There’s nothing like taking a drive through the countryside this time of year to appreciate the fertility of our land; the trees are budding with the ‘first green’ of spring; the pastures are popping with grass so new it’s practically neon. But while driving to Clarinda this week, I noticed several of the pristine pastures and wooded creek beds (which have never been farmed) had collapsed. It’s not everywhere, naturally, but it’s noticeable.
With Earth Day upon us, it’s easy to see why the Environmental Working Group (EWG) report on erosion has turned a few heads. The EWG claims farmers are solely to blame for collapsed creek beds, erosion in waterways, even statewide flooding. But, there are plenty of level-headed folks who put the blame on the temperamental muse of Mother Nature, instead.
Amy McQueen, who doesn’t farm, but lives on one because her family has farmed in Clarinda for generations, is just a stone’s throw from Nodaway Creek. She says there was no stopping the 2008 flooding and farmers had nothing to do with it.
“It was June 5, 2008, when the town of Corning, upriver, got 13 inches of rain in one day. That rain traveled down the East Nodaway River and when it met the Main Nodaway, which was up already from intense rain, it stopped the flow of water and backed up the river basin. It flooded 150 acres on our side alone,” said McQueen.
As for the erosion still visible, two years later, McQueen says, “There’s no monetary help to get those pastures cleaned up.”
That very point is the cornerstone of many efforts to fully fund and target conservation efforts in Iowa. According to the 2007 Conservation Practices in Iowa: Historical Investments, Water Quality and Gaps , seven major conservation practices used on Iowa farms are estimated to remove as much as 28 percent of the nitrate, 38 percent of the total nitrogen, and up to 58 percent of the phosphorus that otherwise would be present, according to the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. But, it appears the EWG “researchers” didn’t look at those measures:
“EWG authors acknowledge that lack of ‘big picture’ true estimates. “The biggest problem that confronts the Iowa Daily Erosion Project is the lack of current, comprehensive and site-specific information about the presence or absence of conservation practices on the Iowa landscape. The lack of such information hampers all efforts to get an accurate and up-to-date picture of the health of Iowa’s soil, waterways, and watersheds.”
So, does conservation work done by farmers such as Jeff Pape in Dyersville, whose family has been farming since 1846, count? Pape and several area farmers think so; they’ve spent several years and thousands of dollars to restore the Hickory and Hewitt Creek watersheds. “We’re only here a little time, we’re growing on the land for a short time and we need to make it better than when we started. I think we can do that,” says Pape.
The EWG report also didn’t consider erosion or water movement in urban areas, which is surprising, considering the impact that concrete has on water flow. You don’t have to drive for long in Des Moines to see backyards being lost to riverbeds and man-made gullies. What better time than Earth Day to ask ourselves what we can all do to maintain Iowa’s fertile soils. Farmers who have rolled up their sleeves to plant buffer strips, terraces and trees, practice no-till farming or restore wetlands, are taking a step in the right direction.
Taking a cue from Robert Frost, it’s time for the rest of us to remember that the fertility of our gardens, yards, golf courses and parks also depend on taking care of the land for the ‘short time’ we live upon it:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.