Washing away at change
Drastic times call for drastic measures, but sometimes that change isn't always a bad thing.
A recent statement penned by more than 150 Iowa environmental researchers, climate experts and agricultural professors advocated a statewide shift away from outdated farming methods. The report urged farmers to adopt aggressive practices aimed at conserving our state's fertile soil, and the experts listed numerous options that could help thwart Iowa's large erosion problem that's been thrust to the forefront recently.
The results of the proposed changes will take time to realize if implemented, but that makes them no less pertinent for our state's most important industry.
Scientists pointed towards extremely unpredictable weather patterns caused by global warming as the reason for recent farming woes over the past two years. Iowa was gripped by drought in 2012, and this spring proved to be the wettest on record. Such erratic weather led to obvious erosion issues throughout the state in May and June, which then created even more problems in areas affected by the wandering dirt throughout the summer.
All that soil typically finds its way to the intricate drainage tiles that weave their way underneath our fields, eventually flowing into the state's streams, rivers and lakes. The unintended problems that arise from this scenario are obvious. Manure and chemicals applied to the soil flood our waterways and cause extremely elevated levels of phosphates, algae and other pollutants. This murky reality has been an issue for many communities statewide and nearly every waterway is affected.
Our corner of the state hasn’t been immune to the troubles of soil erosion by any means. Beeds Lake has been the focus of pollution problems in recent years, and it seems erosion and runoff has been one of the contributing factors.
DNR officials pointed out at a meeting in August that the lake’s large water shed has created extremely elevated levels of phosphates that contribute to huge algal blooms and other problems. They pointed towards better soil conservation methods and other tactics as a means to control this ongoing issue, but the solutions are long-term and will take time to realize.
Though this may seem like an unavoidable reality, a unique opportunity greets Iowa farmers as we stare into the face of unpredictable weather patterns, continued soil erosion and increased water pollution. Agriculture experts highlighted numerous conservation methods that have potential to not only stop erosion and reduce pollution, but also improve soil quality and pad the pocketbooks of Iowa's farmers.
Planting cover crops seems to be the most viable of these options. Agronomists from institutions like Iowa State University have pushed this method recently, and they've pointed out that Iowa ranks near last in the Midwest when it comes to utilizing the benefits of cover crops.
Planting cereal grains and other grasses after corn and soybeans become established in late summer creates an added barrier against soil erosion. The cover crop gets rooted underneath the dominating corn and soybeans and remains after harvest season. This holds the soil in place when fields are left bare and unplanted, in turn reducing runoff during times of spring waterfall and thawing.
Farmers get an added bonus of grazing land for livestock and an increase in the soil’s organic material once the cover crop is killed and plowed under. This boosts soil quality, produces better crops and reduces the need to apply chemicals like nitrogen each year. With less erosion, nitrate levels are able to stabilize because less is running off. This reduces water pollution and improves water quality by decreasing unwanted contaminants in the water.
Climate change has the potential to alter numerous facets of our everyday lives. As pointed out by the recent report, it's already directly affecting Iowa's largest industry and most cherished resource – farming and our soil. Adopting proactive methods to adjust and preserve the state's dirt is of the utmost importance from both an economic and environmental standpoint. Iowa's farmers have always been a proactive bunch when it comes to preserving our land, and it's vital they continue to implement more ways to improve and conserve the state's most valuable asset.
Nick Pedley is the regional news editor of the Hampton Chronicle, The Sheffield Press and the Pioneer Enterprise.