Saving the Soil



ON ONE of the field trips of the Friends of the Land, at the end of a hot June day in Missouri, a courtly gentleman in a fisherman’s floppy hat invited me to have a glass of beer. “Good for the digestion,” he explained.

All day he had been the first out of his automobile at every stop of the caravan, the first to crawl through a fence, the first to shake his head over the sparse hillside pastures, and the last to get back into the automobile. Over our beer I learned that he was an industrialist from Ohio who did not own a farm, had never lived on a farm, did not intend to buy a farm, had no relatives on a farm, and was not clear himself why he had come to the St. Louis convention.

“I heard them in Columbus when they were there, and liked the talk” was the best explanation he could offer.

This industrialist and the whole Friends of the Land movement are symbolic of a feeling for the soil which is stirring America. “He is the greatest patriot who stops the most gullies,” said Patrick Henry, and after one hundred and fifty years America suddenly heard the words.

The country had been overplanted and overgrazed. The wind was picking up topsoil in Oklahoma and was staining the clouds red with it over New York. Water was clawing gullies into sloping fields of the Middle West and the South. That was the way of America — careless, wasteful, ignorant, blind. Then suddenly a great many Americans were determined to save the land. The combination of a depression, a drought, and intelligent politics opened American ears to the story of our wasting soil.

The Friends of the Land devote themselves to this cause. Their second president was an Ohio surgeon who first became interested in the land by looking down on it from his airplane. When he found himself repeatedly flying on a wing tip in rapt contemplation of the earth, he hired a pilot. Their most active vice-president is Louis Bromfield, who is as right about the land as he was wrong in his articles predicting hunger in 1944. Their meetings are a combination of late hours at a bar and early hours at near-by farms. They listen with equal attention to scientific reports on soil chemistry and to tubthumping oratory in praise of the land, the grass which restores it, and the agriculture which sustains it.

They have their own quarterly, The Land, which Russell Lord somehow keeps vibrant with their poetic and religious zeal. In it the tractor is likely to be berated as the enemy of the earthworm, and men who drain ponds reviled as unworthy of human companionship. These ardent spirits include scholars, writers, doctors, government officials, engineers, foresters, farm managers, farm owners, and even a few farmers. They help give the land crusade its intellectual validity, just as such organizations as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference give it religious validity.

More than a decade ago in The Farm, Louis Bromfield had Old Jamie say in bitter prophecy, “Some day there will come a reckoning and the country will discover that farmers are more necessary than traveling salesmen, that no nation can exist or have any solidity which ignores the land. But it will cost the country. There’ll be hell to pay before they find it out.”

There are many signs that the awakening has come. Protection of the land certainly belongs on any list of fundamental conclusions about farming for an industrial society. I do not propose to argue the necessity of anything now so generally recognized and so ardently advanced, but merely to show what is necessary to keep the present movement from trickling away in talk. The danger is that we shall adopt the language of soil conservation as we adopted the language of Jefferson’s agrarian philosophy, speaking in comfortable generalities about saving the land while all the time the land is being misused. Right now there is a hopeful balance between intellectualizing and action.


FEW farmers in America have ever said, “We must save this soil so that the nation can remain industrially strong.” It is good that conservation did not have to wait on this simple truth, still so remote from everyday thinking. Conservation was given its start in the fields by farmers looking ahead to the next year and by a few cities looking ahead to the next decade.

Forest Lemon was a sound sleeper as long as he was a tenant on a hill farm in Woodford County, just across the McLean County line. Then he bought a farm. A few weeks later he walked into a near-by Civilian Conservation Corps camp. “I can’t sleep for thinking about that rolling land washing away,” he told the technicians in charge. “Can you make it so I won’t be worrying all the time?”

CCC crews set up soil-saving practices over his entire 1000 acres. Today only 175 acres of it is in corn, a crop which invites erosion. The rest is tied down to the slopes and hills by thick, carefully tended pasture for his blooded livestock. Forest Lemon is a prosperous “white-fence farmer” now, but before the place began to pay he borrowed money to create a pond — the mark of a conservationist on the land.

A line drawn on the map from Lemon’s farm will cut across McLean County and end at the city of Decatur, two counties to the south. Decatur is a city of 60,000 on the Sangamon. A quarter of a century ago it built a dam, creating a lake just a few blocks from the business district. Industries, among them soybean processing, grew up because of this water.

To supply the processors, soybeans were planted in greater and greater numbers along the slopes draining to the upper Sangamon. The soybean is a plant with a good name as a soil builder; but cultivated in the traditional straight rows up and down hillsides and harvested for the beans, it is a soil destroyer. More and more soil washed into Lake Decatur. Now a quarter of a century old, it is about a quarter filled with silt.

A few years ago one of the soybean processors, noting the decreasing water supply, began to look in other cities for a site. To save its industry, Decatur appropriated $25,000 a year and began to work back along the Sangamon to stop erosion at the source. This work reached into the nine eastern townships of McLean County. They were organized into a soil conservation district in accordance with state and Federal laws.

The Federal government entered soil conservation work actively in 1930 when Congress established ten experiment stations across the country to study ways of halting erosion. In 1935 the Soil Conservation Service was established as part of the Department of Agriculture. Its purpose is to supply technical advice to farmers who form themselves into conservation districts. When the nine townships in the eastern part of the county formed their district, Clint Morgan, a soil technician, moved into a basement room in the Bloomington post office.

From the hill farms such as Forest Lemon’s on one edge of the county and from the townships along the Sangamon on the other edge, the prairie farmers in between learned that anti-erosion practices will increase yields. At one time they had imagined themselves free of such problems because their land lies seemingly flat for mile upon mile and rolls gently where it rolls at all. But they learned. “Wouldn’t a district taking in the whole county be a good thing?” they began to ask.

A state law, passed to conform to Federal regulations, says a district can be enlarged after 50 per cent of the landowners ask for a public hearing. The needed signatures were obtained by 225 farmers working in committees, and the meeting was held in the Farm Bureau building.

“It sounded like an old-time revival,” reported Frank Bill, the farm editor of our paper, the Daily Pantagraph.

“The only bad thing about this erosion control is that it didn’t start twenty-five years ago,” said Elmer Fulton.

“Tenant farmers want it; on some farms they are more alarmed than the owners,” said G. A. Wagner.

“We want to conserve the soil for those who will follow us,” said Menno Keim.

So all McLean County is now a soil conservation district. Two more technicians were added to the staff, and an additional soil surveyor was brought in to map the county for erosion control.

If you can get along with barbed wire, follow this soil surveyor, R. J. Arkley, across a section of McLean County land. He clips to a convenient drawing board an air photo of the section he will walk across. With a level he reads the degree of slope by the roadside. He crawls through the first fence and sinks an auger into the soil.

“It will show you the whole story,” he promises. The auger brings up rich black dirt almost 24 inches deep where we stand at the foot of a gentle slope. Twenty feet up the rise there is only 8 inches of good soil left. At the top of the mound the original topsoil is entirely gone. Here the subsoil shows yellow and the stalks from last year’s corn are thin and stunted.

“When this topsoil is gone, the best land in the world is gone” — and Arkley marks the danger signal on the map. His job is to note the general type of soil, the degree of erosion, the amount of slope, and the waterways. The maps will tell what must be done in each of the nation’s thousands of soil conservation districts if loss of topsoil from washing is to be checked.

When Arkley has finished, the face of McLean County will be known as it has never before been known. The soil surveyors, working across the rocky hills of Vermont, the Piedmont’s red acres, the delta lands, the plains, the valleys of California, will tell America, in a few years, more about the condition of the land than it has known in all its previous history.

About two million of America’s six million farmers are now in conservation districts; 60 million acres, about a tenth of the country’s plowed land, have been worked over by the Soil Conservation Service. Another two million farmers would mean that all of the country’s really productive land could be protected against erosion if farmers desired it.


IF FARMERS desired it. Our national soil map will be completed a few years after the war. But what if we take the soil map when it is finished and hang it on a wall to show what clever people we are, while we ignore its use? The people of China have had a map for 4200 years. Terracing, contouring, protective drainage — these were known to the ancient Chinese. Yet the farmers of China have allowed the soil of their country to go on washing to the ocean — in fact, erosion gave a name to the sea which receives China’s mightiest river: the Yellow Sea.

The Chinese are not the only people who have suffered from a dying agriculture while the knowledge necessary to revive it was at their finger tips. We have known a great deal about erosion control ourselves, and even more about the maintenance of fertility. Figures showing that it pays to restore and maintain fertility are stacked high in every Extension Office in the country, but the power of the land to produce has gone steadily down.

If we do finally restore fertility and check erosion, if the Mississippi does not become our Yellow River and the Gulf of Mexico does not become our Yellow Sea, it will be, quite simply, because of American farmers. The country is willing to supply farmers the technical knowledge if they want to use it.

But there are farmers like the man and his sister who live each summer in a filthy, rat-ridden, barefloored house with rags stuffed into broken windows. They are as dirty and as unkempt as the house. I went to their farm several years ago with a friend who was delivering a $2000 automobile. We drove away in one looking almost as new.

“They buy a new one every two years,” my friend said. “Not much of a house, is it? They’ll be driving to Florida as soon as their corn is sold. They spend each winter there, so why do they need a good house here? They’ve got wonderful land. Hope it holds up.”

He was thinking of the automobiles he would sell so long as the land continued to produce good crops. I did not say anything. We drove along in silence until he added by way of defense for such good customers, “They take a bath before they start south.”

There was not a cow or a hog or even a chicken on the place. The brother and sister sell their corn for cash and are killing the power of the land to produce. It is black and flat; but rich as it is, it will not last much longer. The way they live shows that even good land will produce rural slums where there is no desire for anything better. They must actually hate the land. There is something remorseless, a quality almost of cruelty, in their mechanical mining of this 400 acres each growing season.

Such destructive farming is as rare as the psychopathic condition which surely causes it. Twentyyear agricultural depressions, inflated mortgages, land speculation, and the envy of the town are less obvious, but they have worked as surely against the land. They have caused farmers to lose faith in their way of life — the first step toward wasteful farming.

I am thinking of two brothers. There were six boys in the family and each was left a 240-acre farm when their father died. Four left the land, either selling or renting their farms. Of the two who remained, one married; he is the father of four children and serves on the school board; he helped bring an electric line to the community, and has increased the productivity of the soil from 40 bushels an acre to 70 bushels. But, as success is measured in commercial terms, he is not the successful brother.

The successful brother has lived alone for thirty years in a bare, unpainted house. He has put all the money he could get into more land and now owns a dozen farms. But each farm has been depleted of fertility in order to buy others. He is a success. But on the land he is a destroyer.

Dissatisfaction with farm life also results in harmful farming. Many who are farming should be in machine shops or draughtsmen’s offices. In other cases the trouble springs from what the neighbors call laziness. Almost all the rural communities have their lazy farmer, the man who is always late getting his land plowed, late getting the crops planted, late getting them harvested, late in stopping a gully, late in patching a fence. His activities are watched with tolerant amusement by the whole community.

I don’t know what laziness is. With some enviable persons it is only a case of wanting less than others. Sometimes it is poor health. And sometimes, among farmers, I suspect it is a feeling that they are on a treadmill of defeat — that no matter how hard they work, farming in a country like ours will remain a second-class way to make a living. Believing farming already defeated, why should they strive to preserve it? This feeling — and the envy that results— is the price the nation pays for the lag between country living and easier living in the town.


THE agricultural depression between World War I and World War II exacted a terrible price from the land and from farmers who wanted to protect it. There is an intelligent, hard-working, communityminded farmer living near Bloomington who for twenty-five years has been a leader in every movement to improve agriculture. Ever since I have known him I have thought of him as one of those men who have blessed agriculture with an uncommon sense of responsibility and leadership. He told me the story of what this sense of responsibility and leadership cost him.

In 1919 he was living in town and farming about 650 acres. He was offered $280,000 cash for his land. The war boom had not burst, and land was still in demand at inflation prices. He told a banker of the offer.

“Take it,” urged the banker. “Buy Liberty Bonds with the money; they’ll be back to par and you can clip coupons the rest of your life.”

But the farmer had ideas of his own. He had decided to move out to the country, remodel an old house on the farm, landscape the grounds, and make it his home for the rest of his life. He felt there was work for him in the country in addition to managing the farm. The agitation for all-year roads was gaining momentum and he wanted to do what he could for the good of the rural community. So he moved to the country and did not sell.

In a few months the long downward slide began.

“We lost almost everything,” he told me. “We were strong and could fight back. But we almost went down. We lost a third of the land. It came near to breaking both my wife and myself— I don’t mean money, I mean health. Now, after twentyfour years, we are safe, but it took a war. If I had known what was ahead of me, I would have taken that offer in 1919. How many farmers will take similar offers after this war, fearing another long depression?”

He is still working for the rural community, now devising plans for a more efficient drainage system. But he paid too high a price for his decision to move to the country and make it his home as well as his means of livelihood. The nation cannot expect other men to pay it. The average man is not strong enough to survive depressions and still contribute to a better life on the land.

The successful farmers I have mentioned are exceptional in this same way. They have risen above depressions and the distractions of commercial farming to create satisfactory lives for themselves on the soil. I did not select them for this reason. They merely came to mind to illustrate some immediate point. But the farmers who seem to me to represent something sound and hopeful in the corn belt are men who find rural life good. Finding life good, they find it natural to try to preserve it with soil practices which look beyond their own time into the future.

Sometimes they are big farmers. Some of the largest holdings in central Illinois lead in maintaining the soil’s productivity. But there are others, with every advantage of wealth and opportunity, which have been operated to the country’s loss, with fertility going out in a steady stream and little or nothing being restored.

Sometimes the soil preservers are little farmers. There is a man south of Bloomington who has never farmed more than 80 acres. He farms these with such care that he stops his corn planter to adjust the amount of seed from rod to rod across his fields. He knows what the land will do and treats it to get maximum production and still maintain its usefulness. He has put three children through the University of Illinois, has a modern home, and has built soundly for the next generation. His only son will be a farmer when he comes back from the war.

But there are other small farms where poverty alone makes it impossible to put back the soil’s fertility. William A. Albrecht of the University of Missouri has estimated that on typical corn-belt soil the annual outgo of fertility is equal to $8.15 an acre. On a typical 200-acre farm, this amounts to $1630 a year. The cost of putting the essential minerals back into the soil is part of the price an industrial people must pay for sustenance and health. But there are few farms that made enough money between wars to maintain the soil in top condition, even where the farmer desired to do so.

If we are to make use of our soil map to establish a permanent agriculture, we need more than technical knowledge. The knowledge must be put to work, and the driving force must be the common desire of farmers. The desire may come by way of sleepless nights for a hill farmer; or increased yields for prairie farmers; or a mystical feeling for the earth’s goodness; or a patriotic concern for following generations. Whatever the source, the desire to maintain the soil must become a living conviction in the minds of four million American farmers before the soil surveyors can do more than draw maps.

If we were a poor, backward people, our first concern would have to be for technique and money. But for the very reason that we do have such boundless faith in science and display such readiness to put it to work, we must take care that we do not think the task is ended when the money is appropriated and the experts are hired.

The Friends of the Land cannot save the soil. The men with augers cannot save it. A nation which is becoming wise enough to see the importance of soil conservation should also see the importance of starting at the beginning. People are the beginning.

Charles E. Kellogg was thinking both as a soil technician and as a soil philosopher when he wrote in the Department of Agriculture Year Book for 1940: “The final exhaustion of the land follows, not precedes, the exhaustion of the people. In a final effort, exploited people pass their suffering to the land.”


To PUT this same truth another way: where the farm people are not exploited, where they have both material comforts and moral integrity, where they live proudly and at ease without looking with envy on a more attractive life in town, there soil conservation may be achieved.

I wrote an editorial along this line and received a letter a few days later from Gene McBride, a soil surveyor with the Conservation Service, who once delivered the Pantograph in neighboring LeRoy. McBride was making soil maps along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. He described the “miles and miles of tidal marsh and swampy country” made up of the best soil washed down from the farms upstream. But the marshes and swamps have no value for farming.

“Within one square mile of the land I am now surveying,” McBride wrote, “there are eleven gullies. Into any one of them you could drop a small house. Six of these gullies cover 40 acres of land — and families are trying to farm and make a living between the gullies.

“I walked into a little country church one day. Many are in such bad repair that the doors will not close. I thumbed through the attendance record on the pulpit. The highest weekly attendance was 27 people, the highest collection 75 cents. I wonder how many McLean County churches operate on 75 cents a week? I wonder if any will operate on that sum two or three hundred years from now?

“Many of the families in these areas live in houses that McLean County farmers would not use for chickens or hogs. The people look tired and most of them have poor, decayed teeth. Half the stores and business houses are empty in some of the little country towns. [This was written in the midst of war prosperity!]

“Most people might say, ‘This will never happen in McLean County.’ I certainly hope it never gets that far. However, soil erosion is like a cancer. The longer it goes unchecked the harder it is to stop. When I think of McLean County I think of good soils, good homes, good churches, good schools, and happy and healthy people. These things seem much more important to me now that I have seen parts of the country that do not have them any more.”

Land that has lost its productivity keeps its people poor. So the country church with its sagging door and its 75 cents a week is a result of erosion and poor land use. But that is only the surface story. More important is this: the soil did not wash from the fertile Alabama fields into the tidal marshes while an alert, energetic, and solvent class of farmers tried determinedly to hold it. If the soil had been guarded by farmers of this description, it could have been held. For we have the knowledge to hold topsoil and to maintain fertility. But the economic and the social climate made good farming a matter of secondary importance. Other things came first. The ideals of the farming people eroded first. The land merely followed to the infertile marshes.

A poor country school is as sure a sign of erosion as a 40-foot gully down a sloping field. The land around it may be still good. But the school is a rivulet which will grow into a gully. It will detract from the desire of the people on the land to maintain it. It is useless to ask men to treat land as a heritage for the next generation when the farm children of this generation suffer from substandard education. Therefore, just as the Farm Bureau of McLean County took a lead in forming the soil conservation district, it is also taking the lead in improving rural schools. One is as much a soil conservation program as the other.

Understaffed, unattractive churches; lack of community enterprise; isolation because of poor roads; lack of kitchen conveniences and modern plumbing — these are causes of erosion because they create dissatisfaction with farm life. Substitute active churches, community centers, all-year roads, and home comforts — and farmers would have a rural life which by the material standards of twentiethcentury society would be worth cherishing and protecting. If we as a nation are to have a permanent agriculture, we must start by fostering a life on the land which will make soil protection a natural and desirable goal for farmers.

There are many ways in which public policy affects soil conditions aside from what we do through conservation districts. Suppose the present policy of trying to strengthen owner-operators and reduce tenancy were suddenly reversed. If tenancy were to increase, we should find that on thousands of farms all our hope for the soil would be undone. The destructive row crops such as corn and soybeans run from 12 to 20 per cent higher on rented corn-belt farms than on owner-operated farms. A farsighted soil policy would encourage more farmer-owners by offering cheap, long-term credit. It would also check the harmful effects of tenancy by laws guaranteeing renters a return on any improvements they make and protecting them against willful eviction.

There is the matter of food prices. Labor, with its growing political power, should beware of leading an urban consumer movement to fix prices according to what food cost in some particular year or decade of the past. The first consideration in price should be the standard of rural living. Perhaps it will be cheaper in the long run to pay more for our food than we have paid in the past. It is certain that political punishments or economic sanctions against the food producers will harm the soil.

Subsidies are a case in point. Let us lay aside the deep economics, forgetting the arguments about whether subsidies decrease inflation or increase it. Look at subsidies in relation to the soil. If subsidies in lieu of prices destroy the farmers’ confidence in agriculture as a way of life, — appearing to put it in bondage to the whims of the rest of the people, — then subsidies can be as harmful as corn planted in straight rows down a 15-degree slope.

In soil conservation the people are first and the soil is second. As a nation we are forever thinking of our social and economic problems in terms of patchwork after the harm has been done. Our way is to build a dam after the gully has been cut or to establish public diet assistance after the land has been destroyed. The time to stop more gullies and more rural slums is now, and the way to look at agriculture is in terms of the people who live by it. We need the technicians, but first we need farmers who want the technicians to come onto the land and show them what to do.

“Some day,” said Bromfield’s Old Jamie, “there will come a reckoning and the country will discover that farmers are more necessary than traveling salesmen.” Traveling salesmen or machinists — for the farmer “giveth liberty to all vocations, arts and trades to follow their several functions with peace and industrie,” as Gervase Markham put it many years ago.

There will be hell to pay before the country finds this out, Old Jamie warned. If we have paid with our own particular form of hell, and have learned, it will show not only in the maps we draw but in the kind of life there is on the land.

To preserve the land, farmers — not town dwellers with romantic and sentimental illusions, but farmers themselves — must believe life on the land to be worth preserving.