By John Kellis
Highland County became the first conservation district in Ohio on April 18, 1942. Exactly 75 years later, a public celebration is set for April 18 at the Wharton Building at the Highland County Fairgrounds starting at 5:30 p.m.
The history of conservation districts is derived from necessity, but its success is rooted in a sustainable vision that would require tremendous cooperation. Ohio would benefit greatly even though it was originally designed more for the country’s flatlands.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the Great Plains, some leaders told him to abandon the region because it wasn’t worth the effort. Roosevelt said he could see in the people’s eyes that they intended to stay and survive.
The conservation problem here in Ohio and the Corn Belt was not the wind erosion that had so dramatically defined the problems of the Dust Bowl across America’s Great Plains. Rather, the equally as damaging issue in the Midwest was water erosion that was creating gullies so big they could hide a truck or a tractor.
Recognizing the problems and the practices that led to the problems took strength, resolve and most importantly local knowledge and leadership. The solutions and the processes to adopt and install those solutions were painful to accept and took courage by all involved.
As the farmers and conservationists took on these challenges, they literally transformed agriculture across this country, making it a model for the entire world to follow.
The genius of the movement was incorporating the locally led component, which a soil and water conservation district (SWCD) continues to bring to the table today. In the 1930s and ’40s, farmers were asked to:
• plow on the contour to build terraces that slowed down the water runoff
• plant over 18,000 miles of windbreaks to help stop the wind
• leave crop residue on the surface
• turn the most fragile areas back to their natural state of native prairie grass
Locally, farmers were building erosion-control structures and healing the gullies created from poor rotations and bad water management. The country had made a pact with the American farmer: We will help pay for the application of conservation practices if you will install them, maintain them and become better stewards of the land.
Addressing the need
Hugh Hammond Bennett and other visionaries scheduled congressional hearings in 1935 on the creation of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Later as the enabling legislation was approved by Congress, Ohio authorized the formation of Conservation Districts on May 16, 1941. Highland County submitted its petition to the newly formed Ohio Soil Conservation Committee on March 25, 1942. Seventy-two residents attended supporting the formation, and the first, required public referendum was set for April 18, 1942.
The enabling legislation required 75 voters to pass a petition, but Highland County registered 696 total voters, and it passed by a 70% affirmative vote.
There were several counties planning to create districts that year. Champaign and Clark counties held their referendums a week after Highland, and by the end of the year those three were joined by Butler, Coshocton, Morrow, Noble, Guernsey, Monroe and Tuscarawas counties, for a total of 10 counties forming districts in 1942.
Later in June 1942, the first SWCD supervisor election was held in Highland County. Elected were Herbert Williams, chairman; Earl Surber, vice president; E.J. Cook, secretary-treasurer; John Beaver, member; and James Satterfield, member. Finally, the first memorandum of understanding with the Federal Soil Conservation Service was signed and the work began.
By the end of the 1940s, 80 of Ohio’s 88 counties had held their referendums and created soil conservation districts. The last of the 88 forming districts was Lucas County in 1963.
On a state level, the supervisors of Highland, Clark and Butler counties met in September 1943 to form an association to represent the interests of all the supervisors in the state. They met, adopted bylaws and formed The Ohio Federation of District Supervisors, now known as The Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
That private organization formed for the purpose of representing all district supervisors and guiding the formation and evolution of soil and water districts in Ohio.
The 1954 Public Law 83-566, Watershed Protection and Flood Control Act, authorized small watershed projects through SCS. In Ohio, the first two pilot projects were the Upper Hocking in Fairfield County and Rocky Fork in Highland County, as Highland County was again leading the way in Ohio.
That Rocky Fork Watershed Project brought Tom Parry here as the federal district conservationist for Highland County. He served the county on behalf of the SCS until he retired in 1974. Ironically, his son, David Parry, became the district conservationist in 1978 and served Highland County for the SCS (since renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) until 2006.
Fifty years of service by the Parry family is to be admired and greatly appreciated.
Ohio hosts World Conservation Expo
The ’50s also saw a growth in district education programs with sponsorship of 4-H camps and the distribution of soil stewardship materials through area churches.
In 1957, conservation offices and staff in and around Highland County co-sponsored the World Conservation Exposition and Plowing Matches held in Adams County. This was the first such exposition held in the United States and represents the largest such expo ever held in southern Ohio.
Conservation agencies worked for decades to complete soil surveys and publish them on a county-by-county basis. Highland County was surveyed from 1963 through 1968, and the document was printed in 1977. These surveys represent perhaps the most intensive study of the land and the soils that has ever been undertaken. Soil surveys provided the basis for all land disturbing activities and fertilization for crop production. Citizens can access all the findings of the soil survey and use its findings to guide their land-use decisions.
County requires intensive land management
Highland County has always had a high priority for intensive land treatment practices and operations. Not so much that its farmers are that much more committed, but rather because geography and geology requires more vigilance. Highland County sits right on the terminal of the great glaciers of North America – land from Leesburg northward being dominated by row crop agriculture, having been leveled by the glaciers.
South of Hillsboro is unglaciated steep wooded areas with fewer crops and more livestock. That border is an important region for conservation. No-till and minimum tillage became the most dominant method of controlling cropland erosion in the 1970s. No-till was not an easy step for agriculture to adopt, but as chemicals and equipment refinements continue, farmers have been able to increase yields and reduce input costs to the benefit of the land in reduced soil erosion.
David Parry said that in 1986 Highland County was awarded the State Conservation Farmer, the top no-till corn yield and the top no-till soybean yield in the state – all considered significant accomplishments from a southern Ohio County.
Private conservation fueled by farm bill
Perhaps the single greatest advancement in private land conservation was the passing of the 1985 Food Security Act, or Farm Bill, as it was dominated by conservation provisions and led to many tools still in use today. The Food Security Act designated acre by acre which land would be considered highly erodible land.
The act created the Conservation Reserve Program and increased the public commitment to help agriculture protect lands for future generations. Highland County was one of the leaders in the state with more than 25,000 acres of highly erodible land set aside in grasslands or trees through CRP.
The Highland Soil and Water Conservation District is constantly striving to help land users make good decisions with the land they are trusted to use. From education programs to providing direct technical assistance to land users for conservation practices, the offices continue to help land users apply practices that prevent cropland erosion, manage our pasture and woodlands, enhance wildlife cover, and improve water quality.
Yes, the Soil and Water Conservation District is as relevant today as it was when created 75 years ago, and all of its programs remain voluntary.
75th celebration April 18
The Soil and Water Conservation District’s 75th anniversary celebration on April 18 will be at the Wharton Building at the Highland County Fairgrounds. The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. and the program will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a presentation by former director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation Larry Vance. After the awards program, John Wickerham from the Adams County Historical Society will reprise his recent program about the World Plowing Contest held in Peebles in 1957.
The Mootz family will have the tractor and plow on display that was used by their father, Duane Mootz, to become the 1957 World Contour Land Plowing champion. Antique and toy tractors associations will have displays as well as the historical society and other agencies.
Kellis is a Highland County Historical Society trustee.