Farmer Tim Smith stands by a creek that cuts through his property near the north-central Iowa town of Eagle Grove. He does several water quality conservation practices on his land including a bio-reactor, strip tilling and cover crops.
This summer, officials in Iowa have been asking farmers to voluntarily reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. That’s because the fertilizer contains nitrates that are being washed into state waterways and creating environmental concerns locally and nationally. The runoff has been particularly bad this year, and the outcry over typical crop practices is growing.
Seth Watkins says this pond was cloudy from sediment runoff until he cleared cedar trees and scrub brush from an adjacent patch of prairie. With the long roots of the grasses holding soil and trapping nutrients, the pond cleared up.
The world’s soil is in trouble, even in the fertile Midwest. Some experts warn that if degradation continues unchecked, topsoil could be gone in 60 years. That has implications for agriculture and the broader environment.
Corn has been the engine behind the ethanol industry for years, and that food vs. fuel debate doesn't look to end anytime soon. But as researchers work to unlock the biofuels potential in crop residue and other biomass, a refinery is being built in Kansas may help take the industry to another level.