Our Soils - precious resource in Iowa

By Tina Turney
Posted 1/6/00

In early records of Iowa’s first white settlers it has been reported that it required “a yoke of seven oxen to break the prairie sod.” Especially in the vast prairie regions of what was to …

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Our Soils - precious resource in Iowa


In early records of Iowa’s first white settlers it has been reported that it required “a yoke of seven oxen to break the prairie sod.” Especially in the vast prairie regions of what was to become the State of Iowa.

Large areas of Iowa’s prairie were lowlands that were poorly drained and thought to be unsuitable for farming by the early settlers. As a result of this, many of Iowa’s early pioneer farmers chose Iowa’s woodlands as the location for their homesteads. The soils under these woodlands were more familiar to the easterners and there was the abundant supply of firewood and logs for cabins, fences and barns.

This woodland soil was much easier to break up for planting crops than the deep prairie sod. It was also thinner soil and often gray under the surface. The early pioneers often called this forest soil “white oak soil.”

The fertile bottom lands along the many streams and rivers in Iowa were the areas that were settled first. These farmlands are still among some of the richest in our state today.

The “black gold”, the top soil found west of the Mississippi River, reaches a depth of 14 inches or more. The abundance of prime farmland in Iowa makes up the largest concentration of this resource in the world. Iowa boasts the highest proportion of land in food production in the United States, three out of every four acres are used as cropland.

Along with the distinction of its importance in food production in the world, Iowa unfortunately has shared in the distinction of being one of the states in the corn belt with the greatest amount of soil erosion.

By the early 1980s, statewide, an average of one half of the state’s original topsoil had been lost to erosion.

Early Efforts in Soil Conservation

As early as the late nineteenth century, the soil-survey program was started in the United States. In Iowa the earliest published soil -survey reports were done in the Dubuque area (1903), as well as in the counties of Cerrro Gordo (1903), Story (1903) and Tama (1904).

Since those early days our knowledge and concern for the condition of our soils in Iowa has increased greatly. The information has been gathered over the years in order to predict the behavior of soils when used for agriculture, construction, engineering or other purposes.

Today the soil-survey in Iowa is a cooperative effort of several county, state and federal agencies which include the U.S. Conservation Service, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Soil Conservation and the County Conference Boards. By the late 1980s the field work for modern soil surveys was, for the most part, completed in all 99 counties in Iowa.

It didn’t take long for people in Iowa to realize that the soil, as well as all natural resources, could become depleted with over-use and abuse. In 1882 Dr. Thomas H. McBride, who later became the president of the University of Iowa, became a spokesman in the early efforts to educate landowners and farmers in the need to preserve our natural resources.

As a result of McBride’s conservation efforts the State Board of Conservation was organized in Iowa. Along with it the Fish and Game Commission was started which ensured a state park system which guaranteed the rights of people to fish and hunt in Iowa.

Iowa’s first 25-Year Conservation Plan was spelled out in 1933 under the leadership of early conservation advocates Aldo Leopold and J.D. “Ding” Darling. Lake Darling, located just west of the town of Brighton and named in honor of Ding Darling, was a favorite recreation spot for my family when I was growing up in Fairfield in the 1950s and ‘60s.

During the 1930s when much of the midwest was suffering the effects of drought and the dust bowl the federal government stepped in to assist the states in soil conservation work. Henry A. Wallace from Iowa was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at the time and was instrumental in drafting the legislation for all the states to use in farming their own Soil Conservation Districts. Iowa passed its own Soil Conservation District Law in 1939. The law provided for establishment of the county conservation districts. The first of these to be formed was the Marion County District in 1940 and the last was Howard County in 1952.

The demand for cost-sharing incentives for landowners began in 1938 with the Agriculture Adjustment Act. The USDA Soil Conservation Service has provided technical assistance to establish eligibility for funds as well as designing and implementing the various conservation practices.

The Iowa 53rd General Assembly voted to provide the federal funding directly to the Soil Conservation Districts. Iowa became the first state in the nation to appropriate money for this purpose. In 1970 the state agency became known as the Department of Soil Conservation but the governing body continued to be called the State Soil Conservation Committee.

The protection of soils in Iowa has continued through the seventies, eighties and 1990s. The legislature approached the problem from several different angels including the water-shed approach and the establishment of soil loss limits.

In 1973 the state of Iowa became the first nationwide to provide cost-sharing for erosion control measures.

In next week’s Trailin’ I’ll describe continued efforts to protect our state’s most valuable resource, and what the new century envisions for conservation in Iowa.