PRACTICES: A tale of grassed waterways

Guest post by John Gilbert of Gibralter Farms, an Iowa Century Farm raising dairy, pigs and crops in the South Fork [Iowa River] Watershed in Hardin County.

The folks of Gehrke Construction, Eldora, and the Hardin County office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently finished shaping  what is now Gibralter Farms’ longest waterway.

About 1900 feet in length (three-eighth of a mile), the channel is designed to safely move water that runs off the surface of about 80 acres down 40 feet in elevation to where it can spread out in grass pastures before entering The Southfork, a tributary of the Iowa River.  (The channel will be seeded to sod-forming grass in the spring;  cross-channel fabric checks protect it until then.)  Part of the route has been a waterway for a long time, but recent years of heavier rains have re-enforced the need to control the water all the way across our crop fields.

This is the fourth waterway across this farm moving surface water from the uplands to the north to grass and wetland areas buffering The Southfork, all rebuilt since 2008.  Public money has helped cover half the cost on all but one reconstruction, and could be slightly more than $4,500 on this project.

In addition to the cash assistance, NRCS personnel provided engineering design and layout at no additional cost.  Even after spending 14 years as a commissioner for the Hardin County Soil and Water Conservation District, I’m challenged to explain just what the public gets for their investment in projects like ours.  Obviously, it facilitates getting it done, as it would be harder to budget the whole cost into any year’s expenses, but could be covered by cutting back on other improvements.  Cost share projects are designed to help keep soil from washing, and to protect water quality, and this project will have some benefit for both.

In the final analysis, the benefit is really more one of the public having some involvement in protecting the land, which really is a commonly held resource…one on which we all rely.  Recent trends in farming — with fewer owner-operators and more ownership physically and generationally removed from the land — have eroded (pun intended) the understanding that good soil stewardship is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of using the land.

Farms are not like Vegas; what happens here doesn’t stay here.  What we do as farmers affects us all.  That’s why we’re glad to get this project done.

Most people might not see bulldozed dirt as art, but a well shaped waterway is a thing of beauty.  One more thing to be thankful for.

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