The Ottumwa Courier

July 11, 2013

Keeping their dirt to themselves

Courier staff writer

---- — BATAVIA — Iowa's chief farmer is hoping voters, environmentalists and his fellow farmers will understand how important erosion control is.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey was travelling through southeast Iowa Thursday, visiting farmers and others employed in agriculture. In rural Jefferson County, about five miles north of Batavia, Northey met a group at a farm owned by Dave Dickey and his family.

Below the group of farmers and ag specialists, five bulldozers tore into Dickey's property to build a type of pond that will keep erosion from eating away at his land — and from dumping valuable soil into a nearby stream. Various grants and funding sources help pay for part of the $30,000 project, though the farmer spends some of his own money, too.

"A big incentive to get it done," said the farm's operator, Steve Dallner, "is that I can borrow the 25 percent [we pay] at a real low interest rate."

As farmers learn more about erosion control, Northey said, interest in these projects has increased.

"I haven't had to do much 'selling,'" said Ryan Rasmussen, the Wapello County water and soil employee who coordinates the erosion control projects for three counties.

"So momentum builds when ... neighbors see what's being done," Northey noted.

He and Rasmussen said washing good soil into a creek is bad in two ways. The nutrients and organic matter in the soil lead to a chain of events that use up a huge amount of oxygen in various bodies of water. That damages natural resources, like fishing and shrimping operations. Secondly, farmers lose good soil.

"The best place for the nutrients is on the farmer's field," said Rasmussen.

Northey didn't get many answers when he asked how to get urban people involved. There's a misconception, they agreed, that city folk believe farmers are the ones causing all those nutrients to damage the waterways. But there's plenty of dangerous runoff from Iowa's cities, Northey said.

Locally, Ottumwa is working on projects to avoid damaging runoff problems, Rasmussen said. Northey responded that Ottumwa should be commended so other cities will see the value of those projects, which are also protecting Wapello County properties. And from a practical point of view, the millions of dollars recently approved by the Iowa House come from supporters who are both farmers and nonfarmers, Northey added. For most farmers, dirtying the water is not a way to do business.

To protect the Compentine Creek basin, which is Rasmussen's area of responsibility, he, farmers and USDA employees have overseen 126,000 feet of terraces, a total of about 50 projects in two years. There's a reason why all that money is spent in such a concentrated area, he said. The second-tier benefit of the erosion-defeating structures is that they hold back floodwaters.

"When we talk about infrastructure in Iowa?" said Northey.

He pointed out the project in the adjacent fields.

"Make no mistake. This is infrastructure, every bit as much as a road. We've got to have structures to keep that soil in place. It's hard to ring money out of a Legislature," Northey said of the $7 million recently approved for ag projects, "but they believe in the stuff you are doing."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark.