The Lewis and Clarke expedition into the sprawling prairies and thickets of the Western wilderness may be romanticized today, but some 200 years ago it was an undertaking inspired by hard political reality.

President Thomas Jefferson, who had just completed the purchase of the vast region known as Louisiana, dispatched the two explorers to take a thorough inventory of the resources in this virgin land.  He wanted to know what in this vast territory could be exploited by a young farming nation as it pushed relentlessly into the deep reaches of the so-called Western back country.

And exploit Americans did — for more than a century before nature began pushing back with a vengeance, says Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils.

Long before the laying of the Continental Railroad, hundreds of thousands of farm families had pushed beyond the Mississippi into the Plains, over the Rockies and ultimately to the California coast. Railroads only made this relentless pushing easier — and faster.

“There was nothing we couldn’t exploit — and we did,” Mitchell says.

Even as early as the 1860s, a few foresighted statesmen had perceived that Americans were dealing with limited resources — thinking reflected in the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which established a network of agricultural schools to impart scientific farming methods to young farmers.

“Congress perceived we were running out of land and that we had to come up with some way of sustaining agricultural production with the resources that we had,” Mitchell says.

With the establishment of agricultural research stations following passage of the Hatch Act of 1887, scientists, including the late John Duggar of what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute began laying the groundwork for what we know today as sustainable agriculture.

“His (Duggar’s) basic premise was that we could sustain cotton production by following a few simple practices — rotating crops, keeping the land covered in winter,” Mitchell says. “(That) underscored that so long as land remained productive we could sustain agricultural production.”

Duggar is remembered for affirming that “agriculture will come into its own when her fields are green in winter.”

Unfortunately, few farmers then were heeding the calls of Duggar and other conservation-minded scientists. By the 1930s, the proverbial chickens had come home to roost in the Midwest. A decade-long drought was made worse by farming practices that paid little heed to the environment.

Precious topsoil that had accumulated over centuries crumbled in the summer heat and was blown hundreds of miles by brisk prairie winds.