Gulf fishermen visit South Dakota
Friday, a group of Louisiana fishermen were on their way to visit an ethanol plant in South Dakota, as part of a four-day exchange trip aimed at increasing understanding between independent business owners who all face challenging water quality issues.
The Missouri River, which slices through the middle of South Dakota, feeds into the Mississippi, creating the third longest river system in the world, and one that drains some of the planet's most fertile, productive farmland. As crop production has increased in recent years, that system is also carrying more nutrients, contributing to a zone of low-oxygen water (hypoxia) off the U.S. Gulf Coast. Its size fluctuates, but this year the band of water known as the "dead zone" stretches from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Galveston, Texas and is larger than the recent average.
In July, a group of South Dakota farmers and state agriculture officials visited the Lousiana coast, even getting a chance to fish for redfish. This week, the South Dakotans are returning the hospitality, as part of the Barnyard to Boatyard Conservation Exchange organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and South Dakota Farmers Union.
If there's one take-away from the group's experiences so far, it's that there isn't just one simple solution for a worsening problem.
"I make my living at the mouth of the Mississippi River," said Ryan Lambert, one of the South Dakota visitors. He runs Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, Louisiana. "For years and years the algae's getting worse and the algae blooms are getting bigger. There are fish kills.
Yet, the problems of the Lousiana Coast are complex. Nutrients from upstream feed the algae that at times is so bad Lambert can't see the end of a trolling motor in the water. Lambert and others hope that farmers upstream can do something to reduce that nutrient flow, "whether it be no-till farming or precision farming."
But confining the Mississippi River to a channel in Louisiana has also starved the shoreline marshes of the silt they need, shrinking the Louisiana coast and hurting the ability of those marshes to filter water heading into the Gulf.
"We're going to talk about what we can do on our end as well," said Lambert, who has urged Congress to support river water diversions into the coastal wetlands.
South Dakota farmer and crop consultant Joey Hanson of Elk Point discovered on his visit to Louisiana last month that "not everybody is just pointing their finger at farmers down there."
During this weekend of hosting his Louisiana guests, he's pointing out the complexities of managing nutrients. The main ones escaping into the river system are nitrogen and phosphorous, but managing soluble nitrogen differs from reducing phosphorous runoff, which mainly is tied to soil particles.
"We know it won't be just one practice that solves all the problem," Hanson told Agriculture.com on Friday.
Hanson is familiar with the nutrient management plan developed for his neighboring state of Iowa. It's one that urges farmers to choose from a variety of approaches to reducing nutrient loss.
"I'm glad that Iowa is moving forward on their own terms. That's great," Hanson said.
In his area of South Dakota flood plain, no-till isn't considered practical by most growers, but Hanson is offering strip tillage as part of his crop consulting services, an approach that may offer similar soil conserving benefits while maintaining good yields.
Ultimately, behind this cordial cultural interchange, lies pressure from urban areas that are paying the costs of higher nutrients.
"The people of New Orleans are waking up and saying 'we don't have to put up with this,' " said Tim Kizer, private lands field coordinator for the Conservation Partnership that includes 35,000 individual members and 1,400 groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the American Sportfishing Association.
Kizer came up with the idea of and exchange last year, after hunting prairie chickens in South Dakota one week and fishing in Louisiana the next. "I'm a southern boy that gets to hunt and fish a lot," he said.
"I just decided I was going to get these people together and let them know how connected they are," he said. "The water that is vitally important to these farmers is the same water that's important to fishermen in the Gulf."
On that point, he gets no disagreement from Mike Traxinger, South Dakota Farmers Union's legislative director.
"From our perspective, this is something important to talk about," Traxinger said. "From a farmer's perspective, we want the nutrients to stay in the soil. We try to be good stewards to our neighbors next to us, but we've got neighbors downstream."
"The whole goal of this and the exchange is having a relationship and to start a conversation," he said.