Soil Health Offers Hope 80 Years after Dust Bowl


by Bill Berry

National Association of Conservation Districts and its partners in private lands conservation take note this week of the 80th anniversary of the Dust Bowl. Yes, 80 years ago, great clouds of dust blew across the Great Plains.

The Dust Bowl spanned several years, but 1934 and 1936 were the worst. It was an unparalleled ecological disaster, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and ripping away 100 million acres of top soil.

But from that devastation grew a conservation partnership that thrives to this day. At the federal level, the Soil Erosion Service, today’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, sprang into action.  America’s conservation districts were formed to be the local partner, promoting enlightened stewardship of our nation’s farm and ranch lands.

The partnership has grown over the years, to include state and local agencies, non-governmental organizations and the business community. We are all stakeholders in the vital task of protecting America’s land and water resources while assuring productive and profitable stewardship of farm and ranchlands.

Never before have the stakes been so high. World population is projected to be 9 billion people by 2050. The demand for food, fiber and fuel from America’s working lands has never been greater.  Our task is to assure they meet that demand and do so in a way that protects natural resources.

It is no easy task. Today, more than one-third of the United States is in severe drought. Additionally, severe weather events like floods and intense downpours are on the increase in other regions of the country.

It’s a daunting challenge, but America’s conservation partnership has learned a lot over the years. Today, the partnership is working with enlightened producers to build resiliency in our soils. The soil health movement has taken off across the country, and beyond. This is the International Year of Soils, so declared by the U.N. General Assembly.

America’s conservation districts are in the thick of it, working with cooperators on a variety of landscapes. Soil health, by definition, is “The continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” On America’s farmland, that means keeping the soil covered as much as possible, disturbing it less, keeping plants growing for as much of the year as possible and diversifying with crop rotations and cover crops.

In today’s world, some problems seem intractable. Not so with protecting our soils. Soil health proponents are optimistic about the future, knowing that by mimicking nature, they are restoring the soil and building its resilience.

NACD is proud to be involved in the effort, supporting America’s conservation districts and their partners. Thanks to an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, NACD is cooperating with Datu Research to pinpoint the economic impacts of soil health practices on farms. We are working with state partners to build a network of Soil Health Champions. We are developing training materials for districts and their partners. Our soil health web pages offer an array of resources and information.

Eighty years after the Dust Bowl, we are determined to help keep America’s farm and ranch lands productive and resilient. In the process, we’re working to protect air, soil, water and wildlife.



Source:  National Association of Conservation Districts

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