Ag policies from the Dust Bowl era may not be perfect but the fragility of topsoil hasn't changed

“People in cities may forget the soil for as long as 100 years, but Mother Nature’s memory is long, and she will not let them forget indefinitely."

A black and white photo shows wilted crops among cracked soil during the drought of the 1930s.
Close-up of the harsh soil conditions caused by unchecked erosion.
Courtesy / National Archives
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“People in cities may forget the soil for as long as 100 years, but Mother Nature’s memory is long, and she will not let them forget indefinitely."

Henry Wallace spoke those words nearly 100 years ago when the pace of the industrial revolution had quickened, and the nation began moving away from its agrarian roots.

mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

The Iowa native had a perspective on farming and the soil cemented on the belief that science and research were keys to a productive and prosperous future. His family operated Wallace’s Farmer, a must read for farmers. He mingled with George Washington Carver, who after southern soil had been played out by cotton production, created dozens of new uses for peanuts.

Scientist Wallace worked on developing hybrid corn through the family’s seed company. Before widespread planting of hybrids, corn yields averaged 20 bushels per acre before the 1930s. Even with hybrids, average national yields didn’t reach 40 bushels per acre until the 1950s.

Wallace’s father had been U.S. secretary of agriculture in the early 1920s when the federal government’s role in citizens’ daily lives was significantly less. That changed when the Great Depression hit with the stock market collapse of October 1929. The farm economy that had struggled during the Roaring ‘20s completely collapsed due to low market prices.


Livestock brought less than shipping costs, fruit and vegetables rotted in fields, while the unemployed depended on soup kitchens. Drought conditions — aided by poor soil conservation efforts — turned much of the Midwest into a dust bowl.

It was in this environment that Wallace was named secretary of agriculture by President Franklin Roosevelt. Policies implemented by Wallace continue to influence agriculture to this day.

He helped create the crop subsidy system and price control system, developed federal conservation programs, and the national Food Stamp program. The federal government invested $13.8 million to establish windbreaks that involved 200 million trees and shrubs. Many of those windbreaks have fallen into disrepair or have been eliminated.

Wallace served as ag secretary for seven years before Roosevelt tabbed him as his running mate in 1940. However, Roosevelt replaced Wallace as his running mate in 1944 because many Democrats and Republicans alike fumed that he was too liberal.

It can reasonably be said that no other agriculture secretary — be they Ezra Taft Benson, Minnesotan Orville Freeman, or even wisecracking Earl Butz — had more influence on farming’s future.

However, it should be said no one drew more attention — both negative and positive — to the ag department than Butz.

“I understood public relations and always maintained a high profile," he said, reflecting on his USDA career that started in the Richard Nixon administration. “I made lots of talks and challenged lots of people."

He laid down a gauntlet and opened himself up to criticism when he told farmers that they must “get big or get out."


Family farm advocates took his statement to mean that family farmers were under attack. The trend toward bigger farm operations and less farmers had started decades before (the only time when more people returned to farms was during the Great Depression).

The trend toward bigger and fewer has only picked up since. Technology and other factors have provided more momentum in that direction.

I’m not sure what Wallace would think about it. He promoted using science to boost yields while protecting the land with conservation measures. He might be alarmed by the decline in rural communities across the Midwest.

Many observers argue that farm policy rooted in the Great Depression is as outmoded as horse-drawn tillage equipment. However, the tumult that exists in Washington, D.C., means policy and the interest of farmers is easily ignored.

An increasing number of scientists agree that the changing climate will alter farming practices across the country. Heat and storms, they say, will force changes. The thin layer of fertile topsoil protects against starvation, but it is fragile. Wallace talked about that decades ago.


Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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