Durham farmer invests 50 years in ‘labor of love’

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
When Ronald Unruh thinks something is worth doing, he’s not one to give up on the task-no matter how many years he has invested.

Unruh’s been married to his wife Dora for 50 years and recently concluded as many years as a Marion County farmer.

While his marriage has been a labor of love, so too has his diligence to preserve the natural resources on his rural Durham farm.

For the couple’s continued commitment to conservation practices, Ronald and Dora have been named recipients of the 2005 Continuation Conservation Award sponsored by the Marion County Conservation District.

“I first began practicing conservation back in 1958 through the old SCS (Soil Conservation Service),” Ronald Unruh said. “I just think farmers who don’t practice conservation are missing out.

“You have to protect your soil because if you’re a farmer, that’s your life,” he added. “Not to protect and preserve it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Unruh said his 50 years of farming experience has provided a valuable lesson: take care of your soil so your soil can take care of you.

“As soon as I see some washing and I see water running off, I know it’s time to save the soil,” Unruh said. “If I see something that looks like it needs addressing, we just decide what needs to be done and we turn it over to the (Natural Resources Conservation Service) guys.”

Unruh said his conservation experiences began in 1958 when Gerald Svoboda constructed Unruh’s first waterways.

“He started us on our waterways and terraces,” Unruh said. “I learned early on that you have to keep the soil from washing away, otherwise you have nothing.”

Growing up in a farming family, Unruh said his dad also was a practicing conservationist.

“He had terraces on all of his land,” Unruh said. “He put them on his ground at the same time I did mine because it was mostly highly erodible ground.”

That family tradition has been passed down to Unruh’s two sons, who have entered the farming profession as well.

“My boys have been building waterways and terraces all along,” he said.

Addressing problems before they became larger problems has served Unruh well.

“We had all our highly erodible ground done years ago,” he said. “There were even two years in there that there was no help from the government, but we went ahead and kept going until we had all the work done.

“We just paid it out of our own pocket.”

Recognizing his continued efforts to preserve his natural resources, Unruh was awarded the Bankers Award in 1978.

Unruh’s conservation efforts haven’t stopped since they began.

Today, his land is adorned with waterways, terraces and his cattle operation is equipped with the latest technology available to preserve the water quality of Marion County and its water users.

“About seven years ago we started on three different contracts,” he said. “We have all the waterways done and we have three years left on the terracing.”

Farming terraces is a necessary evil if a farmer wants to preserve the resources he’s been entrusted.

“It’s really not that difficult to farm terraces, but without them I don’t think I’d still be farming,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any top soil left and it would be really hard on my machinery.

“I don’t really like terraces but there’s no other choice if I want to keep my soil in place.”

Balancing his farming and ranching habits, Unruh said some maintenance is required on waterways as well as terraces.

“We really try to keep all the trees out of our waterways,” he said. “We like to put our waterways up for hay, so why in the world would you want to have trees in them?”

Unruh said his most recent waterways are enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program.

“So we can’t hay them,” he said. “But we still make sure we don’t have any trees in those waterways.”

Maintaining the integrity of his terraces is also an ongoing process.

“We do all our own maintenance on our terraces,” he said. “Probably about every three years we plow them up because if you don’t keep them maintained, they’ll wash over and break through.”

Unruh said the NRCS staff makes periodic checks to gauge the height of terraces, ensuring their effectiveness.

“They have to make sure we’re still in compliance,” he said. “But I think my terraces have done a great job over the years.

“We own all our ground, so we make sure all of it has conservation practices on it,” he added. “There’s nobody to answer to about that but myself.”

Preserving the quality of water in northern Marion County is also of vital importance to Unruh, who runs a cattle operation that includes cow-calf, backgrounding and feeders.

“We developed a waste basin about three or four years ago to catch all the waste runoff from our confined operation,” Unruh said. “That waste is transferred through gated irrigation pipe, which spreads the liquid over a grass filter strip.

“Most of our runoff would eventually end up in Marion Reservoir, so our debris basin is mainly for water quality,” he said. “We don’t want to let any of our cattle waste end up in the reservoir.”

Unruh said working with an intelligent and practical staff at the Marion County Conservation District office makes his task much easier.

“My waste basin was designed by Doug Svitak and Dale Ehlers-they really know their stuff and we get along with them pretty well,” he said. “And those guys really go out of their way to stake terraces and make them farmer friendly.”

Other conservation endeavors effectively employed by Unruh include no-till farming and CRP contracts.

“Plus, we’re in a watershed area, so we get funding through the EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program),” Unruh said.

While Unruh said he’s attempted to do everything necessary to ensure his land is preserved to its fullest, he still wishes others would contact the NRCS office to see what more can be done for their ground.

“I hate to see our neighbors letting their soil wash away,” he said. “A lot of guys just don’t want to farm terraces, but if your topsoil all washes off and your fertilizer washes away, you can’t raise crops anyway.

“I wouldn’t be farming anymore if I didn’t have my ground terraced.”

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