The Dust Bowl crisis of the early 1930s for the first time brought national attention to the acute dangers of soil erosion. Southern Appalachian farms, for their part, suffered from poor soil conditions and erosion as a result of practices that maximized the short-term potential of corn, tobacco and cotton cash crops at the expense of the soil’s long-term health.
In response to the depletion of the nation’s farmland, President Roosevelt created the Soil Erosion Service (SES) of the Department of the Interior, headed by North Carolina native Hugh H. Bennett, in 1933. It supervised significant numbers of CCC camps in the Southern Appalachian Highlands. Enrollees planted trees and shrubs to help hold the soil in place and built small dams to help lessen floods, mostly on private lands.
With a five million dollar budget, the SES set up demonstration sites in strategic locations throughout the United States. One of the first demonstration sites in the United States covered the South Tyger River Watershed, located in South Carolina’s Greenville and Spartanburg counties. The project began on December 18, 1933 at the J.L. Berry farm, located near Poplar Springs, where a gully large enough to swallow a vehicle was repaired.
At the strong urging of a coalition of agricultural and forestry groups, Roosevelt transferred SES to the Department of Agriculture in March 1935 and had it renamed Soil Conservation Service.
Secretary Bennett knew that resource needs and conditions varied greatly from one part of the country to the next and even from one neighboring county to the next. To insure that these local needs were properly recognized and met, Bennett helped draft legislation that states could use to create Soil Conservation Districts.
In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending that local landowners form such districts. South Carolina’s Governor, Olin D. Johnston, signed the S.C. Conservation Districts Law on April 17, 1937.
On August 3, North Carolina Secretary of State Thad Eure made history when he established the Brown Creek Soil Conservation District as the first in the nation.
But Brown Creek was not the first soil conservation district to actually implement a working plan. Dr. Thomas S. Buie, South Carolina’s state conservationist, who several years before had been the Regional Director of the South Tyger River project mentioned earlier, was now director of the Southeastern Region for SES.
Buie was media savvy, and in 1934 had taken his argument directly to the public via a series of 15 talks on radio station WFBC in Spartanburg, and also on a weekly mid-day show out of WBT in Charlotte, NC.
“An enemy as real as any our troops ever have faced in battle,” he exhorted, “has conquered an area 35,000,000 acres in extent, laid waste to what once were fertile fields and almost unchallenged continues his relentless march of destruction across other fields wherever the slope of the land is sufficient for water to flow.”
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that on February 4, 1938, the country’s first implemented farm soil conservation plan occurred at the farm of one Mrs. Ploma M. Adams, in Seneca, SC, adjacent to Buie’s high-profile South Tyger River project.
John Drayton Hopkins, a state director of the South Carolina Farm Bureau, took his cue from the Adams farm’s plan, and sought to educate farmers to use terracing and crop rotation to help maintain the fertility and stability of the soil. He encouraged farmers to supplement cotton and corn with oats and wheat, and to plant fallow fields in fescue, clover, and kudzu to stabilize the soil and to graze cattle.
By 1947, 20,000 farm conservation plans were in place statewide in South Carolina, says a May 19 article in Spartanburg’s “Herald Journal”:
“Little more than a decade ago, practically no annual lespedeza was grown in the state in rotations. Now this crop is grown from the mountains to the sea for soil improvement and as a hay crop. It is a common thing for it to be found on most every farm in a given community.
“The annual lespedezas furnish food for the quail. A good soil conservation farm plan also calls for field borders of perennial plants which prevent erosion and can be valuable as a turn-row in the use of equipment. Sericea furnishes a splendid cover for quail and provides the turn-row.”
Sources: “The Land Today & Tomorrow,” Official Gazette of the Soil Erosion Service, Oct 1934, online at www.archive.org/stream/landtodayandtomo00unitrich/landtodayandtomo00unitrich_djvu.txt