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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Look at this dirty picture!

Editors note: The correct date for this photo is April 12 following a heavy rain.

Rats love dirt, and dirty pictures really excite us.

But this dirty picture gets this River Rat's dander seriously up. This is a bat's-eye view (well, okay, hawk's-eye view; bats don't fly this high) of the city of Green Bay, where the Fox River disgorges its red-brown tide in the Green Bay of Lake Michigan. The picture was taken April 12.

This is one of those thousand-word pictures. It says more than we want to know or admit about how we take care of our farmland. What you see is soil, washed off thousands of acres of land upstream, washing into Green Bay, where it does no one any good.

Is this inevitable? It's been a rainy spring, after all. Absolutely not. Farmers have known for decades what practices minimize soil erosion. Allow me to get technical here a minute, but we know what to do: conservation tillage (leaving crop residue on bare fields), grass waterways (flowing water runs over grass and not through muddy gullies), stream buffers (grassy strips along rivers to keep soil on the field and out of the river) -- all these practices work, are well known, and not only are they affordable, they of course "make" money because soil is a farmer's economic life blood.

But with the corn-and-soybean imperative pushing Wisconsin and midwestern farmers to grow more of those erosion-prone crops (much corn ends up as ethanol, and the beans go to Asia to feed factory chickens) they rip out these conservation devices with impunity. Even dairy farms, which used to depend on alfalfa for cow feed -- alfalfa doesn't need to be plowed up every year -- are replacing that soil-holding crop with corn silage. So, more erosion, more dirt in the rivers, more red in Green Bay.

Allow Rat to pile on with more bad news: our good friend and fellow river rat Bill Berry explains in his Capital Times column this week that soil erosion is even worse than public officials are telling us, as he reviews a recent Environmental Working Group report.

Many thanks to Bill Hafs and Vicky Harris, of Green Bay, astute observers of land and water, and a special thanks to Steve Seilo of Photodynamix of Green Bay, who supplied the eye-popping aerial shot.

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