NRCS Still Focusing on Soil
By: Ron Neher, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Retired
Prior to my retirement many people asked me what I did for a living. They had trouble identifying with whom and what the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was, its purpose, how it worked, and basically what we did as employees. Some had suggested I was a meat inspector with the USDA, others thought I was a specialist with entomology chasing after some bug, and with still others thinking all I did was “trees.” I encouraged them kindly to keep guessing.
Unfortunately, the large majority of people who are familiar with the NRCS look at it simply as an agency which administers various conservation programs to the local agricultural community. Correct, that is one thing the agency has evolved into over the seven-plus decades of existence. However, originally the agency’s focus was completely different.
The NRCS started out with a completely different name earlier in the previous century. Originally known as the Soil Erosion Service, the agency was formed in the Department of the Interior (USDI) when Hugh Hammond Bennett, a graduate of the University of North Carolina as a soil scientist, brought attention to a major soil erosion problem which was plaguing our nation. The Dust Bowl as well as uncontrolled water erosion was destroying our nation’s natural resources. Thus, in 1933, the Soil Erosion Service was formed under the USDI. Less than two years later, the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 was passed by Congress which gave rise to transferring the Soil Erosion Service from the USDI to the USDA and changing its name to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Hugh Hammond Bennett began as the leader with the agency and remained on staff of the SCS until 1951 when he retired. The agency’s name was later changed in 1994 to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to reflect the broader mission the agency had evolved into, - bringing attention to not just soil conservation, but also conservation of other resources such as water, air, plants, and animals.
Given this brief history of where the NRCS came from, one must recognize the agency’s attention to conservation of soil as well as education regarding the various soil types which make up arguably the most important natural resource in our country.
Probably the most visible thing which the NRCS (as well as its previous names) has tackled over the decades of its existence is the publication of soil surveys. Soil surveys are the process of identifying soil types on an aerial photo and delineating one type of soil from another. Several things are involved in classifying soil types which include identification of soil texture, soil particle size, water permeability, water holding potential, the soil’s shrink-swell potential, inherent chemicals which can be corrosive, the soil’s potential to erode, and other items important to know when using this resource for one purpose or another. Interpretation of such information and making this valuable product available to the public has been an ongoing program with the agency since its conception.
Originally published in book form, today’s soil survey is online whereby a person can create their own personal soil survey based on their own individual interest and need. The website, - http://soildatamart.nrcs.usda.gov, - is easily accessed from one’s personal computer and puts one in immediate contact with new and updated information regarding the soil resource in question.
The soil survey information available online can be used for agronomical purposes by farmers, ranchers, and gardeners; for engineering purposes involving building construction and septic systems; for tree and grass specie selection to plant on open land; and a host of other purposes. You will find the online soil survey interesting and valuable.
So the next time you enter the NRCS office at the USDA Service Center think of the agency as something besides just conservation programs. It is much more that.