The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

The gritty forever fight to save our soil continues in Tennessee

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imageErich Henry and Julia Konkel of the Blount County Soil Conservation District pose by a recent project.  Blount County Soil Conservation District

Erich Henry and Julia Konkel anchor East Tennessee soil

MARYVILLE — The Dust Bowl was a time of extreme drought in the Southern Plains in the 1930s. The dry topsoil whipped by winds created  the infamous “bowl of dust.” It polluted the air and made it nearly impossible to grow crops or maintain livestock.

East Tennessee gets more rain than the Southern Plains but regional farmers to this day unknowingly use bad agricultural practices.

Blount County Soil Conservation District’s Director Erich Henry doesn’t want history to repeat itself.

Henry was an East Tennessee farmer before he became the Blount County outreach director. He has an agricultural background and a lifetime of experience from growing up on and working a farm. Henry earned a degree in agricultural and natural resources from the University of Tennessee in 1991.

It was actually that same farm he grew up on that led him to his current job. “I called into the district one day to request help on how to use good conservation practices on my own farm,” Henry said. “The current conservationist had just resigned and I was asked to apply for the position.” 

Soil Conservation Districts all originated from the Soil Conservation Act of 1935, the peak of the Dust Bowl. It wasn’t until 1953 that Blount County formed its own district. The primary need for a district at that time was from the topsoil loss in eroded croplands.

“Our community might’ve looked like the dust bowl if we hadn’t established a district,” Henry said.

Dried or loose topsoil results from lack of rain, and is not usually a problem for East Tennessee. But this also means that when East Tennessee does experience irregular rainfall, the soil suffers more intensely. 

The need for soil conservation isn’t only because of loose topsoil. Soil conservation is actually the potential solution for soil erosion. Soil erosion is the displacement of the upper layer of soil, and is caused by more than just a dry spell in weather. It’s a natural process and can’t really be stopped entirely. But Henry said soil erosion can be accelerated by outside forces, natural and unnatural. This may come in the form of pollution, soil exhaustion from humans, or the lack of management of natural resources. The good news is that natural resources can be used to help fight the natural occurrence of erosion if managed properly. 

Harvesting rainwater when we do experience rain, finding a way to filter that water, and distributing it through underground irrigation systems can greatly reduce the possibility of dry soil. Collecting rain manages natural resources and puts them to use as well. 

“Stormwater carries pollutants; it’s picked up from the ground, such as sediment, pathogens, and other toxins,” Henry said. So it’s vital to filter the collected water.

There are other things that can be done to keep from reliving the Dust Bowl during dry periods. For example, according to Henry, crop farmers can plant more drought-tolerant corn or wheat. Crop farmers can also leave behind their crop’s residue to form a protective layer over the soil, which would keep it from becoming airborne. Of course, more trees can be planted to break any extreme winds.

There are nine conservation programs in Blount County already set in place by Henry. Ranging from areas like Homeowner Outreach and Education to Septic System Repairs, these programs are intended to cover all causes of soil erosion in the area, not just loose topsoil.

Soil conservationists and farmers aren’t the only ones who can help implement these practices. Individuals in the community can do their part at home too, Henry said.

Community members can implement conservation practices in their own backyards by mowing lawns no lower than 3 inches; installing rain gardens and pollinator plots where applicable so runoff rainwater has somewhere to go; considering other materials over concrete for driveway; and promoting smart growth policies by not cutting down more trees than necessary.

Neighborhood associations can also request a homeowner workshop for their subdivision through the Blount County Conservation District. Henry suggests participating and volunteering with local environmental agencies. The more people, the wider the fight against soil erosion. 

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