Driving home from western Iowa last night I could think of only one thing. Soil erosion is totally out of control in the hills there.
You could see the damage across several counties stretching from the Loess Hills above the Missouri River to the western reaches of the Des Moines River watershed. I gave up trying to photograph it. An iPhone camera simply can't do this sad drama justice.
In many fields the losses were easily visible from the highway as large gulleys and soil deposits at the bottom of the fields. Newly planted crops were entirely washed away in places. Even on some of the better tended sloping soils--those with grass waterways, terraces and no-till--the damage was clear.
Creeks looked like open sewers. One normally clean pond I visited was as dirty as Big Muddy itself.
To be fair, the rains in the area have been heavy--nine inches in a week near my home town, according to a friend. One farmer's first comment to me was "The rains came quick and hard."
This map (click here) generated on May 19 by the Iowa Daily Erosion Project documents just how damaging intense storms can be: Note that those orange and red areas show where soil losses reached seven tons per acre for that single day.
I get the fact that it rained, and it rained hard. But, this dramatic damage to the land pulls back the curtain of what's been going on in the hills for a decade or more now. More and more, farmers are pushing to grow corn where it's not possible in any kind of sustainable way. In the process, they're destroying the soils, polluting the waters, and scarring the landscape.
Some hillside corn fields, ones I remember as grass and timber not so long ago, are so god-awful steep that you wonder how a tractor and combine can even operate on them. It's breathtaking in a perverse sort of way.
It appears that some guys are hanging a planter wheel out over the edge of creeks and rivers. The field edge is literally the stream bank. There's not a buffer, terrace or grass waterway in sight on many of these newly converted fields.
I welcomed the setting sun as I approached the flatlands of central Iowa. I couldn't take another minute of witnessing what's happening in too many places in those once-beautiful hills.
I wanted to blame the goverment for not enforcing conservation compliance and sodbuster regulations. I wanted to blame certain farmers for abandoning their moral responsibility to care for the land for future generations. I wanted to blame local citizens for not applying peer pressure on their bad apple neighbors.
But mostly, it felt shameful yesterday to be associated with agriculture, and I was ashamed of myself as much as anything.
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