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Farmers poised to accelerate conservation efforts, ag secretary says

By Jared Strong 

A matured body of research to reduce farm pollution and soil erosion — combined with state and federal funding and guidance to implement those practices — will lead to enhanced conservation in the coming years, according to Mike Naig, the state secretary of agriculture.

“We really turned the page,” Naig told a gathering at the Farm Progress Show on Tuesday.

He estimates that in the next three years, Iowa farmers will implement more bioreactors and saturated buffers at the edges of their fields to reduce the water pollution of fertilizers “than we’ve built to date.”

Although research has long pointed to crop fertilizers as a significant pollutant to the state’s waterways — and a significant contributor to an area of the Gulf Coast that is largely void of aquatic life — there has been resistance to the notion that farmers are to blame.

That idea was prominently debated in 2015 when Des Moines Water Works — the supplier of drinking water to more than a half million people in central Iowa — sued three northwest Iowa counties for the nitrate that leached from farm fields into the Raccoon River, a primary source of drinking water for the utility.

Northwest Iowa historically consisted of flat, water-soaked land that is now drained by an immense network of underground tubes that flow into waterways. New tile lines are still being installed.

They are essential to producing the highest crop yields in those fields, but they also are a direct conduit for fertilizer into the state’s rivers.

In a novel legal argument that ultimately failed in federal court, Des Moines Water Works argued that drainage districts should be regulated in the same way as “point source” polluters such as wastewater treatment plants and others. Its lawsuit drew the ire of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation — which called the litigation “un-Iowan” — and pushback from farmers who claimed that nitrate is a naturally occurring substance in the soil and that it is impossible to say whether fertilizers are the culprit.

Adding to the confusion: Pronounced contamination of the Raccoon River is dependent on significant rainfall. Des Moines Water Works was forced to activate its nitrate-removal system this year for the first time in five years after a very wet spring.

Infants who consume water with high levels of nitrate are at risk of having diminished oxygen in their blood. The fertilizer can also feed toxic blue-green algae blooms in lakes and ponds that pose health risks to swimmers.

Environmental groups critical of state’s voluntary pollution control efforts

“The ‘natural’ nitrate argument is intellectually dishonest and continues to be pushed by big ag corporations to distract from the real solutions Iowa needs to address our water quality issues,” said Alicia Vasto, water program associate director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

The council is a prominent advocacy group that recently released a critical report of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a 9-year-old plan that relies on the voluntary cooperation of farmers to reduce fertilizer runoff. Based on current progress, that report estimated that the strategy will take more than 22,000 years to accomplish some of its goals.

“For decades, Iowa has relied on voluntary and publicly funded conservation measures to achieve nitrogen and phosphorus reductions in our state waterways,” Vasto said. “Those voluntary measures aren’t enough.”

Government officials, farmers resist mandates

But that is the path that has been taken to date by state and federal officials who are reluctant to impose mandates for farmers. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this week that voluntary measures are better than government mandates.

“It may be a slower process than many would like, but from a perspective from the farmer, I’m jeopardizing my ability to stay in business if I make the bad decisions,” said Roger Zylstra, a Jasper County farmer of more than 40 years who serves on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and hosted a discussion about soil and water quality at the Farm Progress Show.

He said conservation practices promoted by the voluntary state strategy are being adopted by more farmers as they are fine-tuned by early adopters with the support of the state. He said farmers are also now better aware of the effects of fertilizers on water quality and the economic benefits of some of the practices.

The recent progress of the strategy is difficult to quantify because an annual report has not been issued by the state since 2019. Instead, that information will be published in online dashboards that are under development, said Don McDowell, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. He has said the dashboards will be updated later this year.

“Iowans deserve more transparency on how we’re doing, and why we aren’t making progress faster,” said Michael Schmidt, staff attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council.

Advocates, academics point to over-application of fertilizer

Schmidt noted that there was minimal change in farmers’ attitudes toward the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the last published report. He said a reduced use of fertilizers would have an immediate impact on the environment. It should also reduce the costs to farmers, especially now when fertilizer prices are so high.

Mike Castellano, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, said Tuesday that research has shown there is an ideal amount of fertilizer that can be applied to fields to maximize crop productivity and maintain healthy soil. Too much fertilizer can lead to lesser crop root growth, which in turn can lead to less carbon in the soil, he said. He called over fertilization “an economic loss but also an environmental cost.”

Yet some farmers still do it, purportedly to ensure maximum crop yields. A northern Iowa farmer was recently fined by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for spreading too much manure on his fields for years.

Naig has touted the increasing number of wetlands being constructed in Iowa to filter fertilizers from water before they reach rivers. He said the creation of bioreactors — which are often trenches that are filled with wood chips and occupy less space than the wetlands — is set to accelerate.

He said Tuesday that cover crops are now planted on close to 3 million acres of Iowa cropland. That’s a dramatic increase in the past decade but only amounts to about 13% of total cropland and is just a quarter of the state’s goal.

Naig, a Republican, is being challenged in the November election by John Norwood, a Democrat, who wants the state to be quicker to improve water quality and cut soil erosion. Norwood has described the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as “a strategy in name only.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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