Family Farmers: The Original Conservationists

Posted on | February 14, 2014 | 1 Comment

By Jeremy Peters, American Farmland Trust

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.


Jeremy Peters is Director of Federal Policy for American Farmland Trust and is on the U.S. executive committee for the International Year of Family Farming.

American Farmland Trust is the nation’s leading conservation organization dedicated to protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land. Since its founding in 1980 by a group of farmers and citizens concerned about the rapid loss of farmland to development, AFT has helped save millions of acres of farmland from development and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more.

AFT’s national office is located in Washington, DC. Phone: 202-331-7300. For more information, visit


One Response to “Family Farmers: The Original Conservationists”

  1. Paul Poppe
    February 15th, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    Thanks for this article. The only question I have is that of the increasing population(7 to 9 billion) into 2050 the author cites, I’ve found research that states half of the 2 billion(1 billion) is estimated to be over 65 years old. You and I both know that older people do not eat at the same rate in most cases as younger, more active people. So I’m questioning the demand aspect of food consumption as life expectancy increases around the globe.

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