Agriculture and Conservation
Farming practices in the Tennessee Valley, like those in other marginal farming communities, attempted to pull as much productivity as possible out of fragile lands. The results were often destructive. Hillsides and ravines were plowed and planted, resulting in the loss of valuable topsoil. Row crops like corn, tobacco and cotton left the topsoil exposed during the winter months, which contributed to erosion. The improper use of fertilizers damaged land and water resources and contributed to indebtedness. A 1937 TVA report noted that:
Cotton land, for example, is commonly fertilized with commercial fertilizers, containing nitrates. The system is a vicious circle. As the land grows poorer the farmer must buy more nitrates. To buy them he must plough up the hillsides and grow more cotton. The more cotton he grows the lower goes the price. More land washing away, less money for the crop, more fertilizer needed, and less money with which to buy it.TVA changed farming techniques, and taught farmers to substitute nitrates for plants like alfalfa, vetch and clover that naturally add nitrogen to the soil. TVA extension programs introduced contour plowing, crop rotation, the use of phosphate fertilizers, and the planting of cover crops for soil conservation.
TVA set up demonstration farms to teach farmers about new techniques and farm products. Local farmers agreed to work with county agricultural agents and experts from the land grant college extension services.
The farmers picked to be demonstration farmers were often the area's most successful farmers. African American farmers were not allowed to participate in the demonstration farm program, and the black agricultural colleges in the area were not part of the college extension services that taught new techniques to area farmers.
Even those farmers who learned the new techniques found that they were not able to compete with large agricultural businesses. Crop rotation, contour plowing, and the careful use of fertilizers and pest controls increased productivity, but the same techniques made it easier for bigger farms to become even more productive. Despite the educational programs of TVA, better access to markets and labor-saving devices resulting from the introduction of electricity to farmers, the number of family farms in the Tennessee Valley area continued to decline.
For a contemporary account of agriculture in Tennessee, see "Agriculture" in Tennessee: A Guide to the State, compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Tennessee.