Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Soil Erosion Is on the Rise, Scientists Say; Heavy Spring Rain Is Having Reverse Consequences

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Soil Erosion Is on the Rise, Scientists Say; Heavy Spring Rain Is Having Reverse Consequences

Article excerpt

When a raindrop hits the soil, it acts as kind of a miniature bomb, displacing earth in tiny but collectively significant ways. So with all the heavy rain of recent weeks and the countless miniature bomb strikes, the state's cropland is showing serious signs of stress.

Soil scientists say they're seeing more erosion on farmland than they have in years. That could mean trouble for crops, particularly corn this season and it could have long-term consequences for the state's farmland. After last year's historic drought, snow and rain in recent months have increased moisture content, but now things are shifting toward the other extreme.

"We had snow storms, we had rains, and these were significant in replenishing water," explained Newell Kitchen, a professor of soil science at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. "But unfortunately it's come too fast, and when it rains an inch in an hour, it's too intense, and it takes the soil with it."

The erosion, soil scientists say, could begin to reverse decades of progress. About 30 years ago, Missouri had among the worst soil erosion rates in the country. But, like farmers everywhere, more farmers here switched to "no-till" methods, meaning they no longer turned over the soil before planting a long-held technique, but one that soil scientists determined was wrecking soil structure. With the no-till approach, farmers leave crop residue in the field after harvest, which act as a buffer against rain, further protecting the soil.

Also, in the mid-1980s, lawmakers and the public were convinced that erosion had become a major problem and got behind programs to address it. The 1985 farm bill required farmers to adopt soil conservation plans to receive federal benefits, while at the state level Missourians passed a sales tax, sending funds to soil conservation measures.

In 1982, Missouri's erosion rate was 10.9 tons per acre, the second-highest in the country. By 2007, the rate was cut by more than half, to 5.3 tons.

"Missouri had more funding available," said Charlie Rahm, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, based in Columbia. "Our erosion rate has dropped more than any state in the country."

But now it appears to be going up again.

Newell said the university's test plots have shown higher rates of erosion, and farmers are reporting sediment-covered crops and washed-out fields. While most of the state's grain crops are planted now 90 percent of the state's corn and 70 percent of the state's soybeans as of last week farmers were delayed by weeks, leading to more erosion, Kitchen believes, because plants' root systems weren't in place to hold the soil together.

"A lot of fields got planted late. The preparation of the field was done late," he said. "Then the rains came, and now it seems erosion is more widespread. There are plenty of fields as you drive along 1-70 you can see that erosion is wreaking havoc. …

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