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Koppen honored for mapping a million acres

By Staff | Aug 7, 2009

Maynard Koppen, of Fort Dodge, looks through the original Webster County soil survey book that was released in the late 1970s. He conducted the work and wrote the county survey’s summary. He also authored the summaries of the soil surveys for the counties of Sac and Calhoun.

Maynard Koppen, 86, of Fort Dodge, is one of a dozen Iowa soil scientists who were recently honored for having mapped a million acres or more for soil surveys.

“Of course,” Koppen noted wryly, “this comes 32 years after the fact.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, started a program this year to recognize all soil surveyors who had mapped at least one million acres. Koppen started working for NRCS, then called the Soil Conservation Service, in 1951 and retired in 1979.

“It’s more like 1.2 million acres,” Koppen said of his career accomplishment. “My record year was 64,000 acres, back in 1955. That’s when farmers were signing up for SCS programs.”

He said the award was somewhat of a surprise. And even though it comes three decades after he retired, it was still meaningful to him to be recognized. “It means that they still remember me,” Koppen said.

He is credited as having authored seven complete soil surveys of Iowa counties, including Webster County’s 460,000-acre survey in the late 1970s. His original work was used heavily in the upgraded Webster County soil survey that was released earlier this year.

The work to map Webster County, Koppen said, took from 1961 to 1967. Because of several bureaucratic scheduling setbacks, the survey was not released for almost a decade, he said. He also wrote the summaries the surveys for the counties of Sac and Calhoun and started the work on Hamilton County. He also worked in the counties of Clay, Buena Vista, Shelby, Iowa, Van Buren and Lee.

Originally, Koppen said the SCS was formed as a result of the old Civilian Conservation Corps, which started in 1933. Soil scientists were used for mapping the works projects of the CCC. When that program was closed down in 1942, the professional soil scientists were then reorganized into the SCS.

Koppen said back in the soil mapping days, surveyors would meet with media each spring and discuss the planned schedule for that year, where surveyors were planning to be and when, so that farmers would know they were coming.

“Sometimes the farmers weren’t happy to see us,” Koppen recalled. “They said we would make things worse for them, and sometimes they were right.”

Koppen is a World War II veteran landing in Europe six weeks after the 1944 Normandy Landings. Following the war, he attended college on the G.I. Bill, studying general science at Iowa State University. He was interested in veterinary science, he said, but he was counseled into the agronomy department. He took a soil classification course as an elective and his career started taking shape.

He graduated in the winter quarter in 1951 and went to work in Marshall County as a soil technician.

“I was trained (to classify soil) on a Monday,” he said, “and was told to do it myself on Tuesday.” He added that his supervisor was going to be gone for a few days. “When I asked him how much I should get done each day, he said, ‘Oh, maybe a section a day.’ He was kidding, but I didn’t know it.”

He said he set about to finish mapping an entire township section in a single day. Koppen said his supervisor was surprised when he saw what he accomplished.

He said that working in Van Buren County, in southeast Iowa, it was one of the more interesting assignments. “In the Mississippi River basin,” he said, “you could see soil developing in front of your eyes.”

Koppen said Iowa has about 500 different soil types. Some, like Webster County, were created by glaciers. Others, like Marshall and Poweshiek, were created by wind erosion. Still others by flood waters.

He said it takes a series of soil samples, starting from the middle of a section to begin the process of mapping the soil types. “But once you have the drainage pattern down,” he said, “then it gets easy.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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