Louis Bromfield was a dedicated proponent of soil and water conservation and used sustainable agricultural practices at Malabar Farm. Learn more about it.
Soil and Water Conservation: Restoring Fertility to the Land
In 1938, when Louis Bromfield returned from France to begin construction of the Big House and the establishment of Malabar Farm, the American Great Plains was in the midst of the last waves of a series of droughts that began in 1931. Bromfield returned to establish Malabar Farm on the heels of what is considered one of the worst ecological disasters in modern history. The Great American Dust Bowl was a time when farming practices stripped the land of native grasses. This caused vast windstorms with visibility as low as 3 feet or less to sweep through Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
The Great American Dust Bowl and Soil Conservation Awareness
During the worst of the Dust Bowl, massive storms called “black blizzards” rolled across the land traveling as far east as New York City and Washington, D.C. Deep plowing techniques had stripped the soil of deep-rooted native grasses that prevent erosion. This allowed heavy winds to pick up the soil, stripping the land to clay, and carrying the topsoil with it.
In the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, the once fertile, virgin soil of the West was left eroded and barren. Nearly 125 million acres of farmland had been destroyed. (1) Millions were forced to abandon their farms and move. This intensified the burden of the Great Depression and competition for work in urban areas. It would take well into the 1950s for the land and economy to recover from the disaster fully. (2)
Louis Bromfield’s Role in Soil and Water Conservation
It was against this backdrop that Louis Bromfield moved back to Richland County, Ohio, where he would become an important figure in soil and water conservation. American agriculture was desperate for a way to restore the soil to fertility. Bromfield was an established author, Pulitzer Prize recipient, and had an established circle of Hollywood stars and socialites. When he returned to Ohio, he decided to use his skill and fame as a writer to promote the early ideas of sustainable agriculture, soil ecology, and water conservation. (3)
On farming, Bromfield once said,
“There is nothing so exciting or so satisfying or so beautiful as the earth and the seasons and rich green fields and fat cattle, the sound of foxes barking in the night and the raccoon’s print in the snow. It is [my] profound belief that farming is the most honorable of professions and unquestionably a romantic and inspiring one.”
Bromfield called his farming methods the “new agriculture.” They included the use of contour plowing, green manures, sheet composting, strip cropping, and “trash farming”. (4) Bromfield relied on the knowledge and labor from New Deal agencies that included the Soil Conservation Service and Civilian Conservation Corps. (4) His project was a success, and Malabar Farm would become a destination for those who wanted to learn about these new techniques.
Bromfield became a voice for trying to correct the disastrous results of the farming practices that led to the Dust Bowl. He became listed among famous soil and conservation leaders along with popular leaders of the early movement, such as Hugh Hammond Bennett, Paul Sears, and Aldo Leopold. Bromfield promoted the works of other conservation reformers, such as Edward Faulkner’s 1943 book Plowman’s Folly. This book criticized the moldboard plow and advocated the idea of what he called “trash farming”, a practice that would later become known as no-till farming.
A Sense of Urgency
The goal of Louis Bromfield’s advocacy was to improve soil fertility and to prevent soil erosion. In 1942, Louis Bromfield wrote A Primer of Conservation. In this book, Bromfield said,
“This other war, the war upon destruction of natural assets is one that will never be finished. Our weakness in this vast war is largely ignorance, that most of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.”
Louis Bromfield understood the connection between the prosperity of the nation and its connection to soil conservation. He said, “Soil, water and forests are the foundation not only of our national economy but of our very existence and civilization.” Inspired by the devastation of the Dust Bowl, Bromfield emphasized the urgency of the need to restore the soil when he said, “Here in America the hour is already much later than we think.”
Bromfield believed that America was in trouble when it came to agricultural production, and he painted a bleak picture. He believed that one-fourth of the nation had already been destroyed, one-fourth was half-way to destruction, and one-fourth was progressing towards that end due to its natural topography. Bromfield believed that the final portion of the land was unusable for agriculture but that it added to the scenic beauty of the land.
One this topic, Bromfield said,
“The problem of soil and water conservation is our gravest and most fundamental national problem…It is the duty of every citizen, for his own welfare, if for no other patriotic reason, to support and fight for and possibly initiate measures having to do with conservation of soil, water and forests.”
Bromfield was also a vocal advocate of water conservation. He often cited the example of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio that were near closing in 1941 because there was no water. Bromfield’s message was one of urgency and one that still holds true.
“Our prosperity, our high standard of living, our very liberties will disappear as they have disappeared in other countries all over the world when soil was washed away and there was no longer any adequate supply of water. The hour is already much later than we think.”
Louis Bromfield was not the only farmer experimenting with the roots of what would later become the sustainable agriculture movement, but he was one of the most well-known. He was dedicated to teaching others about soil and water conservation and about the urgency of doing so to keep our country strong. We now know much more today about ecology, soil conservation, and how to protect our most valuable resources, but the urgency and essence of Bromfield’s message still rings true today.
- Hornbeck, Richard (2012). “The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short and Long-run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe”. American Economic Review. 102 (4):1477–1507. doi:10.1257/aer.102.4.1477.
- History.com editors. (2009, October 27). “Dust Bowl.” https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/dust-bowl
- Conford, Philip (2001). The Origins of the Organic Movement. Floris Books. ISBN 978-0-86315-336-5.
- Heyman, Stephen (2020). The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution. W. W. Norton, Incorporated. pp. 181–82. ISBN 978-1-324-00189-8.
Bromfield understood the importance of soil and water conservation.
Bromfield used the example of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, to highlight the importance of the issue. In 1941, the mill was near closing because there was no water. Almost exactly one year later it was near closing due to flooding; flooding caused by heavy rainfall and poor soil profiles.
Rain falls the same way as it always has, but because forests and sod have been destroyed as a result of destructive farming methods, only about twenty to forty percent of the water remains. What happens to the rest? It sweeps away into rivers and to oceans almost immediately, taking with it tons of precious topsoil. Louis Bromfield used Malabar Farm to spread the message about the importance of soil and water conservation.
Louis Bromfield’s good friend and fellow co-founder of The Land Institute Bryce Browning, worked closely together on soil and water issues that concerned Ohio farmers. “The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District became reality in 1933 and since then has operated consistently and brilliantly to the benefit of those in the watershed itself.” Louis Bromfield from his book Out of the Earth (1948)
“Behind it all there stood the figure of one man by the name Bryce Browning who, at one time during the Great Flood, has been working with Zanesville Chamber of Commerce and witnessed the death and damage in the Muskingum Valley. The plan largely his conception and it became his obsession. For nearly twenty years he fought doggedly to keep alive the indignation of Ohioians and get them to do something about it”. Bromfield wrote in his book “Out of the Earth”
Browning’s conception has created for the great Muskingum watershed and for the people of Ohio a kind of Paradise of Recreation.