tillage was needed for weed control. And at this time, inorganic fertilizers, common today, were just starting to make their mark. This combined with cultivars for common crops having much lower production potential than today worked to provide less plant growth for soil protection. One other factor leading to especially the Dust Bowl was the government promoting the production of wheat and other grains back in the 1910s to supply food to Europe and other areas of the world. This resulted in land in the Great Plains best suited for grassland being converted to cropland to supply grain needs which worked fine until the Ag economy cratered in the 1920s and severe drought occurred.
The government and farmers realized there was a problem that needed addressed. However, there was little in the way of research on how to address these problems and almost no fact based procedures to prevent erosion from either the USDA or the land-grant universities. This led to the development of the SCS to perform two basic functions. Stop the loss of soil using available information and through research develop techniques to stabilize soil and start to improve/restore soil quality. And make sure the techniques were practical for producers and help them through education and monies to adopt these practices. So along with land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension – the modern conservation movement was born.
The awards presented annually today are an outgrowth of this process to help recognize those operators, businesses and individuals who have worked over a long period of time to protect and restore the quality of our environment.