By Kimberly Neumann
Acting Indiana State Conservationist
As I watched the premier of the new Ken Burns documentary The Dust Bowl on television last weekend, it reminded me of the heartbreaking stories this past summer as extreme heat and drought ravaged our state causing widespread devastation and loss.
We all felt helpless as we watched crops wither, livestock being sold off, gardens fail, and the ground crack for lack of moisture. Compared to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, we have to agree we were much better prepared this time.
With Indiana’s farmers still recovering from the recent drought, Burns documentary is timely. It chronicles the human stories behind the cataclysmic events of the 1930s in the very words of those who lived through it, and reminds us why protecting our soil resource is so important.
In response to the devastation of the dust bowl, Hugh Hammond Bennett, considered to be the father of conservation in America, founded the Soil Erosion Service in 1933, as a temporary agency in the Department of the Interior to demonstrate practical conservation methods to farmers. A year later, a fierce dust storm swept across the Great Plains toward the east coast with such ferocity that the dust was found aboard ships in the Atlantic Ocean.
Following that event, the Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS) was established in 1934 to help landowners utilize conservation practices to stop soil erosion.
The agency was much needed since “black blizzards” had stripped topsoil from more than 100 million acres of cropland by December 1935. Soil scientists have determined that it takes, on average about 500 years for an inch of topsoil to form, so losing that much soil from the central part of the United States was like watching thousands of years of productivity being lost forever.
Today, NRCS still works one on one with private landowners to implement conservation practices that help protect natural resources like soil, water, air, plants and animals. Over the past 77 years, NRCS has worked with farmers and ranchers to put conservation on more than 97 million acres of agricultural and forest lands.
Bennett said “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.” This statement is truer today than ever, as NRCS works to address modern issues like climate change and develops methods for feeding an ever-growing population.
Soil conservation remains a priority, as it helps producers increase their yields while ensuring the land becomes more resilient to erosion, drought and other natural resource threats.
Many conservation practices help improve soil quality – because healthy soils are the foundation for healthy working lands.
USDA studies show that soil erosion is reduced by 43 percent on lands that use conservation practices.
They call the Dust Bowl the greatest man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history. By creating this documentary, Burns has brought to us a gift – a chance to look back at our history and learn important lessons from it.
I encourage everyone to watch this important program and visit your local NRCS office to learn more about how you can take care of the land and improve your soil’s health.