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Nature’s View: Keep Iowa’s black gold in the fields

Ray Harden
Ray Harden
Rhonda and Doug Volz of Bouton planted 80 acres of annual rye on one of their farms.
Rhonda and Doug Volz of Bouton planted 80 acres of annual rye on one of their farms.

When the early European settlers moved into Iowa they passed the prairies and tended to settle in the wooded areas. They were not familiar with prairie soils and thought the land that did not grow trees would not grow good crops. The wetlands and pot holes in Iowa’s prairie landscape made it nearly impossible to farm and bred swarms of mosquitoes. Also, it was hard work to till the soil. According to Iowa’s Natural Heritage the grasses that grew in Iowa formed a layer of sod that was so thick it took a seven yoke team of oxen to pull a single plowshare to turn the soil.

The hard working pioneers drained the wetlands and plowed the sod and made Iowa’s soil the most productive in the United States. The Department of Agriculture reports that one-third of the best cropland in the U.S.A. is in Iowa. Farms now make up 92 percent of Iowa’s land with nearly 80 percent in some type of row crop, making agriculture the mainstay of our state’s economy generating $40 billion dollars per year.

But Iowa’s most valuable resource, top soil, is in trouble. Nearly one-half of the topsoil has been lost since European settlement. Currently million tons of our state’s topsoil are being lost every year, an average of nine tons per acre. This loss is greater than any other state in the Corn Belt. The average annual rate of new soil formation is less than one ton per acre each year.

The severe erosion during the “Dust Bowl” years of the 1930s brought about the first efforts to prevent soil erosion, which also helped protect water resources. The Federal Government passed the Soil Conservation Act in 1935 and established the Soil Conservation Service, now it is called the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS. Iowa passed a law in 1939 that allowed soil and water conservation districts to organize. The Dallas County Soil and Water Conservation District was formed in 1946. The legislation also declared as policy for the State of Iowa to: “Preserve soil and water, protect the state’s tax base, and promote health, safety and public welfare of the people of Iowa.”

Federal Government legislation has also been enacted and developed farming practices to combat soil erosion. Many programs and farm bills have been passed to help farmers increase yields as well as keeping the soil on the farm fields. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was passed in 1985, paying farmers to stop cultivating highly erodible land. This generated income for farmers and provided habitat for wildlife. In 1996 Congress created the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP) and the Natural Resources Foundation to promote and pay for agricultural conservation practices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that for an annual cost of $1 billion the program saves 700 million tons of top soil. There are many other federal and state programs that assist the farming community with soil conservation. Recently the Iowa Department of Agriculture has been encouraging farmers to plant “cover crops” on fields after corn has been harvested. Cover crops hold the soil in place during the winter months. Also, the “Nutrient Reduction Strategy” was started in Iowa last year to reduce water pollution by 45 percent and this program will also help conserve Iowa’s topsoil.

Land owners and farm operators should take advantage of these programs and make sure that they are doing all they can to conserve Iowa’s precious topsoil.

Top soil is the “skin of the Earth” the thin outer layer of the Earth’s crust and just like our own skin- we can’t live without it. There is a finite amount of Iowa’s Black Gold, top soil. Good soil conservation practices keep the soil on the fields producing high yields of grain, while keeping the rest of the environment clean and healthy.