Picnic a reminder of how much we can do together



A few years back Kevin Cone was about to auction off a painting at the Lake Preservation Association annual picnic, then held at the golf course clubhouse overlooking the whitecaps. He asked everyone just to stop and think for a moment how lucky we are to live here, where a full house would gather to eat pork and care about the lake together. That moment stuck with me.

A year or two later he was honored for creating a wetland on his farm next door to the lake.

And there he was last Wednesday evening at the LPA picnic listening to the latest award winners: Arlene Pike, who owns land south of the lake, for working with the tenant Jackson family to install terraces to block runoff toward the lake. The Jacksons raise cattle, keep land in pasture and are trying winter cover crops to help reduce nutrient runoff. Tyler Millard of rural Alta, for planting cover crops and using no-till. And the City of Storm Lake for efforts to control storm runoff and get rid of those ugly old lime pits at the water plant by installing a wetland.

LPA Chairman Gary Lalone told the 75 people there that the association has money to help farmers adopt more conservation practices that can be used along with state and federal funds.

It’s my favorite event of the year because it reminds us that people are trying hard to make things better in our little garden spot.

And, it reminds us that we all need to do more.

Especially when you view the science.

The greatest threat to Iowa is not Mexicans hopping off a freight train in Denison if they can survive the ride, or a terrorist attack. It is soil degradation and loss.

Iowa State University Agronomist Rick Cruse, probably the foremost authority, has been warning for several years that more extreme weather combined with more intensive farming practices is depleting our topsoil base. Even on the flat land that we farm on what we call the Des Moines Lobe, from Storm Lake to Clear Lake to Des Moines, the most productive patch of corn ground in the world.

We used to have 14 inches of black loam for topsoil. Now he shows aerial maps with scattered but significant dots — those small undulating knobs — where the topsoil is gone completely.

“It’s gone,” Cruse said. “Our best topsoil is in the Gulf of Mexico.”

We can regenerate about a half-ton per acre of topsoil per year, but Iowa loses about five tons per acre annually.

“We’re going the wrong way down a one-way street,” he likes to say.

Dr. Gene Takle shares a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change at Iowa State. He, too, is an agronomist and co-authored the UN Report on Climate Change and Agriculture in 2014. His projections were worse than anyone previously thought. For starters: the prospect of a 20-year-long drought in Iowa in 30 to 50 years. California has been in a drought for 10 years, Texas at least five. His research shows that in 50 years parts of western Iowa, reaching up to Hwy. 20 anyway, will be inhospitable to the corn production to which we have become accustomed. Livestock production and processing will be challenged.

Cruse and Takle agree that we already are seeing declines in wheat production, and that while total corn yields increase protein levels valuable for feeding are dropping. We are producing a good ethanol feedstock with high starch content. Cruse says it is because of a lighter soil base. The soil cannot hold enough water for the corn plant to efficiently transevaporate it and reach its genetic potential.

Everything they are saying is backed up by NASA, by the scientists at Berkley, by NOAA and any number of leading academic studies — many of them generated at Ames.

The research suggests profound implications for our economy, perhaps even our lake. Most of the protections it enjoyed before 1850 — marsh, cobblestone banks, no inlet or outlet — are gone. We are restoring it, little by little, as best we can.

Initially, the climate will be warmer and wetter. The next generation will find the climate turning much drier and hotter — up 10 degrees in 50 years.

Our aquifers are pumping at their limit. The Jordan Aquifer is receding. The Dakota Aquifer is at its limit in Storm Lake and Cherokee. We cannot handle more water-intensive enterprises in Storm Lake, like ethanol or meatpacking. The profit will be made going forward in how to feed people using half as much water.

If we cannot protect our soil base from more extreme rainfalls, our future will be in raising small grains. Can you imagine wheat in Iowa?

Agricultural yields are expected to decline by at least 20% in this century as world population increases.

And that is in our region, the buckle of the Corn Belt.

We all need to be pitching in like the Cones and Millards and Jacksons if we want to enjoy the life we have had. As the lake goes, we are learning, so we go. But we are learning. We are adapting. The lake has never been better since we broke the sod. We know we can do the same with the Raccoon River. The conversation is changing in Iowa around one of our most basic values: to preserve what we have, come what may.