Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let's Protect our Soil, "the fertile legacy of thousands of years of geological processes"

Iowa’s weather is changing and so is farmland ownership. Society can no longer assume that landowners see or comprehend what is happening with their precious land and with our priceless waters. Government needs to step up enforcement of soil conservation laws, especially with absentee landlords who are not around to see and be responsible for what is happening.

---Duane Sand, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Des Moines, Iowa

Frankly, I don’t think our soil erosion problems need to be what they are. Many farmers do well but are not praised for it. On the other hand, the careless ones and those who might be termed outright vandals no longer even get their knuckles rapped. Voluntary conservation works well, but only if it’s proactive. Our compliance laws can still work, too, but they need to be universal—applied to all cropland—and enforced.

---Paul W. Johnson, Farmer and Former Chief, USDA, NRCS, Decorah, Iowa

The Environmental Working Group has a not to be missed report out on the rate of topsoil loss in Iowa, how this rate is accelerated by our current agricultural policy, and how today's farmers who are practicing good conservation are doing so only out of good faith. Our government needs to step up conservation laws which have been erased over the years, especially since it appears that the richest soils of America, those of Iowa the central Great Plains are getting wetter and flooding more frequently due to climate change. We have been blessed with a priceless natural resource, our rich topsoil, which we are taking for granted and treating as a third world factory. Policy is everything when it comes to reversing recent trends of all-out fencerow to fencerow production.

Six million Iowa acres eroded at twice the “sustainable” rate in 2007

From the report:
The runoff from vulnerable farmland not only washes away soil – the fertile legacy of thousands of years of geological processes — but also carries with it a potent cargo of fertilizers, pesticides and manure that flows into local creeks and streams and eventually into the Mississippi River. Ultimately it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, generating the notorious dead zone — a zone of depleted oxygen that suffocates marine life when it forms each year. ...

Today, the soil erosion problem in Iowa and nearby states is nowhere near the scale of those historic calamities, but the data show that the situation is getting worse. Chronically underfunded voluntary conservation programs are failing to blunt the damage caused by federal policies that push farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow. Between 1997 and 2009, the government paid Iowa farmers $2.76 billion to put conservation practices in place. It paid out six times as much — $16.8 billion — in income, production and insurance subsidies that encouraged maximum-intensity planting, not conservation. Across the Corn Belt, the gap was even greater — $7.0 billion for conservation and $51.2 billion for income, production and insurance subsidies.

The $18.9 billion spent to subsidize expansion of the corn ethanol industry, along with misguided federal mandates to produce increasing amounts of ethanol, further increase the pressure to intensify production. ...

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  1. For perspective the top six inches of topsoil is often reported to weight 2,000,000 lbs. A ton is 2000 lbs.

    At the upper end of the erosion stats on the map we get 100 tons lost, or 200,000 lbs, which is 10%. If a low rate of loss is 1 ton that would be 0.1%. A huge range. Hard to imagine what the 10% farms look like.

  2. I have a wonderful bumper sticker that says: "Let's stop treating our soil like dirt." This is a far cry from the endless prairie soil many feet thick that the pioneers found.

  3. In western Iowa there's a band of very highly erodible loess soils that runs south into NW Missouri. Unlike most soils in the rest of Iowa, loess soils are wind-deposited and have a very light consistency. Keep these soils from eroding has been a problem as long as I can remember.

    The USDA just isn't putting enough money into conservation areas like NRCS. In order to get this ground out of production and into conservation, they have to pay enough to compete with crops. But NRCS contract payments have fallen far short. While crop prices have doubled or tripled in the last 10 years, contract payments are up just a fraction of that.