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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.