Looking down on erosion

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June 12, 2011 - 7:00pm

The terrain south of Creston, Iowa, is gorgeous: rolling green hills covered with pasture or freshly planted row crops, bordered by stands of trees and little streams crisscrossing the landscape.

But where you might see scenery reminiscent of a Grant Wood painting, Don Carrington sees highly erodible land particularly when he peers down from an airplane.

"You can see that there's already lot of good conservation on the ground; you can see in areas lots of terraces; you can see some no-till; you can see grass; you can some good conservation," said Carrington, a resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"And then you can also see areas where we still have need to do some better conservation."

Farmers who work land classified as highly erodible are required by federal law to write and follow a conservation plan. And every year, the conservation service randomly selects a small percentage of farms in highly erodible areas to review.

This year, the assessment is perhaps even more critical. Near-record high grain prices have driven many farmers to plant as much land as possible. Some have taken land out of conservation or pasture and even a few golf courses have been turned into row crops. This has some experts worried that such intense farming will only increase soil erosion and water pollution.

Carrington has been gliding over parts of western Iowa in a high-winged Cessna, checking on farmers' conservation practices.

As part of an experiment In Iowa, the agency this year is reviewing (with the land owners' knowledge) 640 tracts by air which still amounts to less than 1 percent of the highly erodible land in the state.

"We're basically data collectors, and what we do is we put down what we see on paper and let ground crew analyze what have seen, determine whether or not that producer is actually meeting compliance," Carrington said.

Back at the office, a team analyzes the fly-over data and if they see signs of inadequate conservation practices, they send some people to visit the farm on foot.

Drive-by erosion spotting

Ron Brownlee farms 480 acres in Adair County, one of the areas in the conservation service's flyover path. He's also the director of conservation districts of Iowa for his region, and he knows every slope, gully and waterway within miles.

"We're in highly erodible country, the hills and then heavy rains that we've been getting the last four springs has really been terrible as far as erosion is concerned," said Brownlee.

Brownlee eases his mud-splattered pick-up truck onto a small gravel shoulder and points out his window:

"OK, see that side hill over there? See how the erosion, it's just little trickles all the way down through it? This one here is the same way that ground should never have been tilled. It should have been no till, that's what it should've been. "

Though it's a gently sloping hill, the field is streaked with washed-out sections, and two distinct gullies have carved out ribbons of soil. Brownlee said it really should be up to the farmers to take care of the land, not taking the time of the conservation agency.

"They shouldn't be policemen out here having to tell people you're out of compliance," he said. "You know you're out of compliance."

Farmers have been required to follow conservation plans since the law went into effect in 1985. And it did initially reduce soil erosion in vulnerable areas by about 40 percent. But conservationists argue that enforcement has gotten lax in the last decade, pointing to data showing that some parts of Iowa are losing as much as 10 times the soil per acre as is considered sustainable.

"I think with the high prices, we're trying to farm things that shouldn't be farming," said Brownlee. "We can't farm every inch of this ground down in this country; we've got waterways that have to be left, we need buffer strips. We're seeing a lot of cows being sold, and pastures being taking out that, probably should never ever see row crop."

Brownlee said the flyovers allow for more consistent evaluation of conservation practices.

Iowa State University agronomist Rick Cruse agreed, but acknowledged that he doesn't like the idea that "big brother is watching."

"Counter to that though, if big brother is paying you to do something, big brother should have right to see if whether what they're paying you to do actually gets done," Cruse said.

The way the law's set up, farmers are only eligible for federal subsidies or conservation payments if they're following their conservation plan. So the only penalty is losing federal subsidies, which isn't much of a hit when corn and soybean prices are at near-record highs.

Pushing water uphill

The incentives just aren't set up to promote conservation, Cruse said. For example, between 1997 and 2007 the government paid corn belt farmers $51.2 billion in subsidies and insurance payments for row crops. During the same time, they received only $7 billion for conservation, according to an Environmental Working Group report.

And another challenge is that about half of Iowa farmland is farmed by renters who don't own the land. The majority of farm renters are on a year-to-year lease, and some don't even have a written agreement. Cruse said some of those renters may well farm with good conservation practices, like no- till farming or planting cover crops:

"However if it comes to things like grass strips, riparian buffers, grassed waterways, terraces that is an ownership issue. A renter very seldom is going to invest his or her time and money in putting in permanent practice, unless they have some return for that. And I've talked to variety of farmers that are renting, and they say: conservation costs."

The incentives just aren't lined up for renters to invest in the future of the land, said Cruse and "if that doesn't happen, we're going to continually try to push water up hill."

Cruse said the responsibility really is on the landowner to practice good stewardship. Cruse said he's increasingly concerned because as the farmland owner population is aging more than half of Iowa farmland is owned by people over 65 landowners are losing their connection to the land.

"Because the heirs of today's landowners typically don't live in the community, and a lot of them live out of state," said Cruse. "So when you lose the connection with land, you lose the connection with keeping the land where it belongs. It's too easy to just become involved with a paycheck."

And with high grain prices and reserves of corn at a 15-year low, many farmers are trying to squeeze as much corn out of the fields as possible. Farmers who rent land are also facing high rent prices this year. Cruse said he's heard some argue that in order to produce enough to feed the heavy demand for grain, we may have to suffer a bit of erosion.

But, he said, the counter question to that is: "If we had all the sediment now that's in the floodplains, in the ditches, in the reservoirs, back up on slope where it started, would productivity level be sufficiently high that we don't need to farm these marginal areas?"

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