Why does land wear out? This great agricultural mystery led generations of farmers to simply move when the land no longer supported agricultural production. That changed in 1905, when a soil scientist unearthed the key to sustained productivity by linking soil erosion and degradation of soil quality.
It all began when Hugh Hammond Bennett and W.E. McClendon were conducting a special soil survey in Louisa, Virginia, and observed two adjoining pieces of land with identical soil makeup but vastly different soil quality. (Bennett later became the first chief of USDA’s Soil Conservation Service, later renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service.)
The first area was wooded and had never been cultivated, while the second had grown crops for many years. Figuring that both areas had been the same originally, Bennett attributed the difference in soil quality to erosion and coined the term “sheet erosion” to describe how rain gradually carries away the topsoil of uncovered land.
Though it may look harmless, sheet erosion removes tons of soil and nutrients, creating gullies and reducing productivity. Bennett referred to that study throughout his life as he campaigned across the country to preserve the soil through improved farming practices.
Over one hundred years after that epiphany, today’s interested conservation detectives can visit the birthplace of modern soil conservation and explore the mysteries of soils for themselves. A historical marker to Hugh Hammond Bennett now stands outside the Sargeant Museum in the Louisa Town Hall and Arts Center Complex. And for another week visitors can venture inside the museum to learn more about Bennett’s legacy, soils mapping and Louisa agricultural history.
Current Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White paid tribute to Bennett during the July 15, 2011 marker dedication ceremony. White joined local partners to help unveil the marker and present official proclamations from Virginia’s governor, Louisa County and the Town of Louisa to Bennett family members Hugh Hammond Bennett, III, his wife Nina, and his brother, Robert. The program also celebrated the completion of Virginia’s initial soil survey mapping.
The museum exhibit offers visitors an opportunity to investigate the soil in their own backyards through the Web Soil Survey or online at home. After the display closes on August 15, 2011, the museum will offer brochures on Bennett’s marker and legacy so geologic gumshoes can continue to dig for clues about soils.
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