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home : opinions : columns   April 29, 2016

12/4/2012 9:02:00 AM
Column: Soil conservation boring until disaster

Craig Sterrett
News Editor

Weirdest thing: Ken Burns’ program on “The Dust Bowl” this fall suddenly made some of those stories my dad has been telling over and over and over a lot more interesting.
I guess I’d heard those stories so much in bits and pieces that I hadn’t put them in order.
Burns’ documentary on PBS made me ask my dad why in the world his dad tried to farm in the West when the dusty decade was beginning.
My grandfather, a farm boy from northeast Missouri and Kirksville teachers college, had taken a liking to the West while on a trail crew in Estes Park in the 1920s. He had gone back west after college and worked for a family east of Cheyenne, Wyo., for a couple of years around 1930. Land was cheap (and still not worth whatever that price was, my father comments), so my grandfather bought some hillside pasture and some flat land where he could plant oats or wheat and take a summertime gamble on corn.
Today, farmers there and in the southern Plains rely on irrigation water pumped from the ancient, glacial Ogallala Aquifer that is shrinking and not being replenished. East of Cheyenne, on small patches of ground, they’ll plant corn and sunflowers. When my dad was born and raised there until age 7, farmers were at the mercy of weather and nature.
Wyoming wasn’t part of the Dust Bowl, per se (Oklahoma panhandle, northeast New Mexico and north Texas), but it wasn’t rich, rain-drenched farmland like Illinois and Iowa, either.
And there were some dust storms out there. My dad remembers his parents telling them to get in the house, closing all the windows and stuffing rags or cloth sacks they could around the window frames to keep dust out.
Ken Burns’ documentary reminded my father of how wind would move topsoil and sand, snowdrift-like, up and over fences so high he could walk over them. He said his dad would toil to move drifted dirt away from fences and spread that precious topsoil back over the fields. Also, he said if spring conditions were dry and wind was on its way, his dad sometimes would hook up the horse team and re-plow (before planting) to turn the dampest earth up and bury the dry soil that might otherwise just blow away.
My dad’s not exactly sure what caused his father to give up on farming in Wyoming and to return to Missouri to preach and teach, but it might have had a lot to do with some terrible corn crops. My dad had just become old enough to help pick corn and recalled that the scraggly corn that year wasn’t much taller than he was. He recalled his dad picking corn, not standing, but on his knees because of back pain.
But his dad didn’t tell family members he quit farming because of poor crops. Instead, when one of the cows died, he decided that was a sign that God wanted him to “do something else.”
Still, without irrigation, much of the West is no place for a farmer. And just how long will those practices be sustainable?
Here in the Illinois Valley, farmers’ soil-conservation practices don’t receive a lot of publicity. But Mark Baran, La Salle County’s conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said most farmers realize the soil is their No. 1 resource.
Baran watched Burns’ special, too.
“I guess it was amazing how the interaction between man’s activities and Mother Nature could cause that significant of a problem for that long of time,” Baran said of the Dust Bowl.
Most soil-erosion problems in the Illinois Valley relate to rain, water and runoff, and most farmers have done a good job of creating grass waterways in low spots in fields in order to prevent soil loss and give water a non-destructive downhill path.
Farmers have switched to no-till farming or strip-till practices to conserve soil. Most leave stubble and residue atop the field rather than turning soil over in fall. A few even have begun planting winter cover crops such as ryegrass, oats, cereal rye and “oil-seed radish” (daikon radish) and then killing them out or allowing them to winter-kill before spring, but actually it’s a small percentage of producers doing that — maybe 5,000-6,000 acres in La Salle County, Baran said.
Soil conservation isn’t a sexy topic — unless there’s a disaster, like the stripping of the prairie and sustained drought that brought about the 10-year-long Dust Bowl era.

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