Storm damage brings erosion back in focus
The rich black soil of southwestern Rock County is among the most fertile in the nation.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see the damage from last week’s storm that washed topsoil — along with recently planted seed — into ditches and nearby streams.
“We have got to do something about this,” said Doug Bos of the Rock County Land Management Office.
He shared photographs of deep washouts and ditches filled level to the road with black dirt after western Rock County received 2 to 3 inches of rain on May 10, with reports that 2 inches fell in 20 minutes.
“Some of these farmers are just sick about it,” Bos said.
“These are good farmers. They are trying to do it right. … We just have too much loose soil after planting, so the damage is severe when we get these rain events.”
Farmers, ag professionals, legislators and others are aware of the need for more conservation practices, but what and how to do it remains the question.
When Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton proposed mandatory grass buffers earlier this year, the pushback was swift and strong.
Minnesota Farm Bureau, the state’s strongest ag lobby, argued that the one-size-fits-all approach isn’t necessary or effective.
Bos, Rock County’s longtime conservation advocate, agreed.
“Some places don’t need buffers, others need 100- or 200-foot buffers because they’re concentrated flow areas that dump directly into streams.
What’s needed, Bos said, is a universal commitment among all farmers to do what’s right for the land according to its own unique circumstances.
“We have farmers that are doing all the right things, but they’re suffering from the effects of farmers upstream who aren’t,” Bos said.
The Farm Bureau motto of “one-size-doesn’t-fit-all” means that many different practices need to be considered for every unique erosion challenge.
“We need to consider grassy waterways, terraces, sediment basins, residue management and other conservation practices,” Bos said.
And until farmers take a team approach to soil conservation, he said individual attempts may not hold up on their own against repeated extreme weather events.
Drought and deluge will be the new norm
Bos admitted that it’s tough for any conservation practice to hold up against 2 inches of rain in 20 minutes.
“Still, we have to change our farming practices,” he said, pointing out that climatologists are predicting that with current climate changes underway, these sorts of events should be expected as the new norm.
For example, data shows that major storm events dropping more than 6 inches of rain over 1,000 miles used to occur once every 20 years or so (14 of them since 1880).
By contrast, these “mega rain events” have occurred seven times in the last 15 years.
If anyone’s paying attention, the trend means farmers should prepare their ground to better withstand these washouts.
“Guys are trying to implement some things, but we have to examine how we leave our soil after planting,” Bos said.
He said in the first few weeks after planting, soil — in its loose, black form — is most vulnerable to erosion.
“The perfect seed bed doesn’t equate to the best erosion protection,” Bos said, adding that buffers alone aren’t the solution.
“We as an ag community need to look at conservation methods and tillage and residue retention.”
Rock County farmers embraced no-till farming in late 1980s and early 1990s, but several years of wet weather meant that saturated residue hindered planting and contributed to mold and other problems.
“We got burned by that,” Bos said.
Only recently, with recurring drought, local farmers are returning to no-till practices.
Strip-till farming, which uses both till and no-till methods in the same trip through the field, is becoming a popular compromise. (See the related story.)
In a perfect world …
The solution to soil erosion — and resulting water contamination — isn’t complicated, and producers, for the most part, are interested in being part of the solution, Bos said.
What becomes difficult, however, is accessing adequate resources to implement all the conservation methods needed to protect soil and water.
For one thing, there are significant costs involved in taking land out of production, seeding waterways and building structures like terraces and retention ponds.
Waterways can cost $5,000 to $15,000 and sediment basins can cost $5,000 each and may require one to as many as six in each field.
Farming equipment that can plant into high residue or leave adequate residue on top can range from $10,000 to over $100,000.
There are numerous government grants and loans available to assist farmers with these conservation practice costs, but it most often falls on county offices to apply for them or to assist landowners with red tape.
It’s a time-consuming work that needs to be done in the middle of other Land Management Office duties.
Another major hurdle standing in the way of soil conservation is the sheer lack of technical assistance to get the work done.
Bos said he’s fortunate to have shared resources with Rock County staff, but not enough technical field workers to get the work done.
“We have $165,000 available for fixing existing conservation practices and a potential legislative bill may provide another 2.4 million in our county to repair storm damage, but we don’t have staff to get it on the ground,” Bos said.
Hiring the right people and training them further stresses limited time and resources in his office.
Neighboring counties are even worse off, with dozens of conservation projects on long waiting lists. These stacks of paperwork represent farmers that have committed to implementing the practices, with available funds, but there aren’t enough technicians to get the jobs done.
“The problem then is that they lose interest and decide not to follow through,” Bos said.
Yet another problem is the fact that nearly half of Rock County’s acres are rented, meaning that the farmers with direct contact with the land aren’t the ones directly involved in investments to improve it.
And an increasing number of those landowners don’t live in Rock County, further removing them from the process.
“As we’re identifying high priority erosion areas, some absentee landowners don’t care,” Bos said.
“And the person renting the ground isn’t going to make the investment if they don’t have a long-term contract.”
‘It takes a long time to turn a big ship around’
While it’s disheartening to see the damage in local fields and streams, Bos said each time there’s damage, it prompts renewed interest in solving the problem.
“When you have events like this (the May 10 storm), there’s a lot more interest,” he said.
While Bos said it’s tempting to pass sweeping legislation to force action, he said education and incentives are more effective.
“I’ve always said, ‘We are here to help producers do the best job they can.’ They are smart people. They can figure this out,” Bos said, adding that he’ll remain committed to the cause as he has been for the past 20 years.
“It takes a long time to turn a big ship around, but hopefully we’ll see change.”