As attention on water quality, sustainability, farm income levels, and rural quality of life grows every year, those of us who work in the soil and water conservation arena often wonder what will be required to get the majority of landowners to adopt even the most basic soil health practices.
Iowa citizens have some very real concerns. We live in the most altered landscape in the United States, we have nearly the smallest amount of forests and public lands of any state, and we have only half of the topsoil we had in the 1860s. We produce one out of every three hogs in the United States, primarily indoors which requires handling of huge quantities of animal waste. Our rainfall amounts are trending upward and we are experiencing historically severe rain events. The economic costs of flooding damages in Iowa over the past dozen years are in the billions of dollars. And to add insult to injury, we are now exporting down the Mississippi River and the Missouri River more than double the amount of harmful and expensive nitrates than we were just eight to ten years ago.
Degraded soils that result from years of unnecessary tillage operations do not allow nearly as much of our rainfall to soak into the soil, resulting in increased surface runoff that carries with it precious topsoil, valuable nutrients, and expensive chemicals. Our soil organic matter is trending lower as a result of these tillage operations and is commonly 2 to 4 percent when it historically was 5 to 7 percent. A 1 percent increase in soil organic matter can result in over 20,000 gallons of increased water holding capacity per acre.
This can have huge influences, both for the farmer and for those downstream. Simple soil health practices such as no-till and cover crops have been yielding a 1 percent increase in soil organic matter every eight to ten years as well as a decreased need for nutrients and herbicides.
Consumers and industry are beginning to demand changes in how their food is grown. Every large agricultural input supplier and seed company has a new sustainability department full of young intelligent people who are working hard to prove to consumers of their end product that the way food and feed crops are grown is important and that their company is part of the solution, not the problem. Many new incentive programs are in development, based on market incentives for crops that are grown with a reduced impact on the environment. The market will soon be rewarding those farmers doing a better job.
If incentives in the marketplace are what it takes, let’s hope they come quickly. In the meantime, if you own cropland, investigate what basic soil health practices can do to improve your profitability, your land’s value, and everyone’s water quality.