During the twentieth century at least 2.5 million ponds were built on farms and ranches throughout the United States. This essay reviews how and why farm ponds were constructed and discusses their significance. Farm-pond building efforts were first developed in the early twentieth century in the Great Plains states. With the New Deal came the Soil Conservation Service with its innovative decentralized structure of local districts. Pond building took off throughout the United States, aided by funding, expertise, and soon by the availability of inexpensive earth-moving equipment. Stated purposes for ponds were consistent over time and included water for livestock, irrigation, soil conservation, wildlife habitat, fish production, ornamental value, and recreation: fishing, hunting, swimming, ice skating, and boating. Fire protection and spray water were added in the postwar period. Over time, bottom-up pressure helped push officials to more openly embrace farm pond recreation as a valid purpose for conserving the farm’s “human resources.”

From an environmental history perspective, the farm pond and its associated features can be regarded as a “hybrid” landscape, manipulated by humans but also transformed by nonhuman nature. Its primary historical importance, however, lies in its role in promoting the much broader reworking of agricultural landscapes fostered by the so-called “conservation-industrial complex.”


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pp. 39-58
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