Let’s Stop Treating Soil Conservation Like Dirt

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Here’s the bad news: it turns out the USDA’s estimates that soil erosion rates are under control across the Corn Belt—something we reported in this blog last June—are probably overly optimistic, according to a report released a few days ago. The good news? Actually, there is none in this case. The same week this report was released it became clear that Washington has every intention of hobbling the very conservation programs that could fix the problems highlighted by this troubling study. Irony like this can’t be made up.

A  year ago, the USDA reported that we are losing on average only 5.2 tons per acre annually in Iowa, and 3.9 tons per acre annually across the Corn Belt (which includes Minnesota). According to the USDA’s National Resources Inventory, between 1982 and 2007 average water-caused erosion on cropland nationally dropped from 4 tons per acre per year to 2.7 tons; annual wind erosion rates fell from 3.3 tons per acre to 2.1 tons.

While any soil loss is troubling, when you can get it down to around the 5 tons per acre range, many scientists are confident that’s a rate we can tolerate agronomically and environmentally since it can be replaced over time through the build-up of new material. There is little doubt that day-to-day erosion on the typical crop farm has dropped since the days of the moldboard plow, and farmers deserve a huge pat on the back for that.

But on Wednesday, the Environmental Working Group punched a big hole in the USDA’s feel-good soil study when it released data showing Iowa farms are losing topsoil up to 12 times faster than previously thought. Such a loss is well beyond the rate that we can replace through the development of new soil over time. In other words, it’s not sustainable.

“In a variety of locations, we’re losing topsoil considerably faster—10 to as much as 50 times faster—than it’s forming,” Iowa State University agronomy professor Richard Cruse told the New York Times.

Cruse directs the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, which is studying soil loss with an unprecedented degree of precision. It’s the Project’s research that forms the basis for the EWG report released this week. Why such divergent views of erosion rates?

Well, the USDA’s National Resources Inventory data is based on sample sites from around the country and takes into account such factors as long-term climate data, inherent soil and site characteristics, and cropping and management practices. Computer models are used to develop very broad-brush estimates.

That’s a good start, but the Iowa Daily Erosion Project research provides a truer picture because it uses detailed information on rainfall and field conditions to estimate soil loss in nearly all of Iowa’s townships after each storm event. In addition, EWG used information gathered from aerial photographs and interviews with experts to document the formation of post-storm field gullies.

Sometimes such evidence can be obtained without a helicopter. Here’s a photo I took in southwest Iowa just a few weeks ago:

Paying close attention to the erosion caused by storm events is key. While conservation measures like minimum tillage, terraces and contour farming do a good job of controlling the run-of-the-mill erosion that is caused by raising row crops in the Midwest, such techniques can’t handle major storm events that scour tons of soil in a matter of minutes.

In a landmark 1997 paper published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, soil scientists pointed out that in fact such storm bursts are the major cause of soil erosion. The authors of that paper went on to argue that land management systems must be adjusted to deal with such erosion events. That doesn’t mean that a significant amount of soil isn’t lost on a routine basis. But big storm events can accelerate things considerably, particularly if they come at just the wrong time—when corn and soybean plants are short and provide very little ground cover, for example.

It is impossible to ignore that our climate has changed and that short, intense storms are more the norm. And, as the EWG-Iowa State study shows, those storms are taking a toll.

That’s why the news out of D.C. these days is so troubling. The recent federal budget deal that was reached at the last minute has USDA conservation programs being cut by more than $500 million in the final appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2011. The bill proposes to cut by $39 million funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which has incredible potential to save soil on working lands.

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition points out, such a cut “truly represents government at its very worst” since it threatens current CSP contracts. This proposed cutback may force the government to break the terms of the five-year CSP contracts already signed with farmers in 2009 and 2010. If that happens, the government would in effect be reneging on its promise to pay for real conservation on working lands. For farmers who have long felt the government was biased against diversified farming practices but felt CSP was a long overdue step in the right direction, this would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Farmland conservation isn’t getting much help from the White House, either. President Obama’s proposed 2012 fiscal year budget cuts $1 billion out of ag conservation, and CSP is one of the programs set to take a severe hit.

This will have major negative repercussions in Minnesota. The EWG-ISU study was done in Iowa, but there is every indication that similar research in the Gopher State would unearth equally severe erosion problems. And as we reported a few weeks ago, Minnesota actually lags behind in adoption of even basic conservation techniques such as minimum tillage.

But it hasn’t lagged in the use of CSP. In fact, during the 2010 sign-up alone, Minnesota farmers qualified for more than 1,500 CSP contracts, covering more than 900,000 acres of farmland. Many of those contracts pay farmers to put in practices—managed rotational grazing, diverse crop rotations, etc.—that have proven to protect soil in an unpredictable climate.

CSP is a crack in a commodity program fortress built on paying farmers to produce more and more of a handful of crops, no matter what the environmental, or indeed, economic, cost. As EWG reports, between 1997 and 2009, the government paid Corn Belt farmers $51.2 billion in subsides to push production of row crops like corn, but just $7 billion to implement conservation practices. On top of that, the government has spent $18.9 billion to subsidize expansion of the ethanol industry, further pushing up corn acres.

Conservation compliance,” which was created by the 1985 Farm Bill, was supposed to be one way to make sure subsidies were  handed out with some sort of guarantee that commodity crops were being raised using minimal conservation measures. But in 2010, the USDA reviewed fewer than 1 percent of the land nationwide that is considered highly erodible to make sure farmers were “in compliance.”

With $7 corn and $13 soybeans, spring planting intentions indicate more row crops than ever will be covering our landscape come June. Farmers who plant more acres fencerow-to-fencerow aren’t evil. They are simply responding to signals sent them by the government and a market spiking up as a result of a high-flying, government-subsidized ethanol industry. Now it’s time for Congress and President Obama to send another important signal: farmland conservation is not a luxury.

One Response to “Let’s Stop Treating Soil Conservation Like Dirt”

  1. Tim Gieseke

    The problems stated in the article about managing our nation’s resources is not a technical, educational, monetary, or social problem. It is a governance issue. The 75-year old conservation delivery system and its numerous programs is not failing due to congressional appropriations, it is failing because the traditional governance model based upon a winnowing process is highly ineffecient and somewhat demeaning for farmers to be enrolled in. The reason the commodity title is so successful is that funds are targeted to outcomes, not management practices. The commodity title states what it wants and the farmer uses innovation, investment, etc to generate the level they desire. The conservation title has a long list of stuff farmers can do and a pile of paperwork to go with it. Which market signal sounds enticing? And now that traditional commodity prices are very high, it makes the conservation programs and it paternal delivery system all the less appealing. As a farmer with an extension conservation background and ethic, I roll my eyes when I hear how another hold-my-hand program is going to solve the conservation issues. The conservation programs have become the bread and butter for the government delivery staff and NGOs and that is a pretty clear market signal to keep on demanding another program for another problem.