Guest Columnists

A farmer's response to voluntary nutrient reduction

Curt Zingula is a Linn County grain farmer and Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award recipient.
Curt Zingula is a Linn County grain farmer and Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award recipient.

We’ve read it time and again regarding nutrient reduction, that ‘voluntary’ is a “failure” because results were not swift and decisive. Actually, failure belongs to those who don’t take the time to learn how reduction needs to occur.

In 2012 the IDNR, IDEALS, and ISU presented a likely nutrient reduction strategy. The most important message they gave us was that nutrient pollution would not be adequately reduced by simply adjusting a farmer’s fertilizer applications, but rather by implementing combinations of four conservation practices. Those four included wetlands, cover crops, cellulosic bioreactors and stream buffers. Since then, we can probably add newer practices such as prairie strips and saturated buffers.

Conservation practices that involve construction and/or CRP contracts need to be implemented by the land owners. 53 percent of the time that involves absentee landlords. That group includes thousands of urban farmland owners, many of whom don’t understand that nutrient reduction includes them.

It’s easy then to see how some people would consider forced conservation a necessity. Keep in mind though that the regulatory approach was thoroughly investigated by the Founding Fathers of the reduction strategy and they could not envision the massive bureaucracy needed to make it work. For comparison, the much smaller, less ambitious Chesapeake Bay watershed initiative will require 11 federal agencies and 15 years to implement.

Over the past year, I’ve worked to install a saturated buffer for the purpose of reducing nitrates from subsurface drainage lines. This project accumulated many days of investigative digging for drainage lines, elevation calculations, soil probing for sand lenses, writing blue print construction plans, buffer seeding plans and planting, plus installing the equipment necessary to create saturation. All for buffering 12 acres of Iowa’s 9 million plus acres containing sub surface drainage. Other land owners report yearlong procedures due to the same prerequisites.

To date, Iowa has about 70 saturated buffers and I’m told we need 120,000. If the stars align to take construction from 20 saturated buffers per year to 2,000 per year, we would need 60 years to reach our goal!

In March last year, I inquired about enrolling some acres in CRP pollinator habitat for stream buffers. I had to postpone that intent for one year when I was told that by the time my application was processed, not enough seed would be available to satisfy planting requirements due to the program’s popularity.


However, the Federal Government also has one foot on the brake. Ducks Unlimited reported in 2013 that a five-state area, including Iowa, had 43 percent of CRP applicants turned down due to the government’s plan to trim 12 million CRP acres from the budget.

As a Director on Iowa’s Watershed Improvement Review Board I found it disappointing that several of our funded projects had terrace commitments canceled. Commodity prices were high at the time of consideration but when prices fell hard, land owners bailed out. To no avail, I offered that prairie strips would be an excellent substitution. Especially because of lower costs and a remarkable potential to slow rainfall runoff plus sequester nitrates. However, like bioreactors and saturated buffers, it’s hard to sell something unfamiliar, even to someone seeking conservation.

For nutrient reduction to succeed, education needs to be the horse in front of the cart. To that beginning, the Iowa Water Quality Initiative counted over 20,000 farmers attending field demonstrations, presentations and conferences in 2016.

Conservation education shouldn’t stop at the farm gate. The Illinois Nutrient Reduction Strategy ranks conservation practices by cost effectiveness; bio-reactors @ $1.38/lb. N removed, saturated buffers @ $2.13/lb. N, cover crops @ $3.21/lb. N, and $5.06/lb. N for constructed wetlands. Government purchases of land to construct wetlands for nutrient reduction is an inefficient use of taxation. On the other hand, Cedar Rapids leaders are perceptively providing money for individual, prioritized practices upstream which will offer opportunities to learn and lead by example.

• Curt Zingula is a recently retired Linn County farmer and Iowa Farm Bureau’s representative on Iowa’s Watershed Improvement Review Board.



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