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Iowa's neglected and abused treasure: the soil

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
Kamyar Enshayan
Des Moines Register
May 7, 2009

Kamyar Enshayan, director, UNI Center for Energy & Environmental Education

After two days of rain (totaling 4 inches or so), I took US Hwy 63 South to a meeting near Grinnell. I saw the ugly scars of soil erosion in nearly every corn or bean ground all the way to I-80. I saw gullies 5 feet deep.

Every spring in Iowa we have a 10-15 million acre construction site, with soils highly vulnerable to being washed away. Over the last hundred years Iowa has lost a significant portion of its most important treasure, the gift of excellent soil—the miracle that sustains us. Four inches of rain over two days is very normal for our region of the world, but severe soil erosion caused by your basic spring showers is not normal.

Excellent research by the Leopold Center, ISU and Practical Farmers of Iowa has proven the benefits of grass-based farming, we have known the soil and water benefits of a 4-year crop rotation, and we have known the soil-building benefits of cover crops for nearly a century. We already know how to maintain high yields without leaking fertilizer and pesticides all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

We already know the negative water quality and health impacts of removing livestock from farms and concentrating them in thousands and millions in massive confinement facilities. We already know how to manage the land so that rivers and streams have room and are protected by perennial vegetation buffer areas.

We say we love America, but we are eroding its flesh and desecrating its waters by overt and careless acts. Where are our patriotic sensibilities? In spite of all the talk of conservation and stewardship, the scenes of soil loss and evidence of polluted streams and ground water speak for themselves.

By not doing our best to protect our soils and waters, we in effect are dishonoring America and those before us who sacrificed so much. What does it mean to wear that flag lapel pin? As Wendell Berry asked, to what extent do we defend against foreign enemies a nation that we are ourselves destroying?

In Iowa, there is an unspoken rule and nearly everyone strictly abides by it: “Don’t criticize or say anything bad about farming in Iowa.” As University of Minnesota economist Richard Levin has so clearly pointed out at a recent lecture at ISU, farms operate within a national policy and markets created by those policies, which financially subsidize current land management practices leading to poor soils, polluted waters, and poor rural economies for farms and small towns (all is left is a Casey’s and a bar). So, for the most part, it is not “farmers” who are really shaping the land, it is the economic and political context in which they operate and respond to.

Up until 2008, the troubles of industrial agricultural practices were confined to contaminated drinking water, recalled meats, and E. coli contamination killing a few people here and there. But in 2008, the landscape dominated by subsidized poor land use, washed many homes away and caused one of the biggest disasters in Iowa’s history.

Much like 9/11, the 2008 flood should have been a wake up call. Ecologists, hydrologists, and water quality scientists who have studied Iowa’s land agree that much of the intensification of the floods are the cumulative result of decades of degrading Iowa’s watersheds and floodplains, drastically impairing the land’s ability to soak, store, and handle water, leading to flood intensification. With all the glamorous talk about “bio-economy”, we continue to neglect its foundation: good soils and clean water.

With the reality of climate change in the cards, featuring more intense storms in our region, we need to be very busy right now (equivalent of the rush to sandbag) in every locality and entire state to put in place what would make Iowa more resilient. The cost will be tiny compared to the incalculable costs of 2008 flood.

Kamyar Enshayan, directs UNI’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa. He can be reached at kamyar.enshayan@uni.edu or 319-273-2573.