Fallout and Agriculture

United States Department of Agriculture

In spite of the limiting nature of its title, the United States Department of Agriculture often reached beyond the farm sector to keep rural Americans up to date on the latest cultural, political, and technological trends. Working primarily through county-level extension offices, the U.S.D.A. published pamphlets, offered expert lecturers, and even produced films on subjects as diverse as fashionable sewing, automobile mechanics, and plow board repair.  When a need arose in the mid-1950's then, to begin providing civil defense advice specifically tailored to farmers and ranchers, the agency was well-suited to the task.  Although its distance from large urban centers and other probable targets of an enemy air attack would protect much of the agricultural population from the immediate dangers of atomic blast and fire, lingering radioactive fallout still presented a serious problem.  The earliest films to discuss the needs of rural Americans in a post-attack setting almost completely ignore the issue of fallout radiation.  The Role of the Warden in the H-Bomb Era, released in 1957, explains how cities will evacuate to the surrounding countryside and small towns must be prepared to accept refugees.  Rural Civil Defense, released in 1959, expresses the same sentiment while praising the rugged individualism of the American farm family.  In each production, fallout is treated as an afterthought, an annoyance to briefly tend with.  By 1960, however, radiation was viewed as a deadly and long-lasting threat which could render cities uninhabitable and wreak havoc upon croplands across the nation.  That same year, the U.S.D.A. released Fallout and Agriculture which provides an incredibly detailed look at how radioactive particles can harm humans, livestock, and crops, while ultimately contaminating soil if proper precautions are not followed. (1)
Fallout and Agriculture opens with a closeup of a picturesque farm being pelted by radioactive particles as the camera pulls back to reveal the film's narrator standing in front of a colorful mural. With a stern voice he explains that while fallout is the most dangerous element of an atomic bomb, it is also the easiest to protect against.  By seeking shelter in a well-stocked basement, families can survive the deadliest period of fallout accumulation.  Root cellars and sturdy out-buildings, both common to rural properties, may also work for this purpose.  Similarly, livestock must also be sheltered and a barn with solid walls and no windows is the ideal option, if available.  The film suggests that breeding stock should be given prime shelter space.  Ample animal feed supplies should be kept in storage, under tarps or indoors.  Various methods for converting existing farm structures into usable fallout shelter space is explored in more thoroughly in the U.S.D.A.'s 1961 film The Safest Place.  Vast fields of crops, however, cannot be so easily sheltered and require a different set of precautions.  For fruits, vegetables, and grains still growing, little can be done as Cesium and Strontium 90  are absorbed into plant stalks and roots, contaminating them thoroughly.  Mature crops, however, can be harvested, washed with clean water, and consumed.

Fallout and Agriculture saves its grimmest content for the final moments.  The film addresses a scenario where a food shortage following an atomic attack forces farmers to plow their fields despite fertile topsoil being infused with deadly radioactivity.  To ensure the crops are acceptable for human consumption in such a case, the contaminated soil must be removed.  Two options are offered, though both are heavily stressed by the narrator to be used only as last resorts.  The first is to bulldoze the top several inches of soil of off fields, load it into dump trucks, and transport it for burial in remote locations.  It is noted this process would require extensive resources unavailable to most areas.  A second, more drastic measure involves "deep plowing", using special machinery to turn the contaminated soil underneath uncontaminated soil, allowing crops to grow free of radioactivity.  Deep Plowing, while allowing crops to grow in the short term, makes it impossible to remove the radiation from the ground afterwards.  The film ends on a positive note, however, with several shots Department of Agriculture research labs where white-coated researchers are developing new protection methods for humans and livestock.  A triumphant score plays as two farmers look out across their acres and the narrator closes by highlighting the importance of farmers, their land and their products in civil defense planning.

1. United States Department of Agriculture.  "Protection of Food and Agriculture Against Nuclear Attack" Government Printing Office.  1962.  40.