Floods strip soil from Midwest fields–Environmentalists, farmers at odds

JULY 28, 2008

Jim Lankford stood in his field of corn that was damaged by the June flooding in Martinsville, Ind. In some places on his farm, silt is piled up like sand dunes and uprooted trees still litter cornfields more than a month after the floods. Indiana reported $800 million in crop damage.

Jim Lankford stood at the edge of a cliff in his cornfield that was carved by the June flooding in Martinsville, Ind. Erosion dug a new path for the White River and created dramatic 12-foot cliffs at the edge of some of Lankford’s cornfields about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
Photos by Darron Cummings/Associated Press

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. — Jim Lankford’s corn crops used to stretch to the White River. Now the river has stretched itself through his crops.
The river cut a new route for itself during June’s flooding, a channel with steep 12-foot banks at the edge of some of Lankford’s corn fields 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis. The flood spread rocks in other spots, making it look as if Lankford planted soybeans in a gravel road. Elsewhere, silt is piled up like sand dunes and uprooted trees still litter cornfields more than a month after the floods.
"It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my life for this area," the 62-year-old farmer said.
The flooding that swamped large areas of the Midwest took with it some of the region’s most valuable resource: soil.
Now farmers and environmentalists are at odds over what to do with erosion-prone land — take their chances planting crops on marginal land in hopes of good yields and high grain prices, or plant trees, native grasses or ground cover that act as a natural flood buffer.
The floods may have caused up to $3 billion in crop losses in Iowa and $800 million in crop damage in Indiana, according to estimates from agriculture secretaries in those states.
Erosion damage is harder to tally.
Erosion robs farmers of the nutrient-rich topsoil their growing plants need.
"It takes thousands of years to form one inch of topsoil," said Jane Hardisty, Indiana’s state conservationist. "Within a day, we lost it. It’s just devastating."
It’s also an issue downstream, where sediment diminishes water quality. Scientists think the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico — oxygen-depleted water off the Texas-Louisiana coast that can’t support marine life — is likely to be worse this year partly because of the flood runoff.
States have set up programs to keep their soil. Missouri, for example, has nearly halved its rate of soil loss since the mid-1980s, when it dedicated a special tax that generates $42 million a year for soil-conserving practices such as terraces, retention ponds and grazing rotations.
The USDA Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program also helps. The $2 billion-a-year effort pays farmers not to plant crops, instead returning land to its native state. That saves an estimated 450 million tons of soil each year.
Environmental groups recently sought a federal court injunction to stop hay production and cattle grazing on some conservation land. A judge in Seattle ruled that the USDA did not conduct an appropriate environmental review, but said a reversal would be unfair to farmers and ranchers counting on using that land.
Conservation program officials announced earlier this month that farmers in flooded-damaged areas of 16 states could graze livestock on conservation land to help them cope with rising grain prices and flood damage.
"Our CRP land is vital to the balance we promote at USDA between production and preservation," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said. "I commit this resource knowing that we must redouble our conservation effort at every future opportunity."
One of the program’s founders, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., wants to also allow farmers to plant crops on more stable conservation land.
Environmental groups say there are risks to opening up conservation program land to planting. Marginal land planted with ground cover or trees acts as a natural flood barrier, said Sara Hopper, director of agricultural policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. Planting crops could mean less protection against floods, she said.
"It’s going to make a bad situation worse, particularly over the long run," she said.
Lankford, the Indiana farmer, faces a difficult decision.
He could replant corn in an effort to make money off the field, but that would take cash to rebuild a breached levee and haul hundreds of truckloads of topsoil to replace his lost land. He could also consider the conservation reserve program, or he could simply abandon the field.
"Traditionally, farmers are optimists, and I know I’m that way. They always think ‘Well, next year will be better,’ " Lankford said.
"You know there’s risks. Sometimes it’s worse than you think."
Associated Press writers Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis., Amy Lorentzen in Des Moines, Iowa, and Cheryl Wittenauer and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.