Years of over plowing and over planting had sapped precious nutrients from the fragile prairie topsoil by the 1930s. Spreading waste from livestock on fields was not enough to replenish vital nutrients and build up the soil so it could nourish a crop each year. During the New Deal, the federal government encouraged farmers to use a three or four year crop rotation program to help replenish the soil. Experts recommended that farmers plant crops two years in a row, followed by a fallow (non-crop) year.
In addition to helping renew the soil, this program also helped manage crop production and prices. For the first time in America’s history, farmers could sign up for federal programs that paid them to plant certain crops or paid them to let the soil lie fallow. Farmers who signed up for federal programs agreed to limit the number of acres planted with corn and wheat which depleted the soil, and increased the number of acres with legumes (beans) and grasses which helped renew the soil.
County agents from the Agricultural Extension Service and other organizations helped farmers learn how to use these new farming methods. Darrel Ronne remembers that in York County, they rotated corn with a grain such as wheat or oats, then planted sweet clover (alfalfa), which put nitrogen into the soil and was cut for livestock feed. He says the government employed “teenagers like me to go out and measure the crops or check the fallow land,” then report the growth to a government office so farmers could be paid. Many of today’s farmers participate in a more complicated version of similar federal programs.
Although most Nebraska farmers began rotating their crops on a regular basis in the 1930s, the practice lost popularity in the 1960s and 1970s as farms got larger and specialized equipment became more expensive. Most farmers in eastern Nebraska now concentrate on growing just one crop such as corn, soybeans, wheat, or milo (depending on rainfall and soil conditions).
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.