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Hugh Bennett

"father of soil conservation"

Hugh Hammond Bennett

Hugh Hammond Bennett was born on a cotton plantation near Wadesboro, North Carolina, on April 15, 1881. He was one of nine children who helped their father practice terracing and other unconventional cultivation methods that kept the farm productive for many decades, and the lessons he learned on the farm became the foundation upon which a distinguished career would be based. After earning a degree in chemistry and geology from the University of North Carolina-Chaepl Hill in 1903, he joined the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. In 1907, he married Sarah Edna McCue, who gave him one daughter before she died in 1909. In 1921, he married Betty Virginia Brown, who bore him one son.

Bennett initially joined the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils as a chemist, but was then asked to take a temporary position as a soil surveyor instead. His first assignment was to classify andSarah Edna McCue in 1907; one daughter before she died in 1909; married Betty Virginia Brown in 1921; one son; lived in Falls Church, Virginia map soils by individual type and observe their productivity. Bennett so enjoyed the temporary assignment that he subsequently asked that it become permanent, a request which was granted.

In 1905, Bennett was sent to conduct a soil survey in Louisa County, Virginia, which had been experiencing declining crop yields for several years. After comparing virgin, timbered sites to eroded fields, Bennett determined that widespread soil erosion was responsible for the declining crop yields, and thus began what became a lifelong campaign for soil conservation. Although a few scientists agreed that soil conservation was a legitimate concern, Bennett found the majority of his recommendations for conserving soil falling on deaf ears. In 1909, the Bureau of Soils issued a statement that "The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up." Bennett subsequently became determined to do whatever it took to prove the statement wrong.

Bennett spent the better part of the next twenty years conducting soil surveys throughout the United States, as well as in Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Cuba, Honduras and Guatemala. He also continued his push for a national program to address soil erosion, primarily by writing articles for an array of scientific and agricultural journals. Although he built a strong reputation for himself within the scientific community due to his work on soils and soil classification, his insistence that soil erosion was a serious problem continued to be ignored by his superiors in Washington.

Bennett's work finally began producing results in 1929, after publication of the 1928 USDA Circular 33: Soil Erosion, A National Menace, which came soon after the disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1927, and which focused on the damages caused by erosion and the need for action to stop it rather than on specific erosion controls. That shift in focus resulted in Bennett finally getting federal funding for erosion research. In 1933, Bennett became the first director of the Soil Erosion Service (SES), within the Department of the Interior. He then began organizing public demonstrations on how farmers could control soil erosion which, he explained, would in turn keep farmlands more fertile and productive. Although he had by then begun getting politicians to listen to him, Bennett still faced opposition from farmers, many of whom did not take kindly to Bennett's suggestion that they leave some of their land uncultivated in order to preserve top soil. That, too, began to change, however, after the first storms of the "Dust Bowl" began to blow. In 1935, Bennett was testifying before a Senate committee debating a bill to establish a Soil Conservation Service (SCS) within the Department of Agriculture when a cloud of dust suddenly blew into Washington, D.C. That singular event spurred Congress to action, and the bill passed by a unanimous vote. The SCS was officially created on April 27, 1935, and Bennett was named as its first head.

As head of the SCS, Bennett and his colleagues devised methods for putting every acre of land to its best use and treating every acre according to needs, thus providing the best soil conservation possible for each acre. These methods involved treating crops, woods, pastures, and wildlife as parts of the overall landscape, and gave rise to a nationwide network of soil conservation districts. The Brown Creek Soil Conservation District, which included his home county of Anson, North Carolina, was established as the first such district in 1937. Under his guidance, tens of thousands of dust bowl-damaged lands were reclaimed, and the soil conservation methods he helped develop -- including stripcropping, terraces, and creation of waterways -- are still widely used today.

Bennett retired from the SCS in 1951. He subsequently moved to Burlington, North Carolina, where his son lived, and died of cancer there on July 7, 1960; he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Natural Resources Conservation Service
Surviving the Dust Bowl

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This page was last updated on 09/14/2018.