Why do they do that? – Terraces and Tile Lines

Much of Iowa seems flat, but as we’ve previously discussed there is actually a lot of variety to the Iowa landscape. In addition to this, many Iowa farmers dabble in terracing – creating terraces on the slope of a hill. But why do they do that?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed it, but look closely at Iowa fields – especially in the southern half of the state – and you will see terraces on many hillsides.

One thing that Iowa farmers struggle with is soil loss and erosion from water running across the field. When water after a rainstorm flows across the field it can pick up soil particles and carry those particles downstream. Loosing that soil off the field might make the field less fertile. The steeper the slope or grade of the land (like a hillside) the faster the water will move. The faster the water moves, the more soil it might pick up and carry away with it.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Iowa.

So farmers need to try and slow down the movement of water. Hence, terraces. Terraces are man-made earthen structures that intercept runoff on slopes. They change long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. At each level of the terrace, water has a chance to slow down and the soil has a chance to settle out which keeps it on the field. The result is that cleaner water leaves the field and not as much erosion occurs.

Farmers mound up soil on the hillside creating a somewhat level area with a short steep backslope down to the next level. The top, flat area can still be farmed with crops. The short steep backslopes are seeded with perennial grasses. The roots of these perennial grasses help hold the slope in place.

Sometimes terraces can also include a tile line and drain. In some cases and if there is considerable water build up, farmers can install a tile line and drain. This will allow the soil to settle out and the water to be siphoned off into an underground pipe. This allows the water to run through the pipe down the slope without collecting any soil. The water is discharged at the end of the pipe. This also reduces soil compaction and and enables good root development.

In Iowa, terraces are a fairly common practice. In fact hundreds of miles of terraces help cut soil loss. In one watershed management area terraces reduce soil loss by as much as 13 tons! New terraces might be installed in the fall of the year after growing crops have been harvested or in the spring of the year before crops are planted. In addition to reducing soil erosion, terraces can help retain moisture for growing crops and water conservation purposes. Terraces can even help create nesting habitat in the grassy back slopes that are largely untouched.


Lessons Learned

Our last day took us to the top of one of the natural wonders of the world – Table Mountain in Cape Town. The 1,000+ meter ascent by gondola was a bit nerve racking, but the view from the top was absolutely incredible. The flora and fauna are truly unique and very diverse.

As the Iowa Farm Bureau market study trip to South Africa draws to a close I reflect back on lessons learned. My observations don’t fully encompass the scope of this beautiful, diverse, and complex country but I walk away thinking. Here is what I observed.

  1. Water is essential: The most urgent crisis that the country faces is the drought. The lack of rainfall has decimated crops throughout the central part of the country and will likely put many farmers out of business. South Africa – typically a net exporter of maize – will see severe shortages and need to import huge numbers of bushels to meet their food demands. The importance of water either natural rainfall or irrigation can not be understated for the success of crops. Iowans are lucky that in some cases we have to tile fields to drain excess water away.
  2. Capital makes a world of difference: Whether you are starting a new business, expanding a farm, or just managing a yearly production operation, having capital is essential. Borrowing money is sometimes the only way to manage finances of that business and achieve success. A functional banking system and being able to cooperatively work with bankers is essential. We didn’t spend much time investigating the financial system here in South Africa but it was an underlying theme in many of the operations that we visited.
  3. Untapped labor potential: South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 26% (unofficially 35-40%). To me this represents a huge untapped resource for the country. If they could put even half of these people to work I have to believe that they would see a large economic growth. The downturn of the mining industry has put many out of work. The high immigration rate also leaves a lot of illegals searching for jobs. A Roosevelt era public works project may not be a bad idea to address this. Or a culture of entrepreneurship and small businesses could significantly address the problem. But the caveat is that these people need to be motivated to work. We didn’t experience it first hand but in the poorer populations there is seemingly a disinterest in improving their station.
  4. Risk is risky: With the drought as a primary topic of conversation we asked about crop insurance. Because the risk is so high and droughts occur so frequently, the economic model of insurance likely wouldn’t work. This puts all of the risk of planting crops squarely on the shoulders of the farmer. American farmers enjoy many subsidies and crop insurance programs that diversify the risk and provide somewhat of a safety net when planting.
  5. Education is paramount: Without adequate funding and appropriate standards, the educational system in South Africa is by many accounts failing. The tertiary schools are world class, but the primary and secondary schools are laughable. This is evidenced in the lack of scientific understanding of HIV, farming, medicine, and many other subjects. Witch doctors rule the rural areas and prescribe bogus treatments that might be severe as cutting of the finger or ear of a child to cure the adult. Many uneducated believe that HIV is actually spread by the use of condoms. And their president was quoted as saying that (after having sex with a prostitute) a shower immediately after would clean the HIV virus off him. A basic understanding of science could go a long way to addressing these issues.
  6. Rule of law and government support is key: We have heard many times about the governmental corruption that occurs. While we were in country the ANC (ruling party) met to discuss removing the sitting president. The president remains in office but is still dogged by allegations of corruption. Without a stable government that enforces rule of law it makes it very hard to make good management and business decisions. The uncertainty forces conservative decisions and being reactive instead of proactive to changing conditions. In addition, there seems to be little governmental support for farmers to ensure food security for the country or to promote international trade.
  7. Think outside the box: When the government began buying land and leasing it to emerging farmers (black farmers), Nick Serfountain saw potential disaster and a potential loss of his land and business. But he represented innovative thinking and began to vertically integrate his business. He began to work with the emerging farmers to ensure a steady supply for his feedlot and arbaiattor business. He started several other businesses and instead of folding under a challenged system he figured out how to work in the system and thrive. Senwes is another example of an innovative business model when they shifted from cooperative to full fledged agribusiness. Grain storage and grain marketing represents an important part of the value chain that they have been able to capitalize on.
  8. Address the root issue: Rhinos in Africa are threatened. Many are poached for their horn which is ground and sold to Chinese and southeast Asian markets as an aphrodisiac or medicinal supplement. Many efforts have been made to try and stop poachers or to stop the Chinese demand for the powder. But with rhino horn selling for thousands of dollars per kilo, both have had negligible success. If we can’t mitigated the demand for the rhino horn, is there a way to sustainability supply it AND promote wildlife conservation? Some argue that the legalization of the sale of rhino horn would allow for rhinos to be raised for their horn and it be harvested without hurting the animals. This would also supply revenue for wildlife conservation.
  9. Embrace technology: It was evident on the farms that we visited that technology was an important factor in their success. Whether it was genetically modified seed, livestock selected for specific traits, GPS tractor guidance systems, or economies of scale and efficient systems, technology played a major role.

It is hard to sum a two week trip up into a few short lessons. This barely scratches the ears of the hippo. I can with full confidence attest to the vibrancy of South Africa and highly recommend it be added to your list of future travel destinations. This quote from author Gegory Daivd Roberts resonated with me.

Fear is a wolf on a chain, only dangerous when you set it free.

Farmers here have every right to be fearful. The risks they encounter, the government they work with, and the weather the attempt to manage give cause for concern. But there is an undertone of optimism that cannot be ignored. And South Africans are not willing to set fear free.

Sorrow exhausts itself in the net of forgetting.

Apartheid is ended only a little more than 20 years ago now. Racial issues are still forefront in many people’s minds. But there seems to be a shared desire to work together and forget the past.

Anger, for all its fury, can be killed by a smile.

I found South African people – whites, blacks, and coloreds – to be warm, friendly, and engaging. There is a relaxed approach to collaboration. They regularly express frustrations with government, weather, and other stressors. But this rarely leads to anger because they are so quick to smile.

Only hope goes on forever…


Farming for Conservation

Day 5 of the Iowa Farm Bureau market study tour of South Africa started with a visit to a family farm on the highveld. They had 2,000 hectares of land and raised yellow maize (corn), soya (soybeans), Merino sheep, and cattle. This diverse operation also pressed their own soya for the oil. They produced cooking oil for local markets and also made their own oil cake to feed their animals. By pressing 20% of the oil out of the soybeans they can reduce the fat content and increase the protein content to 46% thereby concentrating the feed and making it more efficient for the animals. They press nearly 7,000 tons of soya a year.

They do not have the right equipment to minimize crop loss during harvest. Therefore many of the soybeans are lost on the ground. This could represent a significant loss to the operation. But they have capitalized on this by letting their sheep graze the soybean fields after harvest. The sheep clean up almost all of the lost beans. This added protein in their diet has had the fortuitous effect of increasing their rate of producing twin lambs by 11%!

The drought has not hit this area as hard and their yellow maize crop will be very good. Yellow maize will be sold as livestock feed whereas the white maize we have previously seen is preferred for human consumption.

We continued our drive northeast and along the way passed tulip farms and prickly pear cactus farms. Holland is a big export market for tulip bulbs.

Many Americans have heard of Cecil the lion and many had the reaction of being outraged. However, as Americans we don’t always understand the dynamics of game and hunting in South Africa. More and more, game is being looked at as a valuable resource that the people of South Africa need to manage. It is a complex web where on one hand large predators threaten livestock. On the other hand there is big money to be made in the private hunting business (by South African law all game is private property and owned by the landowner). From another point of view tourists to Africa want to see pristine wildlife in natural habitat conserved in perpetuity. In all three of these situations it is important to manage the number of animals and the carrying capacity of the land. Humans are involved and we can’t take a hands off approach. And all three of those scenarios are threatened by poaching and other illegal activities.

Consequently, game farming has become an important part of agriculture in South Africa. We visited Hannah Game Lodge that catered to tourists and provided up close views of wildlife. But in addition to that they have breeding programs that provide many species to other game reserves helping to ensure healthy populations of herds. On our short drive into the bush we saw oryx, waterbuck, greater kudu, nyala, sable antelope, Impala, Cape buffalo, giraffe, ostriches, and warthogs.

The lodge used to raise rhinos but after a poaching incident had to sell their stock. If selling rhino horn was legalized, the supply could easily eliminate the black market demand and poaching. Rhino horn grows approximately 2in / year and can be harvested sustainably without harming the animals. One kilo of rhino horn sells for approximately $500,000 on the Chinese black market. This severely threatens rhino populations because poachers kill the animals to remove the horns.

The key takeaway is that by commercializing hunting and raising game even more, it is possible to eliminate illegal harvest of animals and provide a needed revenue source for wildlife conservation.