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A View from the Woods

By Loni Kemp

Mon, Jun 11th, 2012
Posted in All Columnists

Why the Rivers Turn Brown

What runs through your mind when you glance at a creek or river near you, and the water looks like roiling chocolate milk? When I see muddy, murky water, my heart clenches in anger. It happens often. In fact, it happens every time it rains hard.

“Riot of Soil Erosion Brings Shame.”

That headline got my attention, especially coming from the executive editor of Successful Farming Magazine and Agriculture.com. John Walter took a Memorial Day trip through western Iowa and was shocked at the environmental calamity he saw from soil erosion gone totally out of control:

In many fields the losses were easily visible from the highway as large gullies 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.

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.

I wanted to blame the government 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.

Walter was referring to the Loess Hills of Iowa, with steep slopes and loose soils. Yet, evidence of severe erosion is all around us in Fillmore County. Many have tuned it out or just don’t see it. Think of the whole system: rainstorm to farm fields to erosion to rivers. That is why the rivers turn brown, and then slowly clear up again as the sediment drops out or runs to the Mississippi River. Hard rains are completely predictable from snowmelt through July, when farm fields once again grow a crop to shield bare soil from the elements. It is hard to believe, but rich, productive topsoil becomes pollution when it muddies the waters, often carrying fertilizer and pesticides with it.

There are plenty of careful, conservation-minded farmers in this area. Some families have been protecting the hillsides for generations by keeping forest or pasture in place so roots hold the soil. Others grow crops and they include hay in their rotations or use readily available conservation practices such as grassed waterways and planting directly into stubble without disturbing the soil. Free conservation information, technical assistance and money in the form of grants, cost-sharing and low-interest loans is waiting for any farmer willing to stop in at the Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation office in Preston.

Yet the rivers don’t lie. Too many farmers allow erosion to happen. The shame of despoiling our rivers has become become dulled by generations seeing it happen over and over. It seems almost normal. And now the temptations are even greater, with government policies that cover your risks if you grow corn, and high prices rewarding every last bushel of corn and beans. Such intense production can be sustainable on the right land with aggressive conservation, but it is not sustainable if the rivers turn brown.

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