The United States was blessed with abundant fertile soil when the colonists first arrived, and the need to maintain that fertility did not immediately arise. Soon after the introduction of intensive tobacco farming, however, it became clear that this crop had a devastating on the quality of the soil if planted year after year without interruption.
However, as long as the frontier presented fresh fertile land, the problem of soil degradation was never a crisis. In the late 19th century, however, the era of an open frontier that permitted large-scale homesteading was over. The situation was exacerbated by the high prices paid by Europeans for food during World War I, which led to an expansion of land under cultivation beyond what could be sustained in peacetime.
The onset of The Great Depression coincided with a combination of bad weather and the culmination of bad Farming practices that produced the Dust Bowl conditions of 1931 and 1933. The first step in combating the problem was the Soil Erosion Service, established in 1933 to institute individualized conservation practices against soil erosion. The agency first began working with farmers in the SW Wisconsin watershed area. In 1935, the Soil Conservation Act was passed, accelerating nationwide soil conservation efforts for farmers. Renamed the Soil Conservation Service within the Department of Agriculture, the agency developed demonstration projects across the country in selected watersheds.
In 1938, the National Emergency Council sent a report to Roosevelt on economic conditions in the South. Its comments on the situation with regard to soil were particularly devastating:
Nature gave the South good soil. With less than a third of the Nation`s area, the South contains more than a third of the Nation`s good farming acreage. It has two-thirds of all the land in America receiving a 40-inch annual rainfall or better. It has nearly half of the land on which crops can grow for 6 months without danger of frost.
This heritage has been sadly exploited. Sixty-one percent of all the Nation`s land badly damaged by erosion is in the Southern States. An expanse of southern farm land as large as South Carolina has been gullied and washed away; at least 22 million acres of once fertile soil has been ruined beyond repair. Another area the size of Oklahoma and Alabama combined has been seriously damaged by erosion. In addition, the sterile sand and gravel washed off this land has covered over a fertile valley acreage equal in size to Maryland.