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Q&A With Roger Wolf

This Iowa farm boy is recognized nationally as a protector of natural resources.

Iowa has more cropland than most states and more nutrients in rivers contributing to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Under a groundbreaking agreement with the EPA, the state has an innovative, collaborative, science-based Nutrient Reduction Strategy. A key player in making the strategy work is Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA).  

SF: Why did you go to work with ISA in 2000 on water issues?

RW: The association was looking to design a program that would establish ISA as a leader in helping farmers advance solutions on conservation and natural resources. ISA approaches it from an entrepreneurial standpoint. What I’m really proud of is the way we utilize science and data to help farmers implement practices on their farms. There has to be a value proposition for the farmer. I came here because ISA wanted to make a difference. 

SF: Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a 45% cut in nitrates and phosphorous in the state’s waters. How long will that take?

RW: It depends on our capacity to implement the practices, which is why ISA is an advocate for securing long-term [public and private] funding to do this. These are audacious goals. What’s a realistic time frame? To have credibility, we need to be talking in terms of a couple of decades.

Do I believe we can do that at the current rate of investment? No. If the investment is increased significantly, I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a huge impact. For the last four or five years, we’ve seen increasing awareness and interest in doing this. 

SF: Why is there no deadline for reaching the strategy’s goals? 

RW: We’re going through a phase of helping people understand what’s in the science; specifically, what the practices are, where they need to be applied, and at what scale. I think it’s inappropriate to set that goal at a national or state level until we have the implementation strategies worked out with the stakeholders who are going to do it. 

We advocate working with groups of farmers in targeted watersheds to come up with a plan. It includes a financing strategy, because just pretending that these practices are going to be implemented without an investment is unrealistic. That’s why we advocate watershed planning. Then we can apply time lines. 

In the Rock Creek Watershed in northern Iowa, a group of farmers adopted goals for N and P reduction. They came up with a plan with the cost of the practices. We estimate it will take an investment of $5.5 million for this 40,000-acre watershed. The plan called for 25 bioreactors. Now these farmers are taking ownership and raising the money to help get them installed. There are about 1,600 similar watersheds in Iowa. To plan all of these watersheds will cost billions of dollars.

SF: Can cover crops alone meet Iowa’s nutrient-reduction goals? 

RW: It’s going to take a suite of practices across the landscape. Cover crops can be a game changer, but they have to work in the farming system. It’s going to take time for our soils to adjust and for farmers to have the confidence to work cover crops into the operation. A lot of decisions have to be made in a cropping system, and cover crops add a little bit more complexity. 

SF: If they won’t work alone, then what about edge-of-field practices?

RW: There are four ways to control nitrogen better. 

  1. Better manage the source.
  2. Get more nitrogen into the crop.
  3. Increase denitrification that converts nitrates to nitrogen gas.
  4. Reduce the flow of water.
We want to do everything we can in the field first, but edge-of-field practices are the last-ditch effort to impact those nutrients. We have significant confidence in edge-of-field practices, such as saturated buffers, bioreactors, and wetlands that are located lower in the landscape to capture more upstream water. We can measure their nitrate reduction. 


Name: Roger Wolf


  • 2015 Steward of Iowa’s Land by Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center
  • Corecipient of the 2011 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award

Background: Wolf is carrying on a family tradition in conservation. His father worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. His grandfather served as a member of the Iowa Conservation Commission.

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