The North Carolinian Who Saved American Agriculture and Possibly the Nation

PHOTO: NOAA George E. Marsh, Stratford, Texas, April 18, 1935
PHOTO: NOAA George E. Marsh, Stratford, Texas, April 18, 1935

The early 1900’s brought incredible advances in technology into the world especially in the field of agriculture.  In a matter of decades tractors and machinery were doing in a single hour the daily work of dozens of horses and hundreds of men only a handful of years earlier.

Unfortunately, these great advances came at an even greater price.  Unaware of their own power to impact the land, the ancient prairie grasses were soon turned to sand as wave after wave of mechanical tractors vaporized the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains — unintentionally ripening the nation’s heartland for a total transformation into something more akin to the Sahara Desert than America’s Bread Basket.

In the 1930’s, with the preparations already well completed, the perfect storm finally fell upon the nation’s Mid West and soon the decade would come to be known as “The Dirty Thirties”.

With shifts in the east-to-west low level jet stream from the Gulf of Mexico came severe drought which helped transform the already broken ground into powder and sand.

Soon, the unanchored soil was turned to dust which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking billows of dust – named “black blizzards” or “black rollers” – traveled cross country, reaching as far as the East Coast and striking such cities as New York City and Washington, D.C.  On the Plains, they often reduced visibility to a yard of less.

ds2With hundreds of tons of their topsoil blown thousands of miles away, what little rain came, was quickly washed away and was of no use to farmers.

As the stock markets back East were crashed and letters from those who traveled West revealing horrific tales of the Great Depression, (Read The Grapes of Wrath – 1939), the vast majority of farmers in the Mid-West simply stayed put having no other real options.

"Broke, baby sick, and car trouble!" - Dorothea Lange's 1937 photo of a Missouri migrant family's jalopy stuck near Tracy, California.
“Broke, baby sick, and car trouble!” – Dorothea Lange’s 1937 photo of a Missouri migrant family’s jalopy stuck near Tracy, California.

Sadly, a countless number of individuals lost their lives in this man-made / natural disaster (estimates vary and go as high as several thousands), as those who inhaled the prairie dust suffered extreme respiratory problems. Much like the Appalachian coal miners Back East, residents of the Dust Bowl exhibited “signs of silicosis from breathing in the extremely fine silt particulates, which had high silica content. Dust pneumonia, called the ‘brown plague,’ killed hundreds and was particularly lethal for infants, children and the elderly,” writes Christopher Klein.

Producing apocalyptic scenes, the frightened remaining population were left desperate and vulnerable — creating a paradise for conmen and charlatans.

Soon, the Prairie was littered with men who would show up on courthouse steps and promise to bring the rain in exchange for donations or a nominal fee.  One such man would even shoot bombs carried by rockets into the clouds in hopes of “jarring the rain loose”.

Sadly, these traveling rain makers were never able to fulfill their promises to the hard working families of America’s heartland.

However, help did come to the nation’s Mid West in the form of a single man, and an unlikely one at that.

Born in 1881 during reconstruction in rural Anson County, North Carolina, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was the son of Carolina farmers.  In June 1903, he graduated from the University of North Carolina with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and geology.

Having never left the American Southeast, Bennett had only read of the Mid West when he accepted a job with the United States Department of Agriculture, being paid to survey the various soils of the nation — an uncharted science up to this point.

Recognizing the value of the Carolinian’s work, the Department of Agriculture funded studies for Bennett to travel throughout America’s territories and interests, including Alaska, Panama and Cuba.

By the 1930’s, Bennett had become the most knowledgeable soil scientists on the planet, and boasted of having “slept atop the dirt of every state in the Union”.

Still the nation’s political leaders were reluctant to listen to the calls of a scientist who stated that both the drought and the erosion was the product of mankind not changing his farming practices with the advent of new technology.

Initially, his preaching was viewed with great trepidation by the nation’s farmers and their elected representatives.

Ogallala Commons says this about Bennet:

“Bennett was known for a grit and tenacity as tough as the land which he worked to protect. He was not afraid to announce where blame for the Dust Bowl lied: directly with Americans themselves. The settlers of the plains were trying to use farming methods from the East coast, methods that only served to rip up the native grass of the Plains and leave the soil fully exposed to the elements. Bennett knew a change in methods was the only hope of saving the Plains, and thereby the nation.

“Besides being a bold conservationist, Bennett was also quite the salesman. Initially, his tactics were met by resistance from politicians and farmers. Not surprisingly, they didn’t appreciate hearing that the loss of the topsoil of several states was their fault. But, Bennett learned to change his tactics. Instead of pointing blame, he appealed to the salvation of a region (and its importance to the entire country). Slowly, he won favor with the President and farmers of the region. A well-timed storm served as the final tipping point to convince Congress the truth of his words.”

The Lincoln Memorial in April 1935, following a dust storm.
The Lincoln Memorial in April 1935, following a dust storm.

Speaking before Congress, Bennett learned shortly before his meeting,  that a dust storm from the Plains would soon be reaching the nation’s Capitol.

He delayed his meeting long enough for the storm to arrive while he addressed Congress.

Hugh Benne
Hugh Benne

Two sentences were all it took to make his point: “This, gentlemen, is what I’m talking about. There goes the State of Oklahoma.”

Congress then authorized Bennett to oversee a total transformation of the nation’s agriculture.

Soon farmers were taught the value of contour planting, crop rotation, and planting native grasses, the Plains began to return.

Today, the results of Bennett’s work are seen throughout this region. Without his work and efforts, we can only imagine where the grasslands of the plains would be today. Bennett’s own words provide a perfect summary to his life and his work: “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 – not only for the war, but for the peace that is to follow.”

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