I’ve seen a lot of Iowa winters and I have to say the weeks between Christmas and January 20th were the ugliest I’ve seen the state look. I know northwest Iowa has had some snow cover, but what little snow there is lying around the rest of the state is thickly coated with the dirt that we're repeatedly told is so, so precious to the SOL (Stewards Oftha Land).
A pre-Christmas blizzard moved a lot of snow and a lot of $20k per acre dirt along with it into the ditches, and the immediate warmup that followed melted much of the white stuff, exposing what the Cropagandists tell us is black gold. On Christmas Day, the northside I-80 ditch between Iowa City and Des Moines was one continuous trench filled with the SOL's dirt, and I-35 up to Highway 20 wasn’t much different. I saw a new wrinkle in this black magic I hadn’t seen before, this on Highway 13 south of Manchester in Delaware County. The downwind ditch (i.e. on the east side of this N-S road) was filled up with SOL dirt from fields on the OPPOSITE side of the road. Maybe some readers here have seen this before—I hadn’t.
By the way, Delaware County is great place overall to see no-holds-barred farming, if you’re inclined to wonder what that looks like. I myself wonder if that might correlate with Manchester’s contaminated municipal water supply wells. Or, maybe it’s the geese and lawn fertilizer to blame. Iowa DNR should study that possibility. And wildlife lovers take note: for my money the stretch of Highway 13 between Manchester and Strawberry Point is Iowa’s showcase spot for watching bald eagles feast on rotting hog carcasses. DNR’s Iowa Outdoors magazine should really consider a story on this. At a minimum, some signage up there celebrating this status would be a great idea, in my opinion.
But back to the SOL's dirt. Another thing I have seen in recent weeks are these black dunes amidst the corn row snow fences. I mean, these things are really cool-looking. A wind row of black gold. They break up what otherwise would be a bleak winter landscape. If you happen to drive by one, just make sure it doesn’t distract you from seeing the sow’s ear hanging from a bald eagle’s beak.
Of course, the origin of all this eroded SOL dirt is fields tilled in the fall, especially corn fields. Seeing all that black gold in the ditches, a person might be tempted to think that farmers and scientists just now discovered that dirt might blow off a frozen and flat and tilled field, but nah, we’ve known about it pretty much forever. But just to be safe, I better put some documented science behind this rant. A study (1) of the Clear Creek Watershed here in Johnson County found that dirt loss from fall-tilled corn/no till soy rotation was 2.8 tons per year for Colo-Ely dirt and 5.6 tons per year for Downs-Tama dirt. For no-till beans followed by spring till corn, those numbers are cut by nearly half: 1.5 tons per year (Colo-Ely) and 3.2 tons per year (Downs-Tama).
ISU guidance published in 2013 (2) states, and I quote: “Avoid any unnecessary tillage this fall.” End quote. Also, “Tillage accelerates organic matter loss, which results in more problems of accelerating soil erosion and surface runoff,” something the Johnson County study also showed (organic matter loss). ISU also states that “Leaving crop residue on the soil surface has many benefits not only in minimizing future negative effects of soil erosion and sediment and nutrient losses, but also works as an effective method of trapping soil moisture, which later easily penetrates into the soil and recharges the soil profile.” Finally, the piece states “Links to this article are STRONGLY (my emphasis) encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author (Mahdi Al-Kaisi), Integrated Crop Management News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.”
Thank you to my friends to the west. You can count on me to help spread the gospel.
Having known all this stuff for decades, you might ask 1) why farmers till in the fall and 2) why do we allow it? Any drive across the countryside shows the majority of harvested corn fields to be fall tilled. As to why do farmers do it with full knowledge of the dirt loss consequences, the answer is some combination of convenience (oh yeah), improves crop yields (dubious), and the idea that the winter dirt erosion isn’t significant in the grand scheme of things (for them, not you). Of course it is significant for *your* water resources, but that's not their concern.
Clearly, CLEARLY, farmers that fall till don’t believe they will suffer a reduced bushels penalty. These Harolds would rather part with an appendage than a bushel, and I do mean some critical ones (appendages, that is). And, bear with me here, in a perverted sort of way, this gives them license to still claim they are STEWARDS OF THE LAND. Because to them, yield is the yardstick. If your land is producing bushels at its maximum capacity, you’re doing everything right. You’re a steward. The environmental outcomes that result from that eroded dirt, muddy streams and about 100 other things—don’t matter. Being a steward of the land in the United States of Agriculture means maximizing and maintaining the productive capacity of the land for crop production, NOT producing environmental outcomes favorable to the public. Hence my title: BUTLERS OFTHA BUSHEL. That’s what they are.
I do in fact know that there are some farmers that agree with me here, give or take. It is, however, mysterious to me why these folks have allowed the cropagandists to usurp the 'Steward of the Land' brand and bestow it to every guy that's ever walked into an NRCS office, even if they only went in to chat up the young gal working there.
Now there are those that will say maximum productivity and desirable environmental outcomes are not mutually exclusive. These are the folks that want to use your tax dollars for Dirt Health vouchers that can be used by the supposed legion of farmers dying to learn more about this century-old subject, because the thought of losing any precious dirt might keep them up whilst they spend winter nights at the Sarasota Sunny South RV Park. But seriously, any drive across Iowa over the last month shows what an insult spending public money on dirt health truly is to us as citizens. If Iowa's black ditches reflect their level of concern, for the love of god, why should you and I fork over our money for this sort of social (and socialistic) engineering. Laws people, I tell you, laws. Anybody with eyes in their head can see we need them.
As to why we don't have laws to prevent this sort of thing, well, it’s because our government doesn’t care if our environment is polluted. And in a democracy, if the government doesn’t care, presumably that means we don’t care either.
So that should've been the end, but I feel compelled to talk about one more thing. There was an interesting article posted recently on the NASA Earth Observatory written by Emily Cassidy (3). The main gist of the piece was that while there may be environmental benefits to cover crops (reduced winter wind erosion, for one), Midwest cover croppers are harvesting fewer bushels of corn. While it's not hard to find farmers that will claim the opposite, I do wonder why industry and government types think that improved environmental outcomes should be unaccompanied by reductions in crop yields (and why is this always the starting place for any discussion??). This has always seemed like a fantasy to me. The system has been engineered for maximum bushels, and altering that system to produce less pollution will require a redirection of energy one way or another. Someone might counter that the pollution is wasted energy and if we can redirect that into the crop, then win-win. But the way we manage water in the corn belt (get rid of it as fast as possible!) does not seem compatible with this line of thinking. My two cents.
1) Papanicolaou, A.T., Wilson, C.G., Abaci, O.Z.A.N., Elhakeem, M. and Skopec, M., 2009. SOM loss and soil quality in the Clear Creek, IA. Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science, 116(1-4), pp.14-26.
2) Al-Kaisi, M. Avoid tillage this fall. September 27, 2013. Iowa State University Extension, Integrated Crop Management.
3) Cassidy, E. Midwest Farmers Using Cover Crops Take Small Yield Hit. NASA Earth Observatory, January 26, 2023.