Riot of soil erosion brings shame

by ‎05-28-2012 02:18 PM - edited ‎05-29-2012 01:44 PM



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.





on ‎05-30-2012 07:32 AM

Thanks for sharing that, John. When my kids were young they thought I was nuts because I'd rather drive on 80 to Omaha than go to a ball game- love that part of the country.


If there was ever a place that was "made" to be farmed by family farmers it is there- where you can take care of the cows and hay where they belong, keep equipment that works on terraces and hillsides.


I'm also troubled by what I see as the boom having encouraged shotgun use of pesticides (IPM is so yesterday) and things that I''m personally aware of being fairly common if not widepread such as ignoring warnings to tankmix or alternate herbicide modes and cheating on refuges which have surely contributed to the short effective lifetime of some potentially valuable new technologies. 


It all makes me a little uneasy about our future.



by sbagren
on ‎05-31-2012 03:07 PM

John, I absolutely agree with you.  It is shameful.  Some people blame it on a fast and heavy rain.  Really?  We get these rains every couple of years.  I have seen fields that lost more soil in one day than can be replenished in 15 years, even if there is zero erosion on that field for the next 49 years and 364 days.  It seems to me that there are more fields tilled "black" (no residue remaining) this year than in previous years.  More waterways have been plowed up, more rows running up and down the hill, and crops are planted closer to our streams.  One comment I hear is that farmers can't afford to "not" plant every acre.  Again, really?  I would venture to say that most every farmer has been more profitable the last couple of years than any of the preceeding 10+ years.  For the majority of those forgetting conservation, it is not a matter of "can't afford it".  It is a matter of mining their "factory" for a short term gain, regardless of how damaging it is in the long-run; not to mention damage to the neighboring conservation farmer and downstream owners and users of the water.  If these non-conservation minded farmers wants to see more regulations put in place, they are on the right path.

by Iowa4me
on ‎06-08-2012 07:54 AM

Not sure how to respond. I see it too. My land is all HEL and terraced. I lose some but not a lot.Turkey

Creek running through Anita this spring looked like the fifties again.


The county taxes me as if I farm every square foot and my buildings are gold plated. I have an eighty

coming out of CRP next year. Hay ground.

on ‎06-11-2012 09:43 AM

As a SWCD technician in north central Missouri (for what seems like forever), I've seen plenty of changes.  In the 1970s and 80s I remember surveying waterways in areas with 7-8' deep gullies and terraces on fields with 3-4' deep gullies.  Back then there were still old timers who considered erosion as inevitable and just a cost of doing business.  Fortunately, most people with that kind of thinking are now long gone, although there are still a few that have serious problems out there.  Things are better now, but there's still a long ways to go. 


Most people believe that heavy, torrential rains cause serious, visible erosion but they are wrong.  While that is technically true, in the real world it's $12 beans and $6 corn that cause more erosion. 

on ‎06-16-2012 08:06 PM

"But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours."


Wendell Berry in the 2012 Jefferson Lecture.