More Updates on Soil Erosion in Iowa and the U.S.

Today is a follow-up post on soil erosion after Monday’s A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy, which is a must-read in case you missed it, in which I call out the increased soil disaster potential from reduced CRP acres combined with increased flooding and droughts caused by Climate Change.

Today, I want to re-run a post from last summer, which gave alarming soil loss stats for Iowa and for the entire U.S., and I’m adding information about no-till adoption rates, the Iowa Soil Erosion Project, the story of this year’s increased Nitrogen run-off severely contaminating Midwestern drinking water, and, finally, if you read through to the bottom, you’ll see two more outstanding photos from Rick, the North Dakota photographer who documents the farming destruction that he sees around him which causes soil erosion on marginal lands.

First, the re-run:

Soil Erosion in Iowa & the Entire U.S.

Photo credit: Shorpy’s May 1940. Corn planting in Jasper County, Iowa. 35mm nitrate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration.

Michael Duffy at Iowa State has come out with a new report on soil erosion and how it decreases land values in the state of Iowa. This is an ugly truth that no one wants to talk about. We are literally mining our topsoil.

Here are some interesting facts from his report:

● In 1982 there was an estimated 7.4 tons per acre of soil erosion on Iowa cropland.

● By 2007 erosion in Iowa had decreased to 5.1 tons per acre.

● For the entire United States, erosion rates dropped from 4.0 tons to 2.7 tons per cropland acre over the same time period.

● The hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico is directly related to the amount of erosion on farms.

● Per acre: Soil weighs roughly 154 tons per inch. If we assume that you are losing 4 inches as you move in the different erosion phases then you would lose 616 tons of soil. The average of all the estimates for cost of erosion was $268 an acre.

● Soil for the land owner is a bit like the story of removing bricks from a wall; you can remove the bricks one at a time without any trouble until you remove one too many and the wall collapses. A land owner can tolerate soil erosion a little at a time, but at some point it is going to cost and they won’t know what they’ve got until its gone.

UPDATE: Here is Michael Duffy’s Soil Erosion Report for Iowa updated.

(h/t Thanks for the reminder “A Farmer in Ohio” )

Anger Out of Iowa
Some people in Iowa are becoming hot under the collar about this erosion, as evidenced in this editorial from the Storm Lake Times this week, also published in the DesMoines Register. “We are told that everyone is doing everything they can to conserve soil. To the contrary, it appears that farmers are doing everything they can to plow up every last inch of ground chasing high-priced corn and soybeans. Fence lines are gone. The plows are into the road ditches. Not a blade of grass lines some prominent local drainage ditches. Buffers that were planted to protect surface water have been ripped up all around us. We drain wetlands that hold water from rushing over fields.”

Iowa’s Soil Erosion Project
Iowa has a website called the Soil Erosion Project which is trying to keep updates on the state’s soil erosion.

Here is the site’s erosion map for May 2013:

The orange areas represent regions estimated to have lost an average of 7 tons of soil per acre. According to @honkerwhisperer, this map just shows sheet and rill erosion, so the total erosion reality is worse than this.

(h/t @hunterwhisperer on twitter)

No-Till Helps
One thing I did not cover in Monday’s post was no-till farming practices, which are helping to reduce the amount of soil runoff. As you see, less than 25 percent of the corn cropland has adopted no-till, and that crop contributes greatly to soil erosion and Nitrate run-off.

Recent analysis using ARMS data reveals that one form of reduced tillage, no-till, generally increased over 2000-07. Soybean farmers (those who had the majority of their acreage in soybeans) had the highest percentage of planted acres with no-till (45.3 percent in 2006), with wheat farmers in second place (38.8 percent in 2009). Corn farmers practiced no-till on 23.9 percent of planted acres in 2010. Cotton farmers practiced no-till on 20.7 percent of planted acres in 2007. For all crops with observations in multiple years, the percentage of no-till acreage increased during the 2000-2010 time period.

The following chart shows how much no-till was adopted by 2010:

Health Risks are Also Associated with High Soil Erosion…
Yesterday, an AP story out of DesMoines reported that Iowa’s drinking water is seeing all-time highs in nitrate levels. The news item says that this has been caused by the rains which have washed fertilizer off the farms and into rivers especially since Iowa saw its wettest April in 141 years this spring. (Remember that rains that cause fertilizer to wash away cause soil to wash away!) Iowans, it seems, are trading agricultural profits for health, as some river waters were showing nitrate levels of 24 milligrams per liter in April, when the EPA recommends that drinking water nitrate levels be kept under 10 milligrams per liter. Furthermore, they are subsidizing poor farming practices by expensive clean-up processes consequently required for their drinking water, in DesMoines, for example. And, of course, this problem of Nitrate contaminated drinking water (ground water) isn’t only found in Iowa, it is in all of the top corn producing states. I recall that last summer we saw alarming reports about this from Minnesota.

More Photos from Rick
Finally, Rick, the “Concerned Prairie Photographer” who is documenting some of this soil loss from erosion in North Dakota, has more photos to share, which help explain to us the type of farming practices which can lead to erosion.

(Click to enlarge.)

And this…

(Click to enlarge.)

What can we do?
What would be the most logical ways to prevent this ongoing disaster in our Midwestern corn belt and also preserve our farmland and water for future generations? 1) End the corn ethanol mandate insanity 2) bring back CRP land acres to previous peak levels (we are down 10 million acres, or 26 percent from the peak five years ago), and 3) Require and enforce conservation methods of grassy waterways, catchments, and wetlands areas, especially for those who earn farm subsidies, but also for every farm in America.

There are, of course, farmers who practice excellent stewardship, and to them we should all say “thankyou”. A few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch.

2 thoughts on “More Updates on Soil Erosion in Iowa and the U.S.

  1. Ben

    As I sit here this evening, listening to the rain from early season Tropical Storm Andrea pelting the roof, I know we’re losing tons of topsoil and fertilizer again in Georgia. Those dramatic, sickening photos from North Dakota may have their sequels here in Georgia in tomorrow’s light. I fear to look, for I know some of what I’ll see: sheet erosion across hundred-acre fields, red-clay-colored rivers of storm water taking a toll in their paths, low areas in fields now looking like ponds. I’ve seen it many times and many years before. It always brings a tear, as my heart aches for our land.

    I wish I could find some encouragement from those beautiful fields of irrigated corn where well-heeled and subsidized farmers afforded the astronomical cost of deep wells and center pivot systems. Did these giant “risk reducers” really pay? Only time will tell. Perhaps at least the soils beneath this irrigated corn – planted early down South – got a reprieve from the tropical storm deluge. A win for a few fields? Maybe.

    Kay, where is this insanity taking us? Climate-change-driven extreme droughts, floods, storms and so forth are only getting worse. Then you have comments from reactionaries like Andy on your Monday post. With his attitude, he just needs to quit farming.

    Keep up your great work, Kay.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      A big thanks for your comment that came from a deeper place of sincerity and feeling. You might find some comfort in the fact that CME group tweeted this post to their 750,000 twitter followers today, just when I thought they’d given up on me. !


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