Many of the conversations I’ve had with farmers over the past few months seem come around to earth worms. You know; the wriggly creatures that also work pretty well on a fish hook. I haven’t done a worm census, but farmers say they are seeing a lot more of them.

That’s a good thing. Worms do good things for the soil. But perhaps even more important, they are a clear indication that the soil is healthy and full of the organic matter that worms thrive on. And that’s good for Iowa’s environment.

The worms aren’t thriving by accident. Iowa soils are improving, and worms are thriving, because of the wide variety of conservation methods that farmers in Iowa and around the country have voluntarily adopted over the years.

Conservation tillage, which not long ago was looked upon as exotic in Iowa, has become the norm in much of the state and around the United States. The most recent survey, conducted in 2008, shows Iowa farmers used conservation tillage on almost 60 percent of their acres, up from only 30 percent in the late 1980s.

By adopting conservation tillage, farmers are significantly trimming soil erosion. Iowa’s soil erosion rate has declined some 33 percent from the early 1980s. The new tillage methods also keep more nutrients in the soil, where they can be used by crops and are far less likely to end up in our lakes, streams and rivers.

In 2011 alone, more than 20,000 tons of soil stayed put on the land and out of Iowa streams, rivers and lakes, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That amount of soil would fill a line of dump trucks six miles long.

Conservation tillage is really just the start of what Iowa farmers are doing today to protect the environment. More wetlands are being installed to reduce nutrient loss and provide habitat for ducks, geese and other wildlife. More grassy buffer strips are being planted along streams. And there has been a real surge in planting cover crops, which help protect the soil during the winter months.

Iowa is also developing a state nutrient strategy to help coordinate voluntary conservation activities and protect Iowa surface waters and address federal regulatory initiatives, such as controlling hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. This strategy will outline steps that cities, towns and farmers plan to take in priority pilot watersheds to further protect state surface waters from nutrients and sediment.

In short, most of the farmers I know are pumped up about conservation, and are looking for ways to do more. It’s a good story that often doesn’t get publicized, but it’s very real.

If you don’t believe me, just ask some happy earthworms.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau