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Scientists of the Soil

In the 1930s, TVA turned selected farmers into instant experts on erosion control and asked them to pass the idea along to their neighbors. Before long, agriculture in the TVA region was on the road to recovery.

Most residents of the Tennessee Valley region are proud of the region’s lush beauty. Few of us can remember a time when much of our land could horrify visitors, when big stretches of it weren’t green, but brown and dry. Most of us are too young to remember how decisive action by TVA redeemed the region's farmland in the 1930s and ’40s.

By the time TVA was founded in 1933, fertile topsoil had disappeared from more than a million acres in the region. What was left was dry clay, often tortured into weird humps and gullies, useless even for growing most weeds. The region’s chief cash crops — cotton, corn, tobacco — had drained the soil of its nutrients.

Worse, traditional agriculture, which often involved planting on hillsides and letting fields lie bare through the winter, left topsoil vulnerable to the weather. The rain that sustained crops also carried the soil away. Farm yields were lower every year. Many farmers assumed that it was just bad luck. Those who could moved on to land that hadn’t yet been spoiled.

photo of farmer seated on ground holding soil sample

TVA helped farmers in the TVA region view the soil as a precious resource that they could protect through methods such as terracing and crop rotation.

Some people, like the French journalist Odette Keun, who spent several months in the TVA region in 1936, predicted a dire outcome if the nation didn’t deal with erosion effectively: “America is not a permanent country . . . she is on the way to join those decadent or dead parts of China, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor, which were once opulent, and are now stripped forever of their fertility.”

Though it didn’t reach Dust Bowl proportions, erosion was indeed a serious problem in the TVA region. Hilly terrain and feast-or-famine rainfall patterns made for a dangerous combination. In the South, without the help of the deep frosts that protected bare land up North, the threat was especially severe. The National Emergency Council reported in 1935, “The South is losing more than $300 million in fertile topsoil every year.”

Several federal agencies went to work on the crisis in various parts of the country, but none was more effective than TVA. As a resource-management agency, TVA would have helped the region's farmers out of an environmental emergency anyway, but it had an additional urgent reason to stop erosion. Some of the topsoil was washing into the new TVA reservoirs across the region and clogging them up.

The flood control provided by the reservoirs TVA was building was a big help in itself, alleviating the erosion caused by spring floods. But as topsoil loss in the region approached disaster proportions, it began to be clear that the problem was too big for TVA alone to handle. The agency decided that if farmers could learn to save their own land — become scientists of the soil — there’d be more reason to hope that the problem could be solved.

It wouldn’t be easy to convince farmers that their land-management practices, many passed down over generations, were a major source of their distress. TVA organized meetings, lectures and “lantern-slides” about erosion in rural communities around the Valley region, but many of the region’s hard-bitten farmers would believe only what they could see with their own eyes and feel with their own sunburned hands.

So, in cooperation with state agricultural services, TVA helped set up thousands of demonstration farms across the region. By then, farmers had learned some respect for manufactured fertilizer, and TVA donated phosphate-based fertilizer to selected farmers who agreed to make certain changes in the way they used their land.

photo of farmers discussing erosion control

County agents worked in partnership with TVA to help farm families learn improved planting methods and share the information with their neighbors.

One was that now, rather than planting all their property with cash crops, they let some of it relax as grass, woodland, alfalfa-planted cow pasture, or fields of a leguminous cover crop like lespedeza. Another was that instead of planting up and down hillsides, they cut terraces into them, creating flat fields where water would soak in rather than run off. Finally, and most important, these demonstration farmers were required to show their neighbors what they were doing and what the results were.

In return, besides the fertilizer, they received free technical assistance: a corps of about 200 TVA experts fanned out across the TVA region, offering plans and advice. Sometimes they even got the help of work crews from the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, who replanted lost crops and dug drainage ditches to control the erosion gullies.

For many farmers, the best part of the deal was the part that wasn’t promised — increased crop yield. One success story was that of Doeckle Terpstra, a Dutch-born farmer-engineer who’d bought an old 250-acre dairy farm in the Powell Valley of southwestern Virginia back in the early 1920s.

For years Terpstra had managed to produce only about 40,000 pounds of milk annually. Then he became one of TVA’s demonstration farmers. After a decade or so of farming the new way, he was producing more than half a million pounds a year. Not all the improvement was that dramatic, but a survey of 100 demonstration farms in the French Broad region of western North Carolina turned up a 35 percent increase in crop yield.

“Science is something that comes naturally to American farmers,” remarked a 1947 TVA publication about the scheme’s success, “once they are given a chance to get into the game as active participants.”

Some older farmers, observing TVA’s methods, may have had the light of recognition in their eyes. There was once a bit of Tennessee folk wisdom: “A sloping field/A surface bare/A heavy rain/And the soil ain’t there.”

TVA agreed, but an anonymous poet in the agency added this stanza to describe one method used by the erosion-control program: “A sloping field/A clover cover/The water soaks in/Somehow or other.”

By 1938, TVA’s work was already beginning to pay off. “An airplane trip from Chattanooga to Muscle Shoals will still show many fields marked by spreading gullies,” said one contemporary report. “But the curving lines of terraces are already so numerous that they appear to be the chief characteristic of all the unforested land.”

TVA’s success in controlling erosion, described as “remarkable” in economist Joseph Ransmeier’s 1942 report on the agency’s multifaceted approach to the problems of the TVA region, bred similar programs around the country. By 1943, 19 states outside the Tennessee Valley region had used the demonstration-farm method of erosion control.

Today the TVA region is dependably green. It’s hard to imagine what a terrifying problem erosion was in the 1930s. Maybe our disbelief that things could ever have been that bad is the strongest testament of all to what TVA’s erosion-control efforts accomplished.

 

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