Teaching people about soil conservation is one of our top goals at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and fortunately, we have a special helper.
Sammy Soil, everyone’s favorite little clump of earth, has managed to capture the public’s attention for more than 40 years. The little dirt clod, as he is sometimes called, was birthed through rock particles, water, air, leaves and the artistic mind of long-time employee Ernest “Howard” Whitaker.
Sammy Soil started as a water color drawing by Whitaker, who worked as a NRCS district conservationist in Tennessee.
“The idea came to me in a dream,” Whitaker said of the illustrated hero. The character of Sammy Soil was launched in 1967, at a time when soil conservation was not yet part of America’s mindset, Whitaker said.
Before long, Sammy became a popular teaching tool for children. Whitaker’s wife, Nell, a teacher, helped him polish Sammy’s appearance for youngsters.
Sammy Soil was brought to the national level through a series of school activity books to help school children learn the many different aspects of soil conservation. For almost 50 years, Whitaker has seen his “son” Sammy evolve from a simple water color drawing, to a national symbol for soil and land conservation.
In the 1970s, Jack Winstead and Jeannine May, NRCS employees in Mississippi, transformed Whitaker’s drawing into a multi-dimensional mascot.
“I can’t tell you how well received he is… he’s been so popular that we were asked to create two more to meet the demand,” said May, NRCS former public affairs specialist.
Sammy Soil costumes and puppets were developed by different NRCS offices, and Sammy quickly became a very important teaching tool across the country — from South Carolina to Utah.
“Sammy has come a long way and has enabled students to understand the importance of soil,” said Lynn Porter, district administrator in the Hinds County Soil & Conservation District in Jackson, Miss.
Porter uses the district’s Sammy costume to teach youngsters in the Jackson, Miss. area about the many different layers of soil.
Kari Cohen, a senior adviser to the Deputy Chief for Science & Technology, often dons the Sammy Soil costume at NRCS’ headquarters, even storing Sammy in his office.
“The best part about being Sammy Soil is being able to make people happy,” Cohen said. “Kids love him and it’s great to be able to interest people in soil conservation, and have fun while doing it!”
Sammy Soil has taken many forms over the years, but still remains one of NRCS’ most fun and effective teaching tools. NRCS also offers a Sammy Soil coloring book, available free through the agency’s distribution center. Celebrate back to school with the coloring book and NRCS’ other educational resources!