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5 Updates on Conservation, Water Quality Efforts in Iowa

Conservation and water quality regulation, government incentives, and what has been and is being done to help were all hot topics for five panelists at the 2017 Iowa Ag Summit on Saturday. Each had very different opinions on conservation and sustainability in agriculture, but everyone understood their importance. 

Here were the highlights:

1. A farmer has to be profitable to want to invest in conservation practices. 

“It has to be economical for the farmer,” said Matt Carstens, Land O’Lakes senior vice president of SUSTAIN. “But there are easy things that we can do today that have a huge impact on Iowa’s 25 million acres.”

2. Soil erosion is happening fast.

According to Iowa State University’s Dr. Richard Cruse, soil loss occurs at a rate of 5.8 tons per acre per year and the recovery rate is only 0.5 tons per acre per year. 

“The row-crop farmers’ toolbox for conservation is not very heavy,” said Cruse, who suggests using cover crops on every Iowa acre. Cover crops can remove 20% to 30% of nitrates from groundwater, he said.

3. We’ve made great progress. 

“We should be celebrating what we’ve accomplished!” said Carstens. In Iowa, 50% of the applied nitrogen (N) in the state is applied in split applications today. Over 30% of the N that’s applied is being applied with a conservation-friendly stabilizer. 

As far as cover crops go, last year Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops. “We’re farming inch by inch today, not farm by farm or field by field,” said Carstens.

The watershed approach to conservation is really working in Iowa. “It’s one of Iowa’s biggest success stories of bringing urban and rural people together to solve problems,” said Ann Robinson, the Iowa Environmental Council's ag policy director. 

4. Data is key. 

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Marian Singer, Wellntel’s cofounder and CEO. “Data is the key for management, but it’s also the key for building and maintaining awareness.”

Carsten wants more funding and efforts to be put toward conservation, but not just toward cover crop efforts. 

5. Legal ramifications and incentives aren’t agreed upon. 

Robinson believes that farmers should have to do something to protect our public resources in order to receive public resources like crop insurance. Other panelists disagreed, but they listened to her ideas on good steward discounts, proposed conservation efforts that could be required on farms, and her thoughts on the farm bill. 

“It’s important for people to have a buy-in to problems they’re solving,” said Robinson, who has a detailed conservation plan for her family’s 150-year-old farm she co-owns. “Some of the things that I think need to be done, we’re starting to do.”

Secretary Jim Reese of Oklahoma’s department of ag & forestry didn’t think it made sense to incentivize farmers in an effort to reform crop insurance because conservation practices and standards are so often changing. “I don’t think we should tie farm payments to conservation practices,” he said. “If you don’t want cheap food, you can cut all the payments.”

He also stressed that farmers are cleaning up the water in many cases and helping with soil escaping in rivers. However, if there were no people or animals in the U.S., Reese said there would still be soil rushing down the river naturally. 

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