Farmers work against erosion

BY KIF RICHMANN | JUNE 22, 2009 7:21 AM

Efforts are underway to mitigate future soil loss, as well as decrease the chances of major water runoff from Iowa fields after the floods of 2008 caused massive damage and erosion.

David Dvorak, who farms corn, soybeans, and hay outside West Liberty, said he sustained crop damage in 2008 because of the floods in spite of his best efforts.

He has long participated in conservation efforts and received assistance from the Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as far back as 1986.

“It is very important to keep the soil where it is,” Dvorak said.

At the state level, officials with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and other growers are also working to reduce the effect of floods in the future.

These efforts include building waterways and terraces — as Dvorak has done — to keep as much water as possible in the field where it belongs: out of city streets and peoples’ basements.

“What we do is try to keep the raindrop as close to where it falls for as long as economically possible,” said Chuck Gipp, the director of the Division of Soil Conservation for the state Agriculture Department.

He described these efforts as a “societal issue,” one that will benefit more than the farmers who are trying to maintain a sustainable, healthy field and build profitable yields.

The benefits of these flood-mitigation efforts include reducing risks to fields and downstream areas, curtailing soil erosion, protecting homes and property, and decreasing, if not outright eliminating, disaster payments in the future.

Gipp said 710 landowners have applied for assistance to improve 85,000 acres.

Although 2008 wasn’t the wettest year on record, he said, the combination of a wet fall in 2007 and a prolonged winter caused the soil to become overly saturated going into the growing season.

He compared the soil to a sponge that had already reached its holding limit, leaving no room for water to be absorbed into the ground, causing the water to run elsewhere and dragging fertile soil with it.

“Once [the soil] can’t take anymore, [the water] becomes runoff,” Gipp said.

The number of acres lost equaled around 10 percent of Iowa’s over 30 million total agricultural acres. For 2 million acres that took on floodwater, 20 tons of soil washed out of each acre.

Normally, even five tons of soil lost per acre is considered excessive, Gipp said.

Although more than 10 percent of Iowa’s soil saw significant damage, the majority of Iowa’s fields were in prime condition for growing crops, because of fair weather after the flooding. In fact, Gipp said, Iowa had a near record yield, and 2008 was one of the top five growing seasons in Iowa history.

Still, some farmers dealt with losses; he said there was simply too much fertile soil lost while sand, rocks, branches, and other debris was deposited — leaving the acres full of unusable earth.

“Some [of these lands] will never be farmed again,” Gipp said.

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