Building the 'Maginot Line' of soil health

The Maginot Line was a continuous series of fortifications built along the French-German border by the war-weary French in the 1930s, with the hope it would deter the fascists from invading.

You know how that worked out.


I traveled the 225 miles from Lansing to Ankeny on Christmas Eve, a drive through an Iowa landscape left snowless by an Arkansas December. Since the harvest is now long over, every square inch of land is left exposed, and lot of it is really, really exposed. My best estimate is that at least 50 percent and maybe as many as 70 percent of the fields were tilled. I don't have any data on this, but anecdotally fall tillage seems to be increasing, in my observation.


I can also say that I saw visible cover crops on only two fields, one near the town of Orchard and the other at mile marker 139 on I-35.

I posted these observations on my Twitter feed, and not surprisingly, that inspired some lively farmer responses that can be summed up mostly as:
• We want more time.
• We want more money.

Now I’d like to reply with the old joke about people in hell wanting ice water, but in this case, Satan is a sympathizer and these fellows are probably going to be provided with unlimited amounts of both.

I also got some replies that poor cover crop germination and growth this fall due to unfavorable weather has left more fields bare than what would otherwise be the case. Okay, I have no reason to dispute this, but if true, it casts serious doubt on the efficacy of cover crops to improve water quality and soil health since Iowa has some of the most dynamic weather on earth.

One of the latter responses was from a fellow who asked me to become a “certified investor” in his soil health consulting firm, so many of which seem to be sprouting like pigweed in a soybean field with a Roundup hangover.

These outfits can smell taxpayer money like a hog smells a buried acorn.

With U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack mocking the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” regulatory approach to improved environmental performance from agriculture (1), Soil Health is being propped up as a Maginot Line of sorts that will defend Gaul from the Prussian Blitzkrieg of more hogs, more tile, more fertilizer, and more ethanol, even though there’s abundant evidence we can’t cope with the present levels.

The current conventional wisdom seems to be that if we're too cowardly to regulate Iowa's terrible water quality, then by god, let’s monetize it!

And that goes double for climate change, the change in this case being money from your pocket into the pocket of Agribusiness in the name of climate.

And paralleling the Maginot Line, we already have a Vichy government in-waiting comprised of the usual suspects in the agencies, academia, and non-profits.

Back in March, coincidentally (?) about the same time word got out that the Iowa legislature was discussing Soil Heath legislation, The Nature Conservancy announced that they are “building a portfolio of agtech ventures to improve soil health," and that “The Nature Conservancy has formed a partnership with iSelect Fund, an impact venture firm that invests mainly in agriculture and healthcare (quite a pair, don’t you think?), to source and invest in early-stage agtech ventures targeting soil health issues (2).”

Well isn’t that special.

Instead of building pipelines for CO2, maybe we could just go ahead and build one that pumps money into humanitarian aid for Meeting Attenders that helps them quaff more Manhattans in the hotel bar after a hot, grueling day in the Marriott conference room. And to think Iowa farmers get mad at me. Go figure.

If farmers want to improve their soil “health," which basically means increasing organic matter, then hey, they should knock themselves out.

Every conservationist ever has been saying that for decades. The benefits to the farmer are numerous and quantifiable, and these translate to more money and better land value.

But to ask the taxpayer to pay for this under the guise of improved water quality and climate change mitigation is a wagonload of horseshit that your children and grandchildren will be paying for, right along with the peel-and-eat shrimp that come with each Manhattan.

• Make farmers apply Iowa State University-recommended amounts of nitrogen.
• Quit farming in the two-year floodplain, and buffer perennial streams.
• Ban Fall tillage.
• Ban application of manure to snow and frozen ground.
• Rework the master matrix livestock rules such that IDNR can effectively enforce them and require N (nitrogen) and P (phosphorus) application at recommended rates commensurate with ISU guidelines in the N rate calculator.

Cost to the taxpayer: zero dollars.



The Hagstrom Report. Farming and Ranching, September 20, 2021.

Senatus, R. The Nature Conservancy is building a portfolio of agtech ventures to improve soil health. Agrifood Tech, March 24, 2021.

Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer – Posted December 26, 2021
Water Quality Monitoring & Research
IIHR — Hydroscience & EngineeringCollege of Engineering

You can sign up for Chris' blog on water quality and agriculture at:

Go to top