The modern conservation movement has its roots in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s when harsh winds swept soil from parched Midwest fields and created towering clouds of dust that plagued the country. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of the modern soil conservation movement, dramatically threw open the curtains of the room in which he was delivering testimony on soil erosion before Congress to reveal a sky darkened by an approaching dust storm. That powerful demonstration of the dust bowl’s magnitude was evidence enough to convince Congress to take action.
The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act was passed which offered technical assistance to family farmers, ”to preserve and improve soil fertility, promote economic use, and diminish the exploitation and unprofitable use of the national soil resources.” As a result, family farmers began working to conserve the soil and natural resources decades before any of today’s environmental laws like the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act were passed.
With a world population expected to exceed 9 billion individuals by 2050, family farmers all over the world are being challenged to produce more from the land than ever before. At the same time, the resource base is under greater pressure with urban population centers encroaching on prime farmland, farmland encroaching on forestland and so forth. In the U.S. alone, we lose farmland at a rate of one acre every minute. Adding to the complexity is a changing climate where stronger storms and deeper droughts create greater unpredictability for farmers. Indeed, providing for 9 billion people while also maintaining healthy soil, clean water and abundant wildlife habitat is going to be a challenge.
Just as they did following the dust bowl, family farmers can respond to that challenge. But just like in the 1930’s family farmers cannot do it alone. It will require decisive action and support from policy makers to ensure family farmers remain on their land and adopt sound farming practices. It will also require continued investment from the private sector to promote innovation and efficiency so that more can be produced in a way that respects scarce resources like water, fuel and fertilizer. And it will require everyone addressing the causes and impacts of climate change.
As leaders and organizations all over the world recognize the International Year of Family Farming, now is the time to continue supporting family farmers so that both the land and future generations are sustained for decades to come.