Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Conservation benefits can also be achieved by providing winter cover such as a cattail slough at least 10 acres in size or a woody cover planting consisting of conifers and shrubs.
If you own land, consider making it easier for wildlife by providing cover and/or a food source on your property. If you want to add shelter to your property, work with what you already have. For example, you could add one or two rows of pine trees to an existing field windbreak.
Some government programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program, are set up to promote conservation and can also provide information on shelter benefits.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
IOWA (2008-12-10) A conversation with organizers of a state-wide conference examining the Floods of 2008. They talk about what was learned and what could be done to prevent recurrence. Participants: Kamyar Enshayan (Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa); Wayne Petersen (Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship); Mark Ackelson (Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation) and Ben Kieffer (Host).
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Deadline for oral presentations, posters, and symposia is Monday, December 15.
The complete Call for Papers can be downloaded at:
Submit abstracts here: http://www.formspring.com/forms/SWCS-2009_conference_abstract_submittal_form
Special Emphasis for 2009
Each year SWCS identifies topics or a theme for special attention at the Annual Conference. This year the overarching theme of the conference is Delivering Conservation, Today and Tomorrow. This emphasis will apply to ALL of the general topic areas for the conference and we encourage you to tailor your presentation to include the conference theme.
General Topic Areas
We welcome proposals for presentations that address one or more of the ongoing areas of emphasis outlined below. These ongoing areas of emphasis comprise the core work of SWCS work to foster the science and art of conservation. We have provided a list of illustrative examples of presentations and issue areas for each of the ongoing areas of emphasis. Please choose one of these when submitting an abstract. Special consideration will be given to new insights, techniques, or approaches in addressing each of these general topics.
At the 2009 SWCS Annual Conference, we would like to explore the challenges facing the delivery of conservation planning, policy, and practices today and the issues that must be resolved in order to deliver sustainable soil and water conservation tomorrow and into the future. We hope that your abstracts for oral presentations, posters, and symposia will address the technical, educational, and informational needs of conservationists as we work together to overcome these challenges.
Options For Participation
There are three ways you can propose to be part of the 2009 conference program.
1. Symposia Session: Organize a symposium session that provides more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of a specific topic.
2. Oral Presentation: Present a paper reporting the results of research or lessons learned from professional experience.
3. Poster Presentation: Present a poster reporting the results of research or lessons learned from professional experience.
We hope you will plan to submit a presentation for the conference. If you have any questions, please contact SWCS Headquarters at 515.289.2331 x114.
Professional Development Director
Soil and Water Conservation Society
Monday, November 3, 2008
CEAP is a unique effort led by the United States Department of Agriculture to quantify the benefits of conservation efforts. The special issue of the journal presents the best science to date on the effectiveness of conservation programs and practices in the United States.
This special publication is an important step in a major effort to provide policy makers an account of what taxpayer investments in conservation are producing and an opportunity to retool conservation programs for greater effectiveness.
Guest editor Doug Karlen notes, “The Agricultural Research Service watershed-scale research and computer simulation modeling presented in this special issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation provide the scientific base that will enable the Natural Resources Conservation Service to effectively use simulation models such as SWAT [Soil and Water Assessment Tool] and AnnAGNPS [Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source model] to make reliable national assessments of conservation benefits.”
In addition, the journal documents the new STEWARDS data system (Sustaining the Earth’s Watersheds–Agricultural Research Data System) that allows users to search and view soil, water, climate, management, and economic data from Conservation Effects Assessment Project watersheds.
The special publication represents the cooperative efforts of numerous federal agencies, universities across the country, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
The special November/December 2008 journal issue is available through the Soil and Water Conservation Society by visiting http://www.jswconline.org/content/63/6.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
In a Foreword to the special report, Dr. Rattan Lal of the Ohio State University provides a context for the utility of the report and the urgency of improving soil conservation practices in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Lal states that “resource-poor and small land holders in SSA and elsewhere in the developing world must be paid for ecosystem services rendered through the adoption of recommended management practices.”
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The sensors will be buried about a foot underground so they would not affect current farming practices. Since the sensors will also be able to report their location, they will not get lost.
The research team hopes to improve the sensors so that they can also detect nutrient content and soil temperature. This would help farmers know how much nutrients to apply to which parts of the field. This information would allow maximum yield while minimizing environmental impacts.
The research team includes team leader, Ratnesh Kumar, Stuart Birrell, Ahmed Kamal, Robert Weber, Amy Kaleita, Candace Batts, Giorgi Chighladze, Jing Huang, and Herman Sahota.
For more information, go here.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Caution urged in new ethanol work
By PHILIP BRASHER
Cellulosic ethanol can avoid some problems encountered with corn, but poses different environmental risks as well.
Washington, D.C. — Scientists urge caution in the way new versions of fuel ethanol are developed from crop residue, wood chips and other sources of plant cellulose.
Cellulosic ethanol is being billed as a way to replace imported oil without the use of food crops.
Click here for the full story.
Climate change threatens to raise the stakes for Iowa farms
By PHILIP BRASHER
Washington, D.C. - The world already counts on Iowa to meet food production needs. A warmer world will count on Iowa even more.
If the Earth heats up as climate forecasts suggest, agricultural production is likely to fall in many parts of the world, especially in poor countries near the equator and in Australia, a key producer of grain.
Click here for the full story.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer stated that the goal of this incentive is to double public access by providing up to 7 million acres of CRP land for public access in the next 5 years in participating states.
According to a USDA Farm Service Agency news release, "The CRP public access incentive permits partnerships with existing state public access programs to identify and mark tracts of land as publicly accessible and publish maps for hunters and recreation enthusiasts. The incentive is consistent with current state public access incentives and will enhance the ability of state game departments to use hunting seasons as a wildlife management tool."
Fore more information, go to:
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
To ask questions or to gain access to online pdfs, contact Robin Hockaday, SWCS member services, at email@example.com or 515-289-2331 ext. 118.
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The online JSWC is hosted by HighWire Press at Stanford University, which also hosts Science, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), SSSA Journal, Journal of Environmental Quality, Agronomy Journal, and thousands of other peer-reviewed science journals. The JSWC is one of the first journals to launch on the new HighWire H20 platform with new tools and features.
Contact Robin Hockaday, SWCS member services, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-289-2331 ext. 118 for more information.
Monday, September 15, 2008
The WEPPCAT is a web-based extension of the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP). WEPPCAT allows users to model the effect that climate changes could have on soil erosion rates given user defined climate scenarios. Users are able to change rainfall intensity, total precipitation, number of wet days, and temperature highs and lows. WEPPCAT is the first model to allow easy manipulation of the intensity or volume of rain falling in individual storm events. In addition, WEPPCAT allows people to identify the optimal filter strip width for modified climate conditions using the filter strip assessment tool. The WEPPCAT model is recommended for use by land managers, farmers, planners, conservationists and teachers. The model is available in a web-based format accessible for free at http://www.weppcat.net/. Tutorials and scientific references are also available on the Web site.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Soil quality (the ability of the soil to function) should be the number one concern of all conservationists. The reason I believe this is that restoring and improving soil function is the solution to our natural resource problem and all the symptoms of that disease.
For many years, most conservationists have regarded soil erosion as a problem. Soil erosion is not a problem; it is a symptom of soil not functioning. For many years conservationists have prescribed conservation programs and best management practices as solutions. Conservation programs and best management practices are not the solution to natural resource concerns, they are tools.
First, we must understand that the problem is the fact that our soils are not functioning. Soil is supposed to regulate water, cycle nutrients, support plant and animal life, as well as filter, buffer, degrade, immobilize, etc. what ever is thrown at it.
Second, we must examine why our soils are not functioning. Our soils are not functioning because very few farmers, ranchers, researchers or conservationists understand what makes soil "tick" and so do not know how to manage soil so it can function to the best of its ability. What makes soil tick is the diversity of life (mostly microscopic) that is supposed to be living in it. Once we understand that the key to restoring soil function is to create and maintain suitable habitat for the microscopic life (aka the soil food web) in the soil, we will solve the natural resource problem of non-functioning soil, and the symptoms of soil erosion, water quality impairment, etc. will disappear. Soil aggregation, water infiltration, creation of organic matter, nutrient cycling, etc. are all at the mercy of the soil food web.
I have seen the results of managing for soil quality on several farms and ranches here North Dakota and am convinced that once folks understand that improving soil quality is the solution, they can intelligently apply tools to build it.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Panelists discussed how to define sustainability and how to achieve it. Michael Doane, Monsanto director of the sustainable yield initiative, has a concise definition for sustainability: Produce more, conserve more.
Peggie James, the Natural Resources Conservation Services liaison to the Nature Conservancy and current SWCS president, observed that public sentiment is more supportive of conservation planning than it has been in the past.
"The public is now willing to donate more funding to conservation planning on private lands," James said.
Other panels agreed and noted that agricultural companies and retailers are making sustainability a priority.
Fred Lucky, executive vice president at Bunge North America, said, "We're engaged on both sides of the supply chain, so we have a unique ear - we can hear what's going on. What we hear is, consumers are very interested in this subject… It's a loud signal we have to pay attention to."
To learn more about what Peggie James shared at the Farm Progress Show or to listen to her speech, visit http://agwired.com/2008/08/28/the-art-and-science-of-soil-conservation/.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
National Geographic Publishes Story “Our Good Earth – The Future Rests on the Soil beneath Our Feet”
When National Geographic publishes a story on the value of soil quality then I begin to have hope that soil may finally begin to get its due respect. The story is really about the dire situation of abuse of soil around the world, but it certainly does not exempt the United States. It credited our transition to heavier and heavier equipment as a key culprit for soil compaction. It describes harvesters weighing 15 tons on tires as tall as men that use satellites to navigate themselves. It said, “Midwestern topsoil, some of the finest cropland in the world, is made up of loose, heterogeneous clumps with plenty of air pockets between them. Big, heavy harvesters mash wet soil into an undifferentiated slab—a process called compaction.”
The story cited Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal and other “researchers and ordinary farmers around the world are finding that even devastated soils can be restored. “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root,” Lal says. “In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil.”
We are all familiar with the statement that the best offense is a strong defense. I think Lal would agree with my argument that the foundation of strong country begins with a commitment to a healthy soil.
Reprinted with permission by Steve Chick.
Congressman Smith’s Field Representative Barb Cooksley recently loaned me a copy of the book Plowman’s Folly. I can honestly say it is a must read for any one interested in understanding and appreciating the value of minimizing disturbance to the soil.
On the opening page Faulkner writes, “The truth is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” Later in the first chapter he wrote, “We have equipped our farmers with a greater tonnage of machinery per man than any other nation. Our agricultural population has proceeded to use that machinery to the end of destroying the soil in less time than any other people has been known to do it in recorded history.” It is well documented that we have lost as much as 12 inches of topsoil in Eastern Nebraska and Iowa, which has exposed mineral subsoil.
Faulkner went on to say, “The chief trouble with our farming is that we have concerned ourselves with the difficult techniques of supplying our farm crops with new materials for growth, when we could easily take full advantage of the almost automatic provisions of nature for supplying plants with complete rations in secondhand form. We have made a difficult job of what should be an easy one.” He was referring to our unfortunate reliance that quickly swept this nation for utilizing manufactured fertilizers instead of taking advantage of the natural fertilizer provided through crop residue.
Faulkner cited an excerpt from Paul Sears book Deserts on the March which reads, “The face of earth is a graveyard, and so it has always been. To earth each living thing restores when it dies that which has been borrowed to give form and substance to its brief day in the sun. From earth, in due course, each new living being receives back again a loan of that which sustains life. What is lent by earth has been used by countless generations of plants and animals now dead and will be required by countless others in the future…No plant or animal, nor any sort of either, can establish a permanent right of possession to the materials that compose its physical body.” Faulkner follows this with, “This is the solemn, necessary truth; and the earlier it becomes a part of our thinking, the more quickly can we plan intelligently the necessary work of recreating the soils on our farm lands. We have been too squeamish to visualize dead tissue being transformed into living, though with every mouthful we eat we demonstrate precisely that fact.”
There are many favorite quotes I can cite from this book, but one for sure is the following, “The task of this book is to show that our soil problems have been to a considerable extent psychological; that, except for our sabotage of nature’s design for growth, there is no soil problem.” Another quote that grabbed my attention is, “The drain tile and the moldboard plow, therefore, become suspect of complicity in robbing our people of their birthright of vigorous health—by stealing away vital elements from the plowsole before plant roots are able to salvage them. So logical does this inference seem that it is difficult to understand why it has never been investigated officially.” Faulkner’s point is that the plow was responsible for eroding away valuable topsoil, while the underground tile line sucked nutrients from the bottom side of the soil profile.
Faulkner said it took seven years of experiments and tests before he broke away from conventional ways of thinking about the soil. He said, “Then I discovered, through certain tests, that the trouble lay in the operation which preceded all of the tests, namely plowing. It was as if one tried to assemble a picture puzzle with the pieces upside down. By simply correcting basic error—by incorporating all of the organic matter into the surface of the soil—the difficulties all disappeared as if by magic.”
He said, “…if planting and cultivating equipment had been designed to operate in the trashy surface it would have left, there would never have been a moldboard plow. It should be clear that the immaculately clean material we now have on most of our farms cannot be called soil except by the most liberal license. Our ideal of the soil includes of necessity that it must be easy to work, free from obstructions. It must be tidy. The fact is that untidiness to an extreme—a surface covered or filled with abundance of decaying trash—is really the proper condition. We must, therefore, revise our ideas as to the nature of the material upon which we can depend for sustenance. We certainly cannot depend upon the almost white soils we now cultivate with the plow.”
I could go and on with citations from this book, but I will end this week with the following quote because it cited research work in Nebraska. “Planting can be done in a trashy surface. It had to be done so when the land was first cleared. Doubtless, it is easier to manage land which has nothing on the surface to be caught and dragged along by the sliding equipment we use for planting and cultivating. But, if the crop planted in such smooth land must necessarily produce a smaller yield because of the purity of the minerals (freedom from decaying organic matter); it seems logical to suggest the wisdom of trying to devise implements which negotiate the trashy surface. Equally, if crop yield s greater from a trashy surface, as has been proved by the official tests at the Nebraska Experiment Station, the desirability of the necessary equipment is beyond question.”
Edward Faulkner promoted the use of a disk harrow in place of the moldboard plow because at that time no-till planting equipment had not yet been invented that could directly plant seeds into undisturbed crop residue, but Faulkner clearly recognized the importance of leaving crop residue at or near the soil surface. Over the next couple of weeks I will share a little more information from this book – a book that is very difficult for me to put down.
Reprinted with permission by Steve Chick.
Friday, August 22, 2008
US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped design and fund the building of Ackley’s watering systems and fencing in 2006.
Ackley said he’s found a number of benefits to rotational grazing. “The big benefit,” he said, “is needing only two acres per cow instead of three. This means we can now devote 120-acres of former pastureland to standing winter hay.
“Another benefit we have found,” he said, “is that flies tend to stay with manure. The manure helps us two ways. When we move cattle, the flies stay behind. This eliminates our need to spray cattle for flies. The manure also reduces our fertilizer bill by $8,000 per year because our pastures do not need chemical fertilizers.”
Ackley’s use of rotational grazing is a 180-degree turn from five years ago. “I used to think it was silly to fence cattle out of a pond,” he said, “but now I can see that’s the way it should be.”
Cattle are like mini-bulldozers to Ackley. “When they go down to a pond to drink, they push soil into the water, pollute it and fill it,” he said. “Soon I’ve got a major expense to dig it out so cattle can drink from it again.”
“Thanks to rotational grazing,” said Ackley, “the ‘bulldozers’ are leaving my stream banks and ponds alone. That saves me a lot of time I can devote to other things.”
Doug Davenport is the NRCS district conservationist for Taylor County. He says he sees this conservation practice as just one more the Bedford man uses to save soil. “Paul Ackley is a Conservation Security Program (CSP) participant which clearly demonstrates his strong belief in conservation,” said Davenport.
I didn’t happen all at once. Ackley has been farming for 40 years. Over much of that time, Ackley and the team of conservationists at the Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation District have worked together planning, finding financial assistance, and designing and installing many conservation practices on his 1,100 acres. “NRCS, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) have all worked with him on many soil saving practices,” said Davenport. “On his farm you can find filter strips, no-till, terraces, grassed waterways, wetland construction, and riparian buffers. It was a logical next step to suggest Paul apply for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) financial assistance to help set up a prescribed grazing system for his cattle.”
Davenport’s team designed a paddock system for Ackley that allows him to use rotational grazing and keeps his cattle away from pond and stream banks. Water for the cattle is gravity fed from an erosion control structure and can be piped in from a high pressure water source on Ackley’s farm.
Ackley says this is the way to go. “I am very happy,” he said. “The cows are no longer ruining my ponds and stream banks. Cattle are getting better quality water because they are not loafing in the ponds and streams fouling the water they drink. Rotational grazing forces them to loaf elsewhere and scatter their manure evenly. Cattle end up getting better water and better grass. I like this system. It is a better way to raise cattle on fewer acres of land.”
Monday, August 11, 2008
The recent World Food Summit provided a forum for active debate about the role of high oil prices, biofuels, changing consumption patterns and erratic weather in driving up the prices of basic foods. But oddly, participants paid less attention to the alarming decline in the availability of water over the last few decades. Read more...
Friday, August 1, 2008
Guest column: To better manage water, you must better manage land (Duane Sand)
Having just witnessed nature at its worst, Iowans are called to our best as we rally to prevent such destruction in the future. More...
Duane Sand, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, was a presenter at the Getting the Water Right workshop on Wednesday, July 30th.
Article: Soil, water conservation took a beating in floods
Iowa's terraces and other soil and water conservation structures suffered $40 million in damage from heavy rain and flooding this year, according to a survey by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. More...
Dean Lemke, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, was a presenter at the Midwest Floods symposium on Tuesday, July 29th.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Conference Abstract Book
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The grand opening to the public was on Saturday, July 19. The Pritchard Lecture at the SWCS Annual Conference in Tucson, Arizona, will be a presentation about this new exhibit. You can learn more about this presentation at http://www.swcs.org/en/conferences/2008_annual_conference/pritchard_lecture/. “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” occupies approximately 5,000 square feet in the National Museum of Natural History. It is on display through January 2010 when it will take to the road and will be displayed at over 10 museums around the US.
A soil monolith from each state, territory, and the District of Columbia are on display. Interactive stations include soil texture, color and parent materials, and the distribution of soils in the US. Displays and videos related soils to our daily activities and show water, nutrient, and gas movement in soil, soil formation, and more.
For more information, visit the Smithsonian exhibit Web site: http://forces.si.edu/soils/ and the Soil Science Society of America web site: https://www.soils.org/smithsonian/.
Friday, July 11, 2008
The study finds that "routine filling of empheral gully channels during tillage practices may result in markedly higher rates of soil loss as compared to allowing these gullies to persist on the landscape, demonstrating a further advantage of adopting no-till management practices."
News release from the USDA Agricultural Research Service:
Gordon, L.M., S.J. Bennett, C.V. Alonso, and R.L. Bingner. 2008. Modeling long-term soil losses on agricultural fields due to ephemeral gully erosion. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(4):173-181.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Fifteen conservation groups today sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer strongly urging him to reject pressure from Congress and producer groups "to allow the penalty-free early release of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)." USDA has been urged to release up to 24 million acres from CRP - roughly three-fourths of the land currently enrolled in the program - and put it back into production. This move would result in a loss of billions of dollars of taxpayer investment in conservation on these lands.
"A penalty-free early release of the magnitude you are considering - millions of acres - would deliver a devastating blow to the nation's soil, water, and wildlife habitat, and significantly increase global warming," said the letter. "Because most CRP lands are marginal for cropping, even if all CRP acres were brought back into commodity production, the impact on aggregate commodity supplies and prices would be modest... We urge you to protect the taxpayers' investment in soil quality, water quality, and wildlife habitat and not allow landowners to leave CRP contracts early without fully reimbursing the Treasury for the taxpayer-funded investment in those lands."
Monday, July 7, 2008
The story is available here:
According to the authors, "Addressing serious environmental and economic challenges in the United States will require organizational changes at the federal level."
Associated Press story: http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5h_4RSLLOhub2xXzr5OjRl2OiLLUQD91MJV500
Science article (subscription required): http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/321/5885/44
SWCS partners with leading authors to make the best in new conservation science, practice, and policy perspectives available to a broad audience. With over 60 years of publishing and hundreds of titles, SWCS is a trusted source in conservation publishing.
For more information, go to:
The deadline for proposals is October 15, 2008. Submission details are included in the link.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Manale, who works for the US Environmental Protection Agency, is "among a pioneering class of gardeners who have turned to rain gardens, designed to slow and trap storm water in a way that's good for the garden and the environment."
Friday, June 27, 2008
NOTE: Birl Lowery and Pete Nowak from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are organizing a special symposium at the SWCS Annual Conference on conservation issues related to the Midwest floods. The symposia will be held on Tuesday, July 29th as a part of the 2008 SWCS International Conference in Tucson, Arizona. For more information, go to www.swcs.org/08ac.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Another problem the Pew Commission identifies is the IFAP’s impacts on the environment. For example, large amounts of animal waste accumulate at these facilities. While in theory, this waste could be used for fertilizer, there is too much waste, concentrated in too small of an area for it to be useful. When this waste is used as fertilizer, it allows nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and heavy metals to be washed into waterways. All of these chemicals can contaminate water. The excess nutrients promote algal blooms that use up all the oxygen in the water, causing sea life to leave or suffocate to death. Furthermore, these animal confinements are bad for the environment because of the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Finally, the Pew Commission recommends the IFAP practices need to change because of the unjust treatment of animals. While we do our best to protect livestock from predation and disease, this does not justify intensive confinement of animals (gestation crates for pigs or battery cages for hens). They should be allowed to move around and proceed with natural behaviors. This helps keep distress at a minimum.
After identifying these problems, the Pew Commission came up with these recommendations to help the IFAPs improve:
1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.
2. Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production in a national database.
3. Implement a new system to deal with farm waste to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.
4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of IFAP to public health and improve animal wellbeing (i.e., gestation crates and battery cages).
5. Federal and state laws need to be amended and enforced to provide a level playing field for producers when entering contracts with integrators.
6. Increase funding for, expand, and reform, animal agriculture research.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Early last week I had a chance to drive from Madison to Nebraska City, Nebraska for a workshop at the Lied Center. This trip took me across SW Wisconsin, Central Iowa, and SW Iowa shortly after the significant rain events (I could not cut down and pick up I-80 as the Interstate was closed outside of Iowa City due to flooding).
What I saw was a tragedy in terms of our soil and water resources. I have not seen washing and gullies to this extent since I was a wet behind the ears assistant professor at Iowa State University in the early 1980s. Many of you will remember that this was before widespread use of various conservation tillage systems, and it was still a "normal" practice to moldboard plow fall soybean ground. The streams and rivers I crossed were dark brown with major streambank slumping evident. The travesty is what the science and policy communities allowed to happen on our agricultural lands in the Heartland. The only exception was those rare fields where continuous no-till was in use.
So you might be asking what this situation has to do with science and policy? I believe the science and policy questions revolves around how we could allow something like this to occur. When was the last time you saw conservation tillage or no-tillage being listed as a major research issue? Yet many of those "systems" failed in the rains last week. I suspect that many failures had more to do with how they were implemented rather than the inherent capacity of those systems. I do not buy the argument that this was a "natural" event where nothing could be done to prevent it! The lack of grassed waterways and other conservation practices that should have been part of the tillage system were absent in most cases. The Kansas City conference on conservation at the landscape scale had much to offer relative to explaining why this occurred, but to what extent are the science recommendations from that conference being addressed by the SWCS Board? Should not our committee be pushing the SWCS Board to reach out to other scientific societies to explore how we can design conservation at the landscape scale?
The policy side of last weeks tragedy is even worse. It was clear that a number of farmers were overcome with greed in pursuing high crop prices at the expense of common sense on how to treat the land. More important, where were our federal agencies in enforcing compliance on these now highly eroded land? We have laws in place but these laws are not being enforced by NRCS and others. Why not is a legitimate policy question. Another policy question is how we can be giving away tens of millions of federal dollars in the Conservation Security Program yet apparently this had little impact last week (a great research question). Any individual looking at the amount spent on conservation versus what happened has to wonder whether there was any thought given to how those dollars were allocated.
It seems to me that our agricultural federal agencies and Districts have redefined their role to one where they give away government checks with no expectation or responsibilities relative to conservation. It also seems to me that a lot of land grant university and federal agency research is focused on the latest "hot themes" where there is no obligation to finish the hot topics of yesteryear. Who has the responsibility to speak for the soil and water resources of this country if not the federal agencies and land grant scientists charged with this mission? Again, a messy policy issue that we would all rather avoid.
Let me repeat what I have stated many times with this committee in the past. Our mission is to raise the hard and unpopular questions with the SWCS Board. Ours is not to conduct a polularity contest where we all agree with the laest trends or research areas with new funding. There are some hard and unpopular questions that need to be addressed or at least raised for discussion. Under no circumstances should we allow the Board to be "blind-sided" by a science issue or policy question they did not anticipate. We (our committee) needs to be one step ahead of the SWCS Board on both science and policy themes.
Someone in Iowa or elsewhere is going to raise the questions listed above. Will the press catch on that we have another situation where it looks like all is going great until there is a real need, and then the system falls apart? Will the SWCS Board know how to respond? Look at the mission statement of SWCS and then ask whose job it is to work for the right science to be conducted on soil and water conservation questions. The same could be said for policy.
Let me repeat myself; if we will not speak for our soil and water resources, then who will?
Professor, Environmental Studies, Nelson Institute Soil & Water Conservation Specialist, UW-CALS ERC University of Wisconsin-Madison
64 Science Hall550 North Park Street
Madison, WI 53706608-265-3581
To participate in the discussion or read the other posts in the topic, please visit http://swcsnetwork.ning.com
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
In a letter to the agency (available here), SWCS President Peggie James recommended the following priorities for immediate action:
1. Focus more attention in planning and program implementation processes on currently well-understood practices that reduce damage from concentrated flow.
2. Focus more attention in planning and program implementation processes on protecting or repairing stream and riparian corridors.
3. Use current models and monitoring systems to indentify high-risk and high-value tributary watersheds that would benefit from focused conservation efforts.
4. Update climatic parameters used in conservation tools and planning approaches to include the most recent data and ensure that routine and periodic updates are completed in the future.
These recommendations are based on an SWCS special report available here.
BILL LEONARD of Des Moines is a former Register editorial writer.
Eroded soil sends message: Step up conservation
A huge hunk of Iowa is washing away with the Flood of '08 - a disaster whose magnitude dwarfs the visible impact.Soil scientists consider a soil loss of five tons per acre per year to be acceptable on most tillable soils. That's a small fraction of an inch off the top of the field. But this month, some Iowa farms lost more than that in a single day. That's the nutrient-rich topsoil that makes Iowa the nation's agricultural powerhouse - and that helps create a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where chemicals washed from Midwestern farms choke the oxygen supply needed by aquatic life.
It could have been prevented, or at least mitigated to a major degree. Read more...
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Recent stories on the World Food Summit...
From The Economist:
June 5: Only a Few Green Shoots
"Some good ideas, but too little cash, were among the fruits of a global gathering"
Full story at: http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11502285
From the Guardian:
June 5: Rome food crisis summit ducks crucial issues
June 6: Food summit fails to agree on biofuels
"The world food summit in Rome has come to a delayed end after some angry exchanges in the closing stages, but it ended without agreement on some of the key policy decisions now confronting governments."
Full stories at:
June 6: Food Summit: Some Progress But More Needs to be Done
"The UN food summit closes with a strong statement on agriculture, but fails to adequately address trade, biofuels, safety nets, and implementation."
Press release from IFPRI
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Kathy Robb, Esq., Partner, Hunton & Williams LLP
Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Governor
Leslie Carothers, President, Environmental Law Institute
Gabriel Eckstein, Professor, Texas Tech School of Law
Paul Faeth, Executive Director, Global Water Challenge
David Freestone, Senior Adviser, World Bank
Craig Manson, Professor, McGeorge School of Law
Tracy Mehan, Principal, The Cadmus Group
Mark Van Putten, President, ConservationStrategy LLC
Robert Stavins, Professor, Harvard University
More information: http://www.waterpolicyinstitute.com
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Users can choose to view national or state maps showing the latest measurements of water temperature, turbidity, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, pH, and discharge/stream flow.
Such real-time water-quality data may be useful an input to conservation planning and research site selection, as well as guide a wide range of decisions regarding sources of public drinking water and the safety of locations for water recreation.
Friday, May 23, 2008
The controversy erupting over food and biofuel production generally overlooks the critical need to conserve and protect soil, water and wildlife. When conservation is considered, the implicit message is often this: In a hungry world, or in a fuel-deficient world, we simply can't afford the luxury of forgoing crop production by idling land for conservation purposes.
But can we really afford to abandon conservation? More...
Matt Liebman is the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture and a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
In an announcement letter to members and colleagues, SWCS President and West North Central Regional Director Peggy James wrote, "Craig is highly respected and has carried SWCS to the forefront of environmental issues. His leadership skills and professional reputation are unprecedented in the science of soil and water conservation. We face a challenge in finding someone to fill his shoes but also have an important opportunity to find an Executive Director who can lead the Society into the next decade."
"The Board of Directors and staff have worked hard over the past year to develop a handful of 3- to 5-year goals that we think will build SWCS’s capacity as a professional society and a leader in the conservation community. Although we hate to see Craig go, we are in a good position to tailor our search for a new Executive Director whose skills and experience will ensure we meet those goals," continued James.
“The ten years I have spent as your Executive Director has been the most rewarding and enjoyable years in my career in conservation,” Craig told the SWCS Board of Directors this week. “I’ve decided to leave because it is time for me to take on a new challenge and because I think the growing natural resource and environmental challenges we face require a type and intensity of advocacy that is just not appropriate for SWCS. Joining the Environmental Working Group will be the new challenge I am looking for and the perfect home for the kind of advocacy we need to advance the cause of soil and water conservation. I may be leaving as your Executive Director, but I will remain a dedicated member of SWCS.”
The Board of Directors is committed to perpetuating the excellent SWCS reputation established by Craig in his tenure in advancing the science and art of natural resource conservation. The Board has met to discuss and implement a framework for transition. The wheels have been set in motion to begin the search for a new Executive Director. We are dedicated to pursue our mission and consider the current and future needs of Society members.
EWG Link: http://www.ewg.org/node/26598
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
The Farm Bill was Bush’s 10th veto during his presidency.
With all of these critical investments and reforms in this bill that have won support from both parties, from every region of the country, and from rural and urban members of Congress alike, the president’s veto of this measure is an attempt to deny America these forward-looking initiatives at a time when the country needs them the most.
The bill continues, reforms and strengthens income protection for the benefit of farm families and the rural economy. The nutrition title strengthens food assistance. The energy provisions in the farm bill will help unleash the potential of agriculture and rural communities to supply energy to our nation. And the new bill will help farmers and ranchers with funds and technical assistance to conserve soil, improve water quality and boost wildlife on their land.
“Environmental impacts of grazing livestock are frequently the result of poor livestock distribution,” George wrote. Cattle tend to spend time in environmentally critical areas, like riparian zones. Instead of using physical barriers, like fencing, to dictate livestock movements, George and his colleagues used nutritional protein supplements to lure the cattle away from sensitive areas of pasture.
Global positioning collars were used to document the movements of the cattle before and after the supplements were placed. The supplements successfully motivated the cattle to move more than 0.8 mi away from stock water, and the cattle tended to rest and graze near the supplement as well. Currently, protein supplements are not considered a best management practice, but George believes that they should be.
“The strategic placement of protein supplements can exert a strong influence on the distribution of range livestock,” George wrote.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
The Austrian Academy of Sciences and BOKU – the University of Bodenkultur (Soil Conservation) sponsored the 2007 Kerner von Marilaun Workshop in Vienna, Austria, entitled, “The Challenge of Sustaining Soils: Lessons from Historical Experience for a Sustainable Future.”
The workshop produced a declaration on soils that states, “We are in the midst of a dramatic acceleration of agricultural change as the world strives to meet the food and energy needs of a growing population within the framework of resource limitations and the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In its scope and size the challenge is comparable to the transformation of agriculture which took place as part of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and its extension by the introduction of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides during the twentieth century.”
The declaration goes on to state, “Human impacts on soils are complex and site specific; resulting in pressures on biodiversity, water availability and quality, and the atmosphere. Our rapidly increasing needs for food and energy place growing and conflicting demands on soil. Development issues, food security, nature conservation, our dependence on fossil fuels, social inequality, and armed conflict, all have a bearing on soils.”
The full declaration is available here: http://www.oeaw.ac.at/kioes/declaration_final.pdf
Monday, May 12, 2008
Last year, Michigan’s Battle Creek Clean Water Partners conducted a photo contest of subjects within the Kalamazoo River watershed. This effort was undertaken in part to fulfill Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit requirements. The photo contest helped educate the public about their watershed and the proximity of rivers and streams to the urban landscape.
The winning photo was taken by Richard Burkhart of Battle Creek, and his image was then submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency's National Earth Day photo contest, where it placed first in the “Enjoying Nature” category.
Burkhart commented, “On this spring day my wife and I were enjoying the environment and beauty of the Battle Creek River. I find it extremely interesting that this photo was taken within four blocks from the heart of Battle Creek, Michigan. Sometimes we can find true beauty and enjoy nature real close to home or in our own back yard.”
The photo serves as a reminder that urban rivers can be excellent recreational resources, provided that their surrounding communities make concerted efforts to improve and protect them.
Photo reproduced with permission by Richard Burkhart.
Friday, May 9, 2008
The conference committee version of the bill has bipartisan support. However, the White House has threatened to veto the bill, to which Harkin comments, “Inexplicably, the White House seems intent on destroying the harvest just as the seeds are being planted.”
On conservation measures in the committee passed version of the bill, Harkin notes, “To meet soaring worldwide demand for food and energy crops, millions of new acres of land are being brought into production, including environmentally fragile land. To address this challenge, we authorize nearly $4.4 billion in additional funds for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program over the next 10 years. With this support, the Conservation Stewardship Program will enroll nearly 13 million acres each year.”
Go here for the full story:
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Each of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 regional offices annually selects a student between kindergarten through 12th grade to represent the region at the national awards ceremony in Washington, DC. To earn this privilege, the child must complete a project that helps protect the environment and teach others about conservation.
The stream team earned the award by researching and designing a project to analyze water quality. They collected samples and tested for fecal coliforms, pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrates, phosphates, benthic macroinvertebrates, and clarity. Students prepared maps, graphs, and spreadsheets to demonstrate their results during presentations to help the community learn about protecting its streams. The results of the water testing were also sent to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Monday, May 5, 2008
A rain garden is “"is a simple garden that is dug deep into the earth in order to filter out pollutants from the water and soil," Monmouth University student Jamie Kinard explained. Plants selected for the garden will be native vegetation that normally grows near waterways.
The rain garden is being funded by grants and donations. It will be created by CommunityWaterWatch members and student volunteers.
"Not many schools have them," Kinard said. "Our garden is meant as a demonstrative rain garden to show people how easy it is to help the environment."
The annual meeting of the Georgia Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society is being planned jointly with the Georgia Section of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). The meeting will be in Athens from 4-6 June 2008 under the theme “Meeting Together to Provide Solutions”. The meeting will comprise lecture sessions with optional poster sessions if there is an
overflow of lecture submissions. For more information contact: Gary Hawkins at Tel: 229-386-3914 or by Email: email@example.com OR Jim Kastner
Tel: 706-583-0155 or firstname.lastname@example.org
NEBRASKA: June 5-7, 2008
The Nebraska and Northeast Nebraska Chapters of the Soil & Water Conservation Society will be holding their annual state meeting in Holdrege, June 5-7, 2008. The meeting will focus on issues affecting central Nebraska, including water quantity, water conservation, and invasive species.
The first afternoon, presentations on invasive species will be held at the Nebraska Prairie Museum. Following dinner, a presentation on a nearby WWII POW camp will be made by museum staff, with plenty of time to view the museum exhibits. The second day will be at the Upper Room Restaurant, and will consist of water conservation topics, followed by a tour of invasive plant and water conservation projects. The annual SWCS banquet will be held that evening, followed by a chapter business meeting on Saturday. The registration deadline is May 22. The full agenda and registration form can be found at http://incolor.inetnebr.com/dougg/swcs/.
If you'd like to add an activity to this list, please post it in the comments section.
Additionally, there is an events calender at http://swcsnetwork.ning.com/
Thursday, May 1, 2008
“Over the past decade, we have completely changed our way of thinking about water and energy efficiency,” says Jim Riley, Texas A&M director for utilities Jim. “Water and energy are precious resources, and even if they are available, we don’t want to use more than we have to.”
The energy and water reductions were achieved through both operational changes and improvements in the university’s facilities.
The reduction in energy use alone has reduced the university’s carbon footprint by 338 million pounds and saved the university approximately $50 million in energy costs.
To reduce water requirements, Texas A&M replaced plumbing fixtures with low-flow options, improved management of campus irrigation systems, and improved campus plumbing to minimize leaks and make them easier to fix.
Riley says, “With the new operational improvements, we do a much better job of preventing leaks, and when they do occur, we can isolate and repair them more promptly.”
The university also invites students to participate in its quest. The Office of Energy Management at Texas A&M includes an energy-saving tip in each day’s university e-mail news service. They also list energy tips on their Web site: http://energy.tamu.edu/.
Students also help reduce energy consumption by competing in the “Residence Hall Energy Challenge” between campus residence halls to find out which hall could produce the largest utilities reductions.
Despite success, Texas A&M is not done with energy and water conservation. Officials hope to further improve water efficiency by reusing water from its wastewater treatment plant. Reusing this water for non-potable systems would decrease the amount of water that must be pumped from the ground.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Trimble has written a new preface that provides an insightful look at the lessons learned from the study. Trimble encourages conservationists to acknowledge both the “potentially destructive power of the human agency” and “the ability of humans to achieve good things, in this case environmental improvement.”
Monday, April 28, 2008
Springtime for farmers is like New Year’s Eve for most Hoosiers. While most equate spring with relaxing and enjoying the sunshine, farmers are starting another new crop year. Each new “resolution” sets the tone for a successful and sustainable crop year.
Spring is the time to get to work after a long winter of planning. We prepare the fields to plant the seeds, and we talk with crop consultants and other specialists to determine the best strategy for maximizing yields and minimizing costs. But there is one more critical step I believe all farmers must have in place to ensure their farm is successful and sustainable: a conservation plan.
Farmers and the agriculture community have always cared deeply about the environment and have done so for generations. But more can be done. In a recent report, Indiana ranked sixth out of 31 states that contribute nutrients and sediment to the Mississippi River, with agriculture being a primary source.
But we know Indiana farmers are committed to continued improvement. I firmly believe that as more farmers learn about the conservation tools available to them, such as cover crops and conservation tillage, more will want to incorporate them into successful, sustainable on-farm practices.
Conservation is not only the right thing to do, but it also can provide financial benefits. For example, did you know reducing tillage passes over a field may save a farmer as much as $15 per acre? This savings doesn’t even factor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program payments that may be available for reducing tillage.
During the last few months, farmers may have heard about the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s (ISDA) statewide initiative to reduce excess sediment and nutrients in our rivers and streams. ISDA, along with the State Soil Conservation Board, believes Indiana can make a positive impact on our waterways. And we believe farmers want to help. Therefore, the state has increased both financial investment and conservation programming for the Division of Soil Conservation.
Under the leadership of Governor Daniels and Lt. Governor Becky Skillman, ISDA and the State Soil Conservation Board invested $500,000 this year in Clean Water Indiana Grants. There is also a new, innovative partnership with Crop Consultant Advisors in specific watersheds to help farmers install conservation practices now, instead of later. Those are just two programs that help farmers protect their land and the state’s waterways for years to come.
Hoosier farmers are known for doing the right thing. It’s in their character. So I challenge our Indiana farmers and landowners—especially those along the Wabash River—to make a “spring resolution” during this year’s National Stewardship Week April 27 - May 4. Resolving to have successful, sustainable farms will be easy by working with a crop consultant, ISDA field staff member or local Soil and Water Conservation Office to learn more about the statewide programs available.
Andy Miller is Indiana’s first Agriculture Director. He was raised on a hog and crop farm in Northeastern Indiana, graduated from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural economics, and worked in the food industry before accepting a role in public service. Reprinted with permission from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
The article quotes soil experts including Rattan Lal, a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
The full article is available here:
Saturday, April 26, 2008
As indicated in a USDA Agriculture Research Service news release (http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2008/080424.htm), "This satellite mapping technique shows promise for streamlining national efforts to monitor changes in conservation tillage adoption over time, evaluate the efficacy of conservation tillage placement, and reduce the need for time-consuming field surveys to ensure compliance with federal cost-sharing programs."
Image from the paper courtesy of the author (c) the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced that Maryland will receive $2.6 million in fiscal year 2008 to protect agricultural land through the program.
"Keeping the nation's farm and ranch lands producing food and fiber is a high priority for the Bush Administration," said Schafer. "This land will be protected by conservation easements and will be available for agricultural use forever."
From left to right: Glenn Elseroad, Elseroad Farm; Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson; US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer; and Arlen Lancaster, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Photo courtesy of the USDA.
US Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the Senate-House conference committee on the farm bill, stated on Tuesday that “the President's call for an extension is just the latest example of this administration's lack of cooperation to enact a new, stronger farm bill. It makes me think that they do not want a new bill -- one that makes investments in energy, conservation and nutrition or that extends support for growers of fruits, vegetables and horticultural crops."
Through Executive Director Craig Cox, the Soil and Water Conservation Society has provided significant input and recommendations into farm bill development and negotiations:
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Dr. Tamim Younos, a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, and undergraduate student Rachelle Hill investigated 11 forms of energy, such as ethanol and coal, and five methods of generating power, such as solar power.
To allow comparison of water use across energy types, Younos and Hill decided to standardize their research with gallons of water per British Thermal Unit. This standardization sets their study apart from other studies that have examined energy production and water use.
Younos and Hill’s work revealed that, of the 11 fuel sources examined, natural gas is the most water-efficient energy source while biodiesel is the least efficient. Of the five power generation methods, hydroelectric power uses the least water, and nuclear uses the most.
Specific results can be found at http://www.vwrrc.vt.edu/watercooler.html.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Thursday, April 17, 2008
The report discusses concerns over the production of biofuels and related mandates and incentives. The report states that "Craig Cox would also prefer to see more money and attention paid to conservation to alleviate over-use of land."
The report is available here:
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Monday, April 14, 2008
Friday, April 11, 2008
National Water-Quality Assessment Program in the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill
The letters state, "We are writing to urge you to provide $70 million for the National Water-Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) within the U.S. Geological Survey’s FY09 appropriations. The President’s budget calls for $54.1 million for the Program – a 15 percent cut from the FY 2008 enacted level of $63.9 million. We request that you reject the 15 percent cut and include an inflationary increase plus an additional $4 million to begin to restore the integrity of this program that has diminished without cost-of-living increases for 11 of the past 12 years."
To view the full letters, go to http://www.swcs.org/en/publications/news_releases/.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Food, water and energy security are finally being recognised as the most important national and international security issues, but an important element has been missing from the discussion — the soil.
That was the case until the [Australian] Prime Minister’s announcement at the ABARE Outlook conference [recently] that Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would look into ways to incorporate soil carbon in emissions trading.
Kevin Rudd’s announcement was welcome recognition that Australia will be unable to maintain its food exports, achieve water security or meet its greenhouse targets without a major improvement in soil management.
As a rule of thumb every calorie consumed requires a litre of water to produce.
With increasing population and changing consumption patterns (like increasing meat consumption in China), the world will need to produce twice as much food by 2050 as it does now, from about the same amount of land and water, or possibly less. In the past, we have kept up with increasing food needs mainly by clearing and irrigating more land, converting more natural forests to agriculture, diverting more water resources, using improved varieties and applying more fertilisers.
Those options are narrowing.
The International Water Management Institute recently completed a comprehensive assessment of the world’s water resources. It found that most of the world’s great food production basins (like our own Murray-Darling Basin) are effectively ‘closed’, with existing water resources already fully utilised or overallocated. Moreover, many countries are now reallocating land and water resources from food production to energy production by growing biofuel crops. India for example, aims to meet 10 per cent of its total gasoline needs from biofuels by 2030, which is projected to cause absolute water scarcity for food production.
Clearing more land for agriculture is highly undesirable from a greenhouse perspective and there are moves in many countries to re-establish forest cover on cleared agricultural lands.
Climate change impacts in many countries are projected to reduce water availability and increase the proportion of poor seasons, thus reducing agricultural productivity. As a major food exporter, this should be good news for Australia, creating major economic opportunities. However our capacity to capture these opportunities will depend to a large degree on how well we manage our own climate change impacts, and particularly our soils.
No-one could accuse the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) of being on the climate change bandwagon. Its Australian Commodities for the December 2007 quarter analysed the potential medium-long term impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity, exports and trade in Australia and internationally. It concluded that Australia will be one of the countries most adversely affected from climate change in terms of reductions in agricultural production and exports. ABARE estimated that Australian production of wheat, beef, dairy and sugar could decline by an estimated 9–10 per cent by 2030 and 13–19 per cent by 2050, compared with average global production declines in these commodities of 2–6 per cent by 2030 and 5–11 per cent by 2050.
Farmers have traditionally increased productivity by increasing fertiliser applications, but again climate change impacts and the policy responses to them change the equation. Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases (the second biggest emitter in Australia after power stations) and the use of nitrogenous fertilisers is the second biggest source of agricultural emissions behind enteric fermentation (the belching and farting of livestock). Declining reserves of rock phosphate and the energy costs embodied in fertiliser production are leading to rising prices for fertilisers, which are likely to increase further if there is a price on carbon.
So there will be an increasing squeeze on food production from climate change, reduced water availability, and increasing energy and fertiliser prices. We are already seeing rising food prices, with the index of food commodity prices at record levels.
How to beat the squeeze?
The other traditional ‘green revolution’ response to increase food production has been through genetic gain — the use of improved varieties. They will continue to have a major role to play, both through traditional plant breeding and through the application of molecular genetic technologies to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
However the focus here is not GMOs, but our most basic natural resource—the soil. Soil is one of the essentials of life, yet we tend to take it for granted.
Australia will be unable to maintain its food exports, achieve water security or meet its greenhouse targets without a major improvement in soil management.
Soil structure and fertility (soil health) is fundamental for food production. The soil contains 55 per cent of Australia’s terrestrial carbon store (the other 45 per cent is in vegetation). Healthy soils retain, store and filter water resources, reducing run-off (i.e. floods), absorbing waste and recharging groundwater aquifers. The recent flooding in Queensland is in part a product of hard, compacted bare topsoils over large areas after years of drought. We can’t achieve healthy rivers or wetlands, or clean run-off into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, or resilience for farm businesses and rural communities in the face of hotter, drier and more frequent droughts, without good soil management in our catchments.
One of the most fascinating aspects for me of the climate change debate is not water, or energy or greenhouse gas emissions per se, but the intersections between them. They are usually characterised by wicked trade-offs. For example, many of the prescriptions to improve water supplies, such as desalination plants or pipelines, require large amounts of energy. Biofuels to improve energy security use large amounts of water and land (and energy in their full production cycle). Reforestation for carbon sinks also requires energy and land, with more or less impacts on water resources depending on where it is located within a given catchment.
In this very tricky context, improving soil management delivers win-wins all round.
Improving soil organic matter (carbon) content should be a priority goal for public policy. While it can be achieved in certain defined areas though direct application to soil of imported organic waste materials, at a broadacre scale it is achieved mainly through farming systems that maintain higher levels of groundcover, retain trash and stubbles, and usually place more emphasis on the use of perennial plants.
Increasing soil carbon levels increases water holding capacity. It reduces run-off and hence flood risk. It obviously increases carbon storage and reduces soil emissions. And it almost inevitably improves soil structure, fertility and drought resilience. The potential gains from using improved varieties or GMOs are likely to be minimal in the absence of good soil management. Good soil management can make the difference between getting a harvest and not getting a harvest in a poor season, or between minimal erosion losses and major land degradation during drought or flood. Wellmanaged soils recover and respond quickly after drought, enabling businesses to restore profitability sooner.
Given all of the above, the average Australian citizen and taxpayer might expect that soil management would be a very high priority for primary industries and governments at all levels.
However benign neglect would be a reasonable summary of the status quo.
Soil conservation extension services have been run down, the teaching of soils at tertiary levels has declined, soil resources monitoring programs are patchy and fragmented, like the overall soils information base, and we lack user-friendly tools for people to measure soil carbon. We are unable to determine in a nationally consistent manner with any authority, whether the condition of our soils is improving or deteriorating. We accept without question the need for good economic data to inform economic policy decisions, yet we continue to under-invest in fundamental national data about natural resources like soil. While there is a strong demand for soils information, in most regions it is difficult to find people with the know-how to access and interpret existing information. Soils research is similarly fragmented and underresourced and lacks the capacity to be generating the knowledge we will need to improve the management of Australian soils in even more challenging climatic conditions.
Soil protection under the Australian Constitution is unambiguously the responsibility of the States and Territories, however as with other natural resource management issues, the Commonwealth has become increasingly involved over the last 25 years.
There is a new spirit of cooperative federalism in the air, which will be sorely needed as we face compelling policy challenges in developing a long term national approach to water, food and energy issues. The time is ripe for a coherent, genuinely national focus on improving soil management. This would deliver benefits for consumers, for farmers, for rural communities and for the environment.
Reprinted with permission by Andrew Campbell. Campbell is a sustainable natural resource management consultant. He was previously chief executive officer of Land and Water Australia and a senior executive in the Australian government. Campbell manages a family farm near Cavendish, Victoria, Australia, with the help of a neighbor. Campbell's Website: http://www.triplehelix.com.au/.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation regularly publishes research articles on a range of topics related to manure management, fertilizer practices, and water quality.
Here is a sampling from recent issues:
Lewandowsky et al. Groundwater nitrate contamination: A survey of private well owners. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(3)153-161.
Walker and Rhykerd. An economically sound manure treatment and application system. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(2)38A.
Iovanna et al. Treatment wetlands: Cost-effective practice for intercepting nitrate before it reaches and adversely impacts surface waters. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(1):14A-15A.
Sharpley et al. Overcoming the challenges of phosphorus-based management in poultry farming. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 62(6)375-389.
Special section on managing drainage ditches for water quality. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62(4).