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A lifetime commitment to saving soil

By Staff | Dec 27, 2014

NORMAN AND RUTH BARKER said they share a mutual appreciation of and caring for soil.

IRETON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting a United Nation’s effort designating 2015 as the International Year of the Soils.

Media coverage of the U.N.’s 2015 focus on soil, rekindled memories for retired Plymouth County farmer and soil conservationist, Norman Barker, 94, as he leafed through a stack of memorabilia at his home in Le Mars.

Included in this stack is his May 1943 college term paper summarizing soil conservation as a few practiced it.

Written while Barker was a student at the now defunct West Union College, in Le Mars, the paper offers insight into Barker’s lifelong commitment to soil conservation, beginning as he worked along side his father, Ted, on the family farm near Ireton.

His passion continued through the years as a member of the Plymouth County Soil and Water Commission.

NORMAN BARKER keeps a file of newspaper and magazine clippings, as well as his 1947 soil conservation term paper, that document his long-standing role as a conservationist.

“I had a good English teacher at the college, and she knew I liked farming,” Barker said. “That’s why she gave me the topic she did to write about.

“All the research that went into that paper gave me the determination to learn even more, and I’ve had an interest in conserving the soil every since.”

Following establishment of the Soil Conservation Service in 1933, under the Department of the Interior, even the most reluctant of farmers, Barker wrote, eventually installed conservation practices such as contouring, strip-farming and watersheds.

At Iowa State University, Barker said he gained insight into the value of soil organic matter.

Following his return from military service, Barker said he and his father “with much kidding from neighbors,” took out field fences to try planting on contours.

NORMAN AND RUTH BARKER’S conservation efforts helped to set the stage for their inclusion in a 1979 National Geographic magazine feature titled “The Revolution in American Agriculture.”

With assistance from SCS technicians, the Barkers developed their first farm plan in 1949.

Barker said in 1953, they constructed some of the area’s first terraces.

Barker was elected to the Plymouth County Soil and Water Conservation District in 1981 and served through 1986; He has served as an active assistant commissioner since 1987.

Among his early efforts, Barker said, he worked with volunteers John Schnepf and Don Lake laying out “acres of contours” for other farmers.

“Our SCS technicians were to find it difficult at times to keep up with requests for the contour planning,” Barker said, and “we gained the trust of rural property owners and renters.”

Barker and wife Ruth, a longtime 4-H leader, have retired from active farming, but remain committed to valuing the soil.

Barker has been the recipient of numerous honors for conservation, agriculture and community achievement.

In 1979, he and Ruth were featured in a National Geographic article, ‘The Revolution in American Agriculture.”

They were the first recipients of the Le Mars Community School District’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013.

Norman and Ruth also share jointly their Iowa State Service Key honors and, in 2009, were named inductees into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame.

The first president of the Plymouth County Extension Council, Barker is credited for his part in fundraising efforts for a northwest Iowa experimental farm near Sutherland.

Other of his recognitions include his 1966 selection as an Iowa Master Farmer, Le Mars Chamber of Commerce Service to Agriculture Award (1987) and Farm Bureau Service to Agriculture Award (1980).

The Barkers’ Century Farm is being farmed by his grandson, Ben Johnson, and his wife, Janelle.

Barker said there is still opportunity to learn about the soil and saving it.

“It’s been shown through the years,” he said, that “our country has lost quite a high percentage of good top soil, and it doesn’t replenish itself.

“It takes millions of years to build an inch of soil. We don’t realize how easily it’s lost and how much we’ve lost. We need to take better care of it.”

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