Here in the 21st century, we have gleaming farm equipment guided by GPS, with tons of metal doing in hours what once took men days to accomplish.
A single farmer can accomplish a great deal, which allows people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even older to continue to raise crops and tend to the land. It’s an amazing new era of agriculture.
But these modern marvels still rely on roads built upon piles of dirt and covered in gravel. These rural paths, largely unchanged from the 19th century, are crucial to our farm economy and the continued production of food for our area, nation and world.
It’s an amazing dichotomy. We must continue to use those roads, even as they increasingly take a pounding from ever-larger farm equipment.
As reported in The N’West Iowa REVIEW last week, our gravel roads have been through a rough couple years. The wet conditions — with steady accumulations of snow, ice and rain — have worn on the roads.
Add to that the size of farm equipment, with tons of weight moving along those roads, and you can see why the gravel roads have been through a tough spell.
At the same time, the rural population has greatly decreased. There are fewer farm families, a development linked to changing demographics and economic conditions.
We are dependent on state and federal dollars to keep our roads safe and reliable. With about 3,000 miles of county gravel roads in N’West Iowa, three times as much as paved surfaces, we face a challenge in keeping them usable.
The answer, actually, is to not try to keep all roads in prime conditions. With fewer families residing in the country, some of these gravel roads lead to empty farmyards and large fields.
These areas can be accessed by other roads. The pattern of interlocking roads every mile, designed more than a century ago as farms filled with settlers and new arrivals, no longer makes sense. We need to focus our energies and resources on roads that are needed. Some can be allowed to return to dirt, becoming minimum-maintained surfaces with sufficient notice and signage. That will prevent the expenditure of precious county dollars on roads that no longer serve the functions they were designed for while allowing the hard-working and creative county engineers and their teams to focus on maintaining the roads that are needed.
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, there are about 115,000 miles of highways and roads in the state. Counties manage almost 90,000 of them, and most of those are gravel surfaces.
Add in the 24,000 bridges in Iowa, many small bridges on rural roads, and we face a serious question: How can we maintain them in the coming years?
County crews take innovative approaches, doing preventive maintenance that saves hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in the long run.
But as our weather grows wilder and wetter, and farm equipment grows larger and heavier, our gravel roads will continue to buckle. They will demand more care, more time, more money.
One answer is to simply focus on important roads that serve the most people and keep them in good condition. That is a tough choice we will have to make to continue to move forward.