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FiredUp: Successful Farming magazine editor ‘ashamed’ after seeing erosion in western Iowa

FiredUp: Successful Farming magazine editor ‘ashamed’ after seeing erosion in western Iowa

In a blog entry at, the executive editor Successful Farming, a magazine that sits squarely in the establishment camp of modern agriculture, painted a picture of thoughtless land use practices in the Loess Hills of western Iowa that should make all those who farm on marginal lands take notice.

Here are a few excerpts from John Walters’ essay:

In many fields the losses were easily visible from the highway as large gulleys and soil deposits at the bottom of the fields. Newly planted crops were entirely washed away in places. Even on some of the better tended sloping soils–those with grass waterways, terraces and no-till–the damage was clear.

Creeks looked like open sewers. One normally clean pond I visited was as dirty as Big Muddy itself.

To be fair, the rains in the area have been heavy … But, this dramatic damage to the land pulls back the curtain of what’s been going on in the hills for a decade or more now. More and more, farmers are pushing to grow corn where it’s not possible in any kind of sustainable way. In the process, they’re destroying the soils, polluting the waters, and scarring the landscape.

Some hillside corn fields, ones I remember as grass and timber not so long ago, are so god-awful steep that you wonder how a tractor and combine can even operate on them. It’s breathtaking in a perverse sort of way. …

I wanted to blame the government for not enforcing conservation compliance and sodbuster regulations. I wanted to blame certain farmers for abandoning their moral responsibility to care for the land for future generations. I wanted to blame local citizens for not applying peer pressure on their bad apple neighbors.

But mostly, it felt shameful yesterday to be associated with agriculture, and I was ashamed of myself as much as anything.

This is the kind of thing I heard many times from leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, when I covered various conferences at Iowa State University from 2004 to 2007. But coming from the executive editor of Successful Farming, that’s a powerful statement.

High Prices Sow Seeds of Erosion

Bill Hammitt on his farm near Portsmouth, Iowa, where he has terraced the land, refrained from tilling and taken other measures to curb soil erosion. Mark Kegans/The New York Times photo

The New York Times had a story in March 2011 on the trend of farming marginal lands that led to this erosion.

High prices are leading some farmers to plant corn in places where it never would have been attempted before, and that tilled land washes away in storm events, which are becoming more frequent—perhaps because of climate change.

From the story:

“The thing that’s really smacking us now are the high-intensity, high-volume rainstorms that we’re getting,” said Richard M. Cruse, an agronomy professor at Iowa State who directs the Iowa Daily Erosion Project. “In a variety of locations, we’re losing topsoil considerably faster — 10 to as much as 50 times faster — than it’s forming.”

Is this happening in the Dakotas? The high prices for corn and soybeans come to Dakota farmers too; land is highly erodible in many places in the Dakotas as well. We don’t have an erosion project to measure it, but some of our land is just as likely to be flowing down river.

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