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MARBLE ROCK — This is likely the last year Bill Vorhes will be farming.

Vorhes and his son, Ethan Vorhes, work on a Marble Rock farm near Seven Mile Road. For more than 40 years his family has farmed the land with varying success.

“Our soil types are perfect for raising corn, but we can’t raise a corn crop because (of) all the extra water that comes from our neighbor’s farm,” said Ethan Vorhes. “We just can’t drain the amount of water that they’re sending us.”

Their land resembles a drained lake and can have a lake’s worth of water underneath it. The tile goes down 16 feet and has water a foot and half from the surface.

There usually is either standing water, or the water drops too deep for roots to reach, Ethan Vorhes said.

“Everybody jokes, ‘Why don’t you grow rice?’ Because the rice would burn up as soon as it stops raining,” Ethan said. “What’s happening is our ground is constantly saturated, so that when we have heavy rains, we get all the actual runoff water carving channels.”

Beneath the soil is sand, Ethan Vorhes said. Weeds should be growing, but they don’t. Neither do most crops. Algae grows in the wettest areas and in the standing water. Tadpoles can be found swimming in standing water near ditches.

The property line is clear because the land suddenly goes from brown to green.

The family sued Floyd County in 2009, claiming overflow from a county drainage district harmed their farming operation. They sought an injunction against county supervisors to stop use of a well on land owned by Gary Gerhard as an outlet, according to Courier files. They also sought an order requiring the county to drain water to an alternate location.

The Vorhes family lost that suit.

In March 2011 in Floyd County, Judge Brian McKinley ruled in favor of the county. The Vorhes appealed.

The appeals court sided with McKinley, agreeing the volume of water on the Vorheses’ land did not increase as a result of the drainage district’s installation of lateral tile lines. The flooding, according to the justices, was the result of rainfall and the lay of the land.

“They came out and removed the old structure and put in a new one,” Ethan said. “They haven’t done one thing since.”

That’s a problem for the Vorheses, because drainage has turned their field into what looks like a drained lake.

“There was a hole that they dynamited (around) 1912. That hole is on the outside of the new structure,” Ethan said. “They put concrete over top of it but the hole is on the outside, so there’s surface water running directly into our groundwater every day.”

The manure from a nearby animal confinement operation drains along with surface water runoff into the hole.

“The biggest problem is with the tile system. Under (the) pressure you have when it rains, you have the fields and all the inlets allow the system to fill up with water, and then the top field puts pressure on it, and then it's lifting water through the soil instead of down through it,” Ethan Vorhes said. “It’s lifting the chemicals off and bringing them down to our farm, and they’re concentrating in our backyard to the point where my cows are starting to get sick.”

Glyphosate herbicide, commonly used on fields, flows down from other fields, building up on the Vorhes property, he said. His cattle have all the symptoms of a zinc deficiency.

So far, the Vorheses haven’t had any illnesses from the surface water. Only hoofed animals have had a reaction.

“I fear that one of us is going to end up with cancer,” Ethan said. “I’m afraid for me and my kids.”

Their wells have tested high in nitrates, Ethan Vorhes says. He talked with organizations like the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency about the problem.

“I followed up with every single person multiple times, and they refused to look at it,” Ethan said.

Since going to court, the Vorhes have been embroiled in legal action. They also fought a livestock at-large law passed last year in Floyd County, which created penalties when large animals get onto other people’s property.

Ethan Vorhes says he and his family have faced harassment because of how outspoken they are about the drainage, and claims people have let the family's animals out, which has led to them getting on other people’s property.

“My cattle have been turned loose multiple times. I’ve had multiple things stolen,” Ethan Vorhes said. “There’s clearly a handful of people that are screwing with us.”

He said feed will be dumped on the road near where he’s raising his cattle to draw them off the property.

Six neighbors of Vorhes contacted by the Courier declined comment or did not respond to messages.

When the Floyd County Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance, Bill Vorhes expressed concern about individuals letting other people’s cattle out and the livestock owner potentially going to jail because of someone else’s crime, according to board minutes.

Both Ethan and Bill Vorhes have reached out to legislators and attended town halls to make their case. Bill Vorhes went to West Union on July 3 to speak to Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Dennis Sande, the district conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture, declined to comment on the Vorhes’ farm and unique soil.

“This is a community, and we’re the bad guys,” said Ethan Vorhes. “We’re the bad guys because we want clean water.”

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Staff Writer

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