Some farm ponds in my region have declined as reliable producers of bountiful and safe-to-eat fish during recent years.
As almost everyone who reads “Farm and Ranch Life” knows, I am a passionate fly-fisherman. My family eats the fish I catch, and I share my catches with the pond owners if they like to eat fish.
Over the summer I went fishing a number of times. Besides the fun, I got necessary time to meditate, to think through issues and to exercise.
Several ponds I have successfully fished over years past were covered with Eurasian milfoil, leafy pondweed, coontail and other weeds that repeatedly hooked onto the hand-tied flies I cast. Duckweed covered the surface of another pond and algae clouded the water in two ponds so that visual penetration was limited to a few inches.
Fishing on these ponds was difficult and there were many small fish. The ponds are not my property and I am glad for opportunities to fish them, so I didn’t say anything to the owners.
A growing number of rivers and farm ponds become infiltrated annually with farm fertilizers and manure runoff, which provide nutrients for the excessive pond weeds and algae. When there are a lot of weeds and algae, I also become concerned about insecticide runoff and avoid eating the fish from these ponds.
Heavy rains contributed to the infiltration problems. The problems worsened when farmers cut back on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and filter strips alongside waterways during recent years.
I was pleasantly surprised when I visited one farm pond twice in which the water was clear enough to see downward for several feet. Only a few milfoil plants were scattered here and there, which benefit recently-hatched fry because they provide cover from predatory fish and other species.
In a couple hours I caught and kept 14 husky bluegills and three bass, the largest of which was 20 inches long; I released the few smaller fish I caught. I am very grateful to the farmer who undertakes the conservation practices that keep this pond productive and clean.
The pond is protected by prairie grasses, flowers and forbs of all kinds in 150-foot strips around the pond. All the incoming runoff has to flow through dense grassy waterways. These vegetation strips captured virtually all the fertilizer and pesticide runoff despite several 3-5 inch rains in an above-normal year for precipitation.
The farmer earns a federal CRP payment that currently exceeds cash rent rates and net profits from most of his farm acres, given today’s grain prices. The soybeans on one side of the pond were four feet tall and covered with bulging seed pods and the corn on the other side looked like it will yield well over 200 bushels per acre; the crops are getting adequate fertilizer.
An obvious question is: Why aren’t more farmers undertaking conservation practices, especially when they pay well and crop prices are low? The sought-after profit by farming every possible acre was a motivating factor when crop prices were high over the past several years.
However, money comes and goes, but good soil, water, air and other agricultural resources, like government programs that support conservation, often don’t come and go readily, and sometimes aren’t available when needed. Preservation of resources over the long term should be an important consideration for farmers as well.
Unfortunately, USDA conservation options are reduced under the current Farm Bill, at a time when overproduction is reducing net farming profits and water pollution concerns are mounting. A small federally-funded pheasant habitat program was announced recently and some private projects to improve fish and wildlife habitat are becoming available through organizations like Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.
Critics of conservation programs might say, “So what, a few fish aren’t as important as economic gain.”
In an important way, however, “farm ponds are like canaries in mines.” They indicate if the water is healthy for fishing and for consumers downstream.
Come to think of it, conservation-minded fishers–even if not fly-fishers–and hunters are needed also. They help detect the quality of biomes, not just for wildlife, but for agricultural production in the long run by the amount and quality of game they harvest.
Land that has diminished capacity to hold water and nutrients won’t furnish as good crops, fish and wild game as properly conserved resources. American farmers learned this during the Great Depression and the years thereafter when erosion-control measures like farmland terraces, windbreaks, grassed waterways and conservation set-asides such as the Soil Bank and CRP were instituted.
Now is a good time to consider enrolling land into filter strips; the reimbursement rates are favorable for farmers. It’s also a good time to encourage federal and state elected officials to expand conservation options.
I wish everyone happy and productive fishing and hunting, and farmers a good harvest.
Dr. Mike is a farm owner in Shelby County in western Iowa. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.