Grains grown on Mars Harlan's family farm have helped feed the world, at least a small part of it, for decades.
Corn, beans and wheat flourish on his land along the Wabash River bottoms. The fabled waterway delivers fresh layers of rich, dark dirt each time it floods. And the Wabash floods a lot there, often twice a year, and sometimes heavily enough to ruin a bottomland crop. That's one worry. "Very good ground," Harlan said Monday afternoon on his farm near Prairieton. "You just can't keep the water off it."
Another concern exists 800 miles south, and the banks of the Wabash far away could hold a solution.
A "dead zone" builds up each spring in the Gulf of Mexico. A mix of nutrients in agricultural fertilizers, namely nitrogen and phosphorus, flows into the Gulf from farm ground up and down the Mississippi River and its 167 tributaries running through 31 states. (The Wabash is a tributary of the Ohio River, which is a major Mississippi tributary. Clear as delta mud?)
Once the runoff reaches the Gulf, the sun-warmed freshwater containing those farm nutrients (as well as sewage) spawns algae. The algae die and sink to the ocean saltwater below and decompose, burning up oxygen needed by aquatic species of the sea. That creates the dead zone, threatening the $1 billion Gulf fishing industry, The Nature Conservancy estimates. Communities far north of the Gulf also pay to treat water supplies affected by the runoff.
The Wabash looms large in the situation. Farmers on the river's nearly 500-mile path are helping.
Remedies involving the Wabash carry extraordinary impact. The river's drainage amounts to just 1.1 percent of the massive Mississippi River Basin, yet 11.4 percent of the nitrogen streaming into the Gulf comes from the Wabash, according to The Nature Conservancy. The reason? Its unique, untamed nature. The river's lone control dam occurs at Huntington, a mere 89 miles into the Wabash's course. From there, it flows freely for 411 miles until its confluence with the Ohio at Indiana's southwestern point — the longest stretch of undammed river east of the Mississippi.
"That's really unusual," said Mary McConnell, director of the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
The Wabash's wildness stands as both an ecological blessing and liability. Its lack of dams creates a rare, pristine atmosphere at water level, whether witnessed from a canoe or boat, or in a riverside park or campsite. Yet dams also slow a river's flow, allowing better absorption of farm nutrients carried by the stream. Instead, the Wabash gives nutrients an unimpeded, 400-plus mile ride to the Ohio, then the Mississippi, then the Gulf.
By taking those flood-prone Wabash bottomlands out of production, farmers can revive the natural riverside habitat and allow trees, plants and grasses to filter out the nutrients when the river overflows its banks. With a $120,000 contribution by pet food maker Purina, The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers to return 150 acres of marginal Vigo County floodplain farm ground in to its natural state.
The Conservancy, the largest nonprofit conservation organization in the Americas, has worked for decades to "conserve the lands and water on which all life depends." And, as McConnell emphasized, "That life includes people."
She's served as the Indiana chapter's director for the past 18 years, and its quest to restore riverbank habitat predates her arrival. It began with small Hoosier streams. "Twenty-five years later, we're ready to tackle the biggest river in Indiana," she said. The Conservancy has helped protect more than 44,000 acres along the Wabash, a long-term, multi-entity partnership boosted by former Gov. Mitch Daniels' Healthy Rivers Initiative.
The Conservancy aims to help restore 10,000 more in the next five years.
Harlan and a handful of Vigo County farmers are participating. They've pulled bottomland acreage from their farming rotation, and allowed the planting of potted trees, sturdy species tolerant to flooding.
Harlan farms 1,000 acres, not all of it bottomland. As a kid, he learned farming from his dad, Burch, who passed away last year. "I was his shadow," he said. Together, they participated in various federal and state river bottom habitat restoration efforts, from the Wetlands Reserve Program to the Conservation Reserve Program, converting more than 350 of the family's farmland acreage to restored wetlands. Now 62, Harlan is semi-retired and rents out some farm ground he and his dad formerly tended.
Through the years, he's studied the river, too. "I sandbagged on it," Harlan recalled. The Wabash has changed. "This river isn't acting like it used to," he said. The effects of climate change manifest with more intense and more frequent storms, and flooding. More asphalt paving and improved drainage systems add to the water levels, he explained.
"It's just become difficult to farm this marginal ground" on the bottoms, Harlan added, "and a lot of people — not just me — are looking to do this kind of" floodplain conversion.
The impact of that conversion has shown up. White pelicans often make a migratory stop on his farmland near the river. Eagles nest there, too. "We see a lot of wildlife we hadn't before," Harlan said, walking through the rows of freshly planted tree saplings where crops once stood. "They've got more habitat now."
Obviously, the birds like the changes.