Soil Erosion and Conservation in Alabama

Erosion in Macon County, 1937 Soil erosion is the process by which the fragile layer of topsoil is blown or washed away. In Alabama, erosion became a widespread problem because of deforestation and the state economy's reliance on cotton cultivation throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although soil science was in its beginning stages, by the early 1930s erosion had been identified as the largest problem facing Alabama farmers. Soil conservation work began in earnest at Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University), Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, present-day Auburn University), and Alabama A&M University and by state and federal programs, most notably the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) and the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Through efforts by these early soil scientists, a widespread program of soil conservation would be implemented in Alabama and similar programs were developed throughout the South, depending on soil types. Research performed in Alabama would be used by state and national forest and wildlife preserve officials nationwide and also outside the United States.

Soil Erosion

Soil formation is produced through the natural geological process of weathering and breaking down rock into finer and finer particles. This process can take thousands or hundreds of thousands of years or longer. Topsoil is the fertile, organic-matter-filled uppermost layer of soil, lying atop typically less fertile layers of subsoils. It is what supports almost all of the world's farming enterprises.

Poor farming practices, however, expose this fertile topsoil to wind and water. When this topsoil is blown or washed away, only the infertile subsoil remains, leaving formerly productive farmland useless for growing almost all crops. Soil erosion in the South was spurred by widespread deforestation made worse by decades of intense cotton monoculture, the practice of growing a single crop year after year in the same fields. Cotton quickly uses up nutrients in the soil, and at this time, soil science was unknown and the use of soil amendments, such as fertilizers, was uncommon. Thus, when farmers exhausted the nutrients in their soil, they moved to new areas, clear-cut the native forests, and established new fields, exposing more and more soil to erosion and depletion. Also, after harvest, farmers left the fields barren and exposed to wind and rain. These practices left deep gullies and ditches in the fields.

Butler County Cotton Field 1937 The 1934 Alabama Erosion Study conducted by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) found that erosion had damaged more than 82 percent of Alabama farmland. The SCS was founded largely through the efforts of Hugh Hammond Bennett, an early director of the Soil Erosion Service, who recognized the detrimental effects of erosion on farming during the 1930s. The 1934 report found that sheet erosion (the process of rain or wind removing thin layers of topsoil across a large area) was widespread and affected more than 25 million acres. Gullies and deep ditches were common on more than 22 million acres of Alabama farmland. Gullies became so much of a problem that more than 900,000 acres of land were worthless for crop production. Soil scientists warned that it was imperative to implement a system of soil conservation in Alabama to save the remaining productive farmland and to repair damage that had already occurred.

Soil Conservation in Alabama

Long before state and federal agencies began working on the issue of widespread erosion, Tuskegee Institute agricultural scientist George Washington Carver had been promoting the concepts of soil health and crop rotation to prevent erosion and improve fertility. Carver conducted research on soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts to diversify the crops farmers were growing and to improve soil health. His main goals were to prove that crop diversification could be implemented in Alabama, it could be profitable, and it would improve soil health. Carver also emphasized the necessity of crop rotation and the importance of nitrogen-replenishing crops such as peanuts to maintain soil fertility. Tuskegee was a leading pioneer in the science of soil conservation and was instrumental in gaining governmental support for research on crop diversification efforts in the state.

Thomas Monroe Campbell The Alabama Agricultural Extension Service (AAES; present-day ACES) was created in 1915 with funding from the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. As part of this legislation, agricultural experiment stations were created in each state to conduct research and improve farming methods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had had a less-formal system of extension services in place prior to the establishment of this agency. Tuskegee graduate Thomas Monroe Campbell, for instance, became an extension agent in 1906, and was known to be the first African American in the country to hold that position. Nonetheless, the AAES formalized and professionalized the activities. Luther Duncan was named head of the extension program in 1920 and greatly expanded the program, with 43 of Alabama's 67 counties hosting an extension agent. These agents aided farmers on a variety of subjects, including food preservation, insect and pest control, and soil conservation.

In the 1930s, CCC workers planted trees and constructed terraces to prevent erosion on sloping services. For example, the Nichols terrace, developed by API in 1921, is a wide channel-type terrace constructed on sloping property. They also constructed drainage ditches and planted cover crops such as rye, clover, and vetch on bare soils as part of erosion control. The CCC had been created in 1933 under the Department of the Interior to provide jobs for unemployed young men during the Great Depression. Three CCC camps were set up in 1934 in Alabama: Gainesville in Sumter County and Camp Hill and Dadeville in Tallapoosa County. The agency established nine more camps in Alabama, and soon thousands of young men were working on conservation projects. This program was one of the most successful programs implemented during the Depression and did much to improve and protect Alabama farmland.

Forest Restoration In 1935, federal lawmakers established the Soil Conservation Service (present-day Natural Resources Conservation Service) that was soon encompassed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1937, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt was encouraging individual states (including Alabama) to establish soil conservation districts. In 1939, Alabama governor Frank M. Dixon signed into law the Alabama Soil Conservation Districts Act, which established the Soil and Water Conservation Committee to provide guidance to the state's three soil and water conservation districts: Piedmont, Central Alabama, and Tombigbee-Warrior. In 1956, the Soil Bank Act created the Soil Bank Program, which offered one to ten-year contracts for landowners to plant trees or grass on lands that were susceptible to erosion. After 1967, each of Alabama's 67 counties became a soil conservation district with an individual plan in place to guide landowners in soil conservation. One result of these efforts was the introduction of the kudzu vine to the American South. Valued at the time for its erosion control abilities, it now is an ecological disaster that covers millions of acres.

Current Soil Conservation Work

Old Rotation Experiment Field Soil conservation research continues to provide new methods of preventing erosion and improving soil health. The National Soil Dynamics Laboratory on the Auburn University campus conducts research on waste management, farm yields, and soil conservation. The lab tests all the major soil types found in the southeastern United States for nutrient composition and mineral deficiencies. Crop rotation and no-till farming methods are part of their soil conservation initiatives. Crop rotation involves the use of different crops to replenish the soil after cash crops have been harvested. For example, cover crops in winter, such as rye and clover, prevent erosion and peanuts and other legumes add nitrogen back into the soil. The practice of no-till agriculture involves planting or drilling seeds into the soil and leaving roots and unusable plant materials in the fields, in contrast to harvesting entire plants and breaking up all of the soil with a plow and planting seeds in exposed furrows.

The Winfred Thomas Agricultural Research Station at Alabama A&M University (WTARS) has conducted research in forestry, crop trials, and soil health. Through this research, new strains of crops and trees have been developed that are better adapted to Alabama. Today's soil scientists and conservationists are leading the way for Alabama farmers by helping to control erosion and creating new conservation methods augmented by GPIS satellite mapping of farmlands and improved irrigation methods and soil fertilizer usage to ensure healthy and productive soils in Alabama for future generations.

Additional Resources

Kerr, Norwood Allen. "A History of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, 1883-1983." PhD dissertation. Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 1985.

Mitchell, Charles C., Dennis P. Delaney, and Kipling S. Balkcom. "A Historical Summary of Alabama's Old Rotation (circa 1896): The World's Oldest, Continuous Cotton Experiment." Agronomy Journal 100 (September-October 2008): 1493-98.

Pasquill, Robert G. The Civilian Conservation Corps in Alabama, 1933-1942: A Great and Lasting Good. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008.

The United States Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service. Readings in the History of the Soil Conservation Service. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.

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Deep Soil Horizon and Saprolite

Photograph by Mike Neilson
Deep Soil Horizon and Saprolite