Hugh Bennett (1881-1960)

Hugh Bennett was the director of the Soil Erosion Service and its successor agency, the Soil Conservation Service, from 1933 to 1952. Upon his retirement, the New York Times declared that, “Three volumes would be insufficient to tell in detail what Dr. Bennett has done during the last half-century for his country and for the world. It is no exaggeration to say that this ‘father of soil conservation’ stands among the nation’s most useful citizens” [1].

Hugh Hammond Bennett was born in Anson County, North Carolina on April 15, 1881, to William Osborne Bennett and Rosa May Hammond [2]. Early in his life, he witnessed how land could be damaged by overuse: “He grew up on a once-fertile farm that had been impoverished by repeated cotton plantings and the clearing of trees.” Bennett went on to study at the University of North Carolina and, after receiving his degree in chemistry in 1903, began working as a laboratory assistant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Soils. Over time, he worked his way up to a senior scientist position [3].

Bennett enjoyed a long career in the Department of Agriculture (USDA), conducting soil surveys in the United States and abroad, and writing many articles about the need for soil conservation. In a highly influential 1928 USDA bulletin, he warned of the soil erosion problems that were occurring across the United States – problems that would reach a crisis point just a few years later in the Dust Bowl. Bennett warned that erosion due to mass removal of trees and ground cover (along with other factors) was causing the nation to lose its soil faster than it could be replenished, at great financial loss to farmers [4].

In 1934, not long after being put in charge of the New Deal’s soil conservation efforts, Bennett reminded the nation that, “our haphazard and unwise agricultural practices have led us… in the direction of what the President refers to as ‘a new man-made Sahara.’ The gargantuan dust storm of May 11, which swept 300,000,000 tons of fertile soil material from the drought-stricken trans-Mississippi country eastward across the Appalachians and far out over the Atlantic, was a striking example of improper land use” [5]. Bennett and his Soil Conservation Service (SCS) set out to repair and mitigate the damage. Working with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and thousands of local soil conservation districts, the SCS studied soil conditions, managed nurseries for replanting denuded land, and taught farmers how to better manage their land through terracing, improved collection of rain water, leaving crop stubble after harvest, and more [6].

By 1939, the situation had changed dramatically. Bennett’s methods—carried out by the hard labor of America’s farmers, 70,000 CCC boys, and many others—had reduced the amount of land exposed to harmful wind action from 16 million acres to 800,000. Still, Bennett reported that soil erosion by water and overused agricultural land continued to be problems, and he called for a 20-30 year program of restoration. Further, he wanted continued help from the CCC boys—whose labor he called “highly efficient”—and asked Congress to make the CCC a permanent agency [7]. Congress refused to do so, but Bennett carried on with his work nonetheless.

In 1947, Bennett won a conservation medal from the Audubon Society and was commended for being the “greatest soil evangelist of all time” and a “true conservationist whose teaching is now basic in sound agriculture throughout the world…” [8]. Bennett died on July 7, 1960, survived by his wife Betty; his children, Hugh Bennett, Jr., and Edna Bennett Aker; and two sisters and three grandchildren. Today, thanks in large part to the advocacy and work of Hugh Bennett, America has about 3,000 soil conservation districts [9].

Sources: (1) “Friend of the Soil,” New York Times, May 2, 1952. (2) “Hugh Hammond Bennett,” Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/about/history/?cid=stelprdb1044395, accessed February 8, 2016. (3) “Hugh Hammond Bennett Dead; ‘Father of Soil Conservation,’ 79,” New York Times, July 8, 1960. (4) H.H. Bennett and W.R. Chapline, “Soil Erosion A National Menace,” United States Department of Agriculture, Circular No. 33, April 1928. (5) Hugh Bennett, “Soil Loss Through Erosion Threatens ‘Our Basic Asset,’” New York Times, June 17, 1934. (6) See our summaries of the Soil Conservation Act and the Soil Conservation Service for more information (https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/programs/). (7) Hugh Bennett, “Life Renewed In Dust Bowl,” New York Times, June 25, 1939; and “Sees 30-Year Fight To Check Erosion,” New York Times, April 24, 1939. (8) “Dr. Bennett Receives Conservation Medal,” New York Times, October 22, 1947. (9) See National Association of Conservation Districts, “About Conservation Districts” and “Conservation District History” (accessed February 8, 2016).