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Help Farmers Continue Conservation Efforts, Don’t Tie their Hands

Iowa farmers are problem-solvers, they think outside the box.  They are constantly evaluating each field and often each acre in that field to see how they can better care for the land and improve production.

Because of their productivity and efficiency, Iowa farmers help feed the world.

Since farmers make their living from the land and water, they understand that they must always look beyond the next harvest.  They are planning on working that land for the long-term, and in many cases are planning on passing it on to their children who will continue work the same land.

As a result, farmers have made real progress in improving the air, soil and water they depend on to make their living.

For example, research from USDA shows that Iowa’s erosion rate is down 33 percent from 1987.  And, the work to install additional conservation practices continues.  From 2007 to 2010, $43.6 million, which includes $18.4 million in private investment by farmers and landowners, has been invested to protect more than 131,000 acres in Iowa through a variety of programs offered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Even with this significant investment, requests by Iowa farmers for combined federal and state conservation cost-share dollars, which would be matched by their own money, may exceed the funds available by anywhere from $25-$100 million each year.

Given the progress we have made and the efforts put forth by farmers to better care for their land, I have real concerns about recent proposals that would have the government, either in Des Moines or Washington, D.C., decide how much fertilizer farmers can apply to the crops on their farm.

Gov. Chet Culver recently said in an interview with the Des Moines Register that he expects more regulation of farms and said, “One option is to look at applications and how much we allow people to apply and when we allow them to apply it."

The problem with a one size fits all proposal are many.

First, farmers have no incentive to over-apply the nutrients their crops need.  Fertilizers are expensive and having that costly resource just runoff makes no sense.  But, farmers understand that every farm and every field is different, so farmers need the flexibility to apply the amount of fertilizer each field needs.

Also, every year is very different, so tying farmers hands around the timing of fertilizer applications can be very troublesome when we have challenging weather conditions as we have witnessed in recent years.

A broad coalition of groups, including farmers, interested in better protecting Iowa’s natural resources did join together to pass legislation that bans the application of manure on frozen and snowy ground by farmers during a specified period while also providing procedures for emergency exceptions.  Thoughtful and proactive solutions such as this are a better option.

I also worry that we will miss creative and effective strategies to better manage the nutrients on our farms if we just try to fix the problem with another heavy-handed government mandate.

For example, we have seen incredible success using constructed wetlands along with tile-drained fields to significantly reduce the nitrates in our water.  Currently, 52 of these wetlands have been constructed or restored and 20 more are in design and construction through the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

Water quality monitoring done at these wetlands show that they remove more than 50 percent of the nitrate and over 90 percent of the herbicide in tile drainage water from upper-lying croplands.  In addition to reducing nitrate loads to surface waters, the wetlands provide wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.

This fall we will be dedicating the first pilot site that will integrate one of these wetlands as part of modernized subsurface drainage system.  The initiative has obligated funding for five more pilot sites that are currently undergoing design.  Testing will look at the effect of these wetlands on their effectiveness of reducing the amount nitrates and phosphorous in our state’s waterways.

If the benefits from these pilot projects are confirmed, there is the potential to incorporate these wetlands into many of the more than 3,000 tile drainage systems throughout the state.  And, once the pilot projects are over, they would be installed with money from the landowners, not the government.

Creative solutions like this are often abandoned when regulators step in and try and solve complex problems with clumsy government regulations.

Finally, the government limiting the amount of fertilizer that can be applied has the potential to dramatically lower the yields our farmers are able to produce.  And that is bad news to a hungry world that needs the food our farmers raise.

Today, an American farmer feeds about 155 people worldwide.  As world population continues to grow the demand for the food we produce here in Iowa is going to become even more intense.  We need to make sure our farmers are able to meet the needs of hungry people around the world.

Farmers live on the land and work it to make their living, so let’s work with them and support efforts better manage our state’s abundant natural resources rather than just tie their hands.

Bill Northey is serving his first term as Secretary of Agriculture. Northey is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake, Iowa. His priorities as Secretary of Agriculture are expanding opportunities in renewable energy, encouraging conservation and stewardship, and telling the story of Iowa agriculture. To learn more visit

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