Government asks farmers to control runoff

Farmer Tim Smith stands by a creek that cuts through his property near the north-central Iowa town of Eagle Grove. He does several water quality conservation practices on his land including a bio-reactor, strip tilling and cover crops. (Photo by Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media)
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September 16, 2013 - 6:30am

Excess fertilizer runoff from farm fields is creating environmental concerns locally and nationwide. Iowa officials have been asking farmers to voluntarily reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. But will they comply with the government’s request?

Farm fertilizer contains nitrates that are being washed into waterways and raising the potential for environmental and public health hazards. The runoff has been particularly bad this year, and the outcry over typical crop practices is growing.

“If we’re still having this conversation in five years, 10 years, whatever, it’s going to be a much more uncomfortable discussion,” said John Lawrence, Associate Dean of Extension Programs and Outreach at Iowa State University.

Lawrence helped write the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the state’s new plan to reduce nutrient runoff. Backed with $22 million of state funding over five years, the plan provides incentives to farmers for reducing nutrient runoff through specific practices. Some critics argue that the strategy has been heavily influenced by industrialized ag groups.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture said about 1,000 farms this summer have agreed to the conservation practices outlined in the plan.  And certainly, more of Iowa’s 90,000 or so farms already are practicing these techniques. Yet for all these farmers, it’s their choice. There is no state regulation compelling them to change.

More from Harvest Public Media: Scientists detect high levels of nitrogen in Midwest waterways

Photo by Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Bill Northey (left) and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad re-enact a bill signing in front of a wetland at a farm in Winterset, Iowa, south of Des Moines. The state Legislature made $22 million available over the next five years for farmers to put water quality practices in place.

“I firmly believe we need to get this started on a volunteer basis; we need to get buy-in here,” Lawrence said, noting that the practices and costs in the plan are intended to be attractive to farmers.

But that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

The Des Moines River and nearby Raccoon River supply drinking water to the half-million residents of the Des Moines metro. Nitrate levels got so high earlier this summer that it cost $7,000 a day to remove them from the water.

If farmers aren’t held accountable and regulated, the Des Moines Water Works could violate the Clean Water Act, said Bill Stowe, the utility’s general manager.

“The idea that self-regulation and the system somehow will lead to optimal economic and environmental just is ludicrous, based on history and the real fact that our drinking water sources right now are being threatened,” Stowe said.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said the challenge is to engage farmers.

“They don’t get credit for it changing, but they certainly don’t get penalized as well," Northey said about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. "But they engage because it’s the right thing to do and we give them the tools that work in their operations to make it happen.”

While the Environmental Protection Agency applauds the state’s strategy, the agency needs to see year by year how these practices are making a difference, said Karl Brooks, a regional administrator with the EPA. He said if the state isn’t making progress, officials might have to adjust the program.

“It’s entirely possible that the ag producers themselves, once they’re committed into this are going to want to make it succeed,” Brooks said. 

That’s the case for farmer Tim Smith, who farms more than 800 acres outside of Eagle Grove in north-central Iowa.

Smith drives his faded old red pickup truck across his land to a creek that cuts through his property. The water eventually flows into the Des Moines River. The farm’s been in his family since the late 1800s. He said he never thought about nitrate levels in the more than 35 years he’s been farming. That is, until someone came and tested his water. His nitrates were very high.

“That really opened my eyes to what was going on and realizing I was part of the problem even though I was doing what I thought was the best I could,” Smith said. 

Smith now plants a third crop — rye — as a cover crop to hold the nitrates in the fields. Also, instead of plowing the whole field, he just plows strips. It's called strip tilling. That reduces soil erosion. Now, when officials test his water, he’s not embarrassed. His levels have come down significantly. He’s pleased with his results and offers a warning to farmers.

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is voluntary but it’s not optional," Smith said. "If farmers don’t step up to the plate and be proactive, there will be changes coming, I believe.”



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