Soil success in Arroyo Grande 75 years after erosion crisis

Farmers in Arroyo Grande, desperate to eke out a living during the Great Depression, were plowing their land to plant bean and pea crops. The unintended result was massive erosion.

“Arroyo Grande was an eye opener,” Hugh Bennett, the first chief of the Soil Conservation Service, wrote in 1935. “I can think of no other place in the United States where erosion is any worse.”

Seventy-five years later, the Soil Conservation Service is now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with offices in Templeton and Morro Bay. Last week, historians from the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters toured Arroyo Grande to look at some of the nation’s earliest soil conservation projects.

“They selected this area because they thought it would make a good demonstration,” conservation service historian Douglas Helms said. “They wanted to prove that you could conserve the land and still have it be productive.”

As Bennett described it in 1935 after touring the area, repeated plowing, a lack of cover crops and other poor land management practices left some 7,000 acres in Carpenter, Corbett and Poorman canyons scarred with multiple storm gullies called barrancas, and “good bottom land buried with as much as 10 to 14 feet of sand.”

From 1934 to 1937, the federal government sent crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration to work with the farmers. They installed erosion-control check dams; planted trees and cover crops to stabilize damaged areas; and used terrace planting on slopes to minimize erosion.

“The staff and the cooperators at Arroyo Grande have already stabilized a considerable part of the project area, and they will save much more of it, given a little time,” Bennett reported at the time.

Successful demonstration projects such as the one in Arroyo Grande helped Bennett persuade the federal government to establish the Soil Conservation Service, Helms said.

All of this was taking place against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the influx of an estimated quarter of a million farm workers into the state, fleeing the Dust Bowl. A year after Bennett reported on Arroyo Grande’s erosion problems, photographer Dorothea Lange captured her iconic image of migrant farm worker and mother Florence Owens Thompson in Nipomo.

The local efforts of the Soil Conservation Service paid off. San Luis Obispo County now produces $623 million in crops and ranks 15th among the state’s 58 counties in agricultural production.

The agency changed its name to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 1994.

In the 75 years since its founding, the service has expanded its scope of work from soil conservation to a variety of activities on private lands. Last year, $150 million was spent on projects in California ranging from clearing fire breaks to planting hedgerow for wildlife habitat.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.