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Bench-Marks in the Tennessee Valley

I. Strength in the Hills

by Arthur E. Morgan

Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority

January 1934

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IN piling that stove-wood as a boy, now this way and now that, I was trying to get away from the monotonous uniformity that made it sheer drudgery. That habit has persisted with me, and whatever the repetitive nature of a task may be, I find it desirable, even necessary, to introduce some variant into the pattern. Thus in responding to calls to talk about our Tennessee Valley work, I have taken it up now from one angle, now from another, according to the nature of the audience.

In midfall, I spoke before the Chamber of Commerce of Asheville, N.C., and there it was natural to begin with the series of events centering about the power program, with which my hearers were familiar, and to deal with those phases of the project that bear on reconditioning the agricultural lands. During the War what was to become known afterward as the Wilson Dam and power plant at Muscle Shoals were undertaken in order to produce ammonia from nitrogen in the air. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. This "fixed nitrogen," as it is called, is the chief material used in making high explosives, and huge amounts of electric power were needed for its manufacture by the methods then in use. A large manufacturing plant was therefore built near the dam to use the water power for making ammonia. This is commonly known as Nitrate Plant No. 2.

It happens that this same ammonia so necessary in the manufacture of explosives is also the valuable element in nitrogen fertilizers. For that reason Wilson Dam and Nitrate Plant No. 2 have been looked upon by the farmers of the country as a possible source of a cheap substitute for the manure of horse-driven days. The nitrate plant was not finished until the War closed. It was run just long enough to make sure that it would do what was expected of it, and since then has lain idle. Processes for making ammonia have so improved that many people have questioned whether the plant is not now obsolete.

The Tennessee Valley Authority law provided for research in fertilizer manufacture, and for the purchase, mixing and sale of fertilizer materials, and for the manufacture of fertilizer ingredients where that seems wise. The Authority is now at work on that problem. Research is being actively carried on in the manufacture not only of nitrates, but also of phosphates and potash. These three are the chief plant foods supplied by commercial fertilizers. An examination is being made of Nitrate Plant No. 2 to determine whether it can still be used to advantage. A plant will shortly be built for the manufacture of phosphates and perhaps of potash.

As this work with fertilizers develops successfully it will be of interest, not only to North Carolina and other parts of the Tennessee River region, but to the whole South. There is said to be an overproduction of fertilizer at present costs.

Yet many southern farmers would like to buy in quantities they cannot afford at present prices. The cure for overproduction and low prices on the farm is not through the back-breaking drudgery of farming land for poor crops. Rather it lies in getting the best possible crops from the best possible land, with poor land put to other uses, such as forests, or storage reservoirs for regulating our streams.

THIS brings us to the matter of stream flow, and to a range of problems and possibilities which are beyond the grasp of private waterpower development. One reason that we need those fertilizers is that we have allowed surface soil to run down and wash away. The earliest travelers through this region spoke of the crystal water of the streams. Since then, with the clearing and farming of our southern rolling lands, much of the original fertility has been carried down to the sea. Millions of acres are now barren clay hillsides, cut with gullies and abandoned by agriculture. It has taken only a little more than a century to produce this result in the Tennessee River area. If the process continues as it has in some other countries, such as southern Greece, parts of Palestine, and parts of China, great areas will become useless for cultivation. The remainder cannot raise taxes for schools and roads, and the more progressive people will move to other regions. Civilization will dry up, and as in Greece, what was once a prosperous region will be peopled by poverty-stricken farmers who pasture their scrawny goats on barren hillsides.

This is a real issue in the rolling lands of the South. It presses for an answer. What can be done about it? First, we can encourage different methods of agriculture. On hillside land corn crops, with the resulting bare ground during the hard winter rains, must give way to grass and cover crops, such as the new perennial lespedeza. Second, the steepest land should be taken out of agriculture and planted to forest. In corn the land is quickly destroyed. In forest the erosion is largely stopped and a profitable crop is started. Experiments of the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that under intelligent care the soil erosion can be reduced to only 5 percent of what it was before control was begun. Third, our laws of land ownership should be changed so that if a man is handling his land in a way that will destroy it, the part he cannot take care of should be taken away from him and given to someone who will farm it properly, or be planted by the government to some growth that will prevent soil erosion. A man has no natural right to inherit good land and pass on a waste of gullied hillsides to those who come after him. We are not complete owners of the soil, but only trustees for a generation.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003