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Soil Erosion: Who Controls Its Future?

By: Rick Cruse, Director, Iowa Water Center

  Getting Into Soil & Water 2012

With rising commodity prices and increasing recognition of land as a stable investment, agricultural land values have experienced unprecedented increases as evidenced by Iowa recently documenting a $20,000 per acre agricultural land sale. Rising land values and high commodity prices have many implications ranging from limiting opportunities for beginning farmers to devaluing the implementation of conservation practices; potential income losses associated with either real or perceived reduced commodity production drive the conservation practice devaluation. In selected situations, conversations suggest practices are removed simply for operator convenience. From a myopic economic perspective conservation is a cost to the producer or land owner and not an investment in the property.

Logically, one would think that a property of higher value would be treated with increasing care by the owner. Land (ultimately soil), though, seems a bit different than other personal property. That is, unlike other replaceable personal property such as a house, car or a combine, soil is a natural resource. And once degraded it is virtually impossible to replace in a human lifetime. Inability to replace a depleted privately-owned high value resource from which the owner derives an income should be sufficient incentive to place soil conservation high on an owner’s priority list.

However, this logic simply does not seem to hold universally when it comes to land ownership. Nationally, two million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres were retired, removing this erodible land from government supported conservation practices in 2011. There is a growing need to manage Iowa’s land and responsively and responsibly. Private owners play a key role in this process.

This is occurring while the Iowa Daily Erosion Project (http://wepp.mesonet.agron.iastate.edu/) estimates about 25% of Iowa’s row crop farmland eroded at more than twice the tolerable soil loss rate in 2007. Frequency of heavy rainstorms is increasing while the area of perennial cover that offers our best soil protection against soil erosion is decreasing. There is a growing need to manage Iowa’s land responsively and responsibly. Private owners play a key role in this process.

As a society, private land owner rights and responsibilities are extremely important. Issues related to landowner rights can be found in the popular press often. Unfortunately, land owner responsibility, which arguably is equally important, seems to have been conveniently lost, ignored, or simply forgotten. A perspective that use of responsible production or conservation practices should be purchased through government payments seems to have become an operational default. Yet, the underlying rationale of using tax dollars to pay landowners/managers to employ practices that favorably impact his/her own personal property seems logically counter intuitive even though it is done in the name of reducing off site environmental impacts. Maintaining private property and managing that property such that the owner benefits have been an owner’s responsibility for nearly all properties in this country, except land. And more challenging, as land and commodity prices increase, purchasing favorable management behavior becomes increasingly costly while anticipated federal budget cuts will further trim funding for conservation practices on privately held land. Stemming the tide of unacceptable soil loss from many of Iowa’s fields will require increased land owner responsibility as failure in this arena continues to inch us closer to the other “r” word, something that few of us in agriculture want to experience.

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