Each raindrop that falls on farmland meets one of two fates. It can be absorbed into the soil profile, where it provides a great benefit to society. Or it can run off, eroding land and picking up nutrients or pesticides—and causing great cost to society in order to clean up water sources that serve mankind.

That’s why I’m about to make the case for a “raindrop audit.” Specifically, I believe our way of thinking about environmental stewardship needs to evolve. Soil conservation continues to be important, but it needs to be a component of a comprehensive water management plan.

First, a little background.

For the better part of two decades, I have been fortunate enough to visit leading Corn Belt farms as I write stories for The Furrow. For about half those years I also have served on the board of supervisors for the Caldwell County, Missouri Soil and Water District. This is our local organization in the county where I live (and farm) that helps direct cost-share funds from the state of Missouri, helping pay bills when our landowners put conservation practices into place on their fields.

Those cost-share funds come from a special tax. Missouri citizens approved a Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax in 1984, and it is subject to renewal each 10 years. In fact, it is up for a vote again in 2016. Each Missouri resident contributes about $7 a year through this tax, and it has received overwhelming support in subsequent renewal votes.

The state’s soil and water efforts have saved more than 177 million tons of soil over the past 30 years, experts say, putting Missouri at the top of the list for reduced soil erosion.

My concern is that we continue to find ways to align the needs of Missouri farmers—which are a smaller and smaller minority each year—with the growing urban population. I think hydrology is the pin that connects rural and urban concerns.

Water management planning is the umbrella—and what a perfect metaphor that is—under which our conservation efforts can fit. Now that our county has been mapped with the highly accurate LIDAR (light detection and ranging), we can predict where raindrops are going to go.

Our “go-to” conservation practice, contour terracing, still has a place, but other practices such as soil health improvement can help direct those raindrops into the soil profile. Speaking of soil health, our county set a priority on cover crops last year. Caldwell County has about a quarter-million acres in farms, about half of that in row crops; but our conservation district supplied more than $100,000 in cost-share funds to help get this practice adopted. For the first time, a significant percentage of our county’s row-crop fields were protected through winter months.

Is a “raindrop audit” the new standard for conservation? It’s a thought. Please remember this: we struggle to provide local food, but almost without exception, all water is local. The water that folks drink, bathe in, or boat has been significantly affected by its time in the nearby agricultural landscape. We can all work together to keep that water as pure as possible.

 

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