Clean up water by engaging Iowans in agriculture

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In 2014, the Polk County Natural Resource Conservation Office designed Iowa’s first Watershed Mitigation Farm — a specially designed operation to capture the surface runoff and high-nitrate water that used to run directly from tiled farm fields into Saylorville Lake.

Today, this mocha-colored water is diverted into an irrigation system at Cherry Glen Learning Farm, where it is used to grow table foods. The result is a win-win: lower input costs for local food production and cleaner water downstream.

Imagine if similar projects were launched all along the 127,000 impaired waterways in Iowa. Such a movement would not only mitigate our state’s water quality issues, it would bring new farm families into our rural communities, rebuilding our rural economies and communities.

But this type of solution has been missing from our state’s ongoing discussion of water quality. There is no need to take school education dollars or increase our sales tax to fix Iowa’s water quality problem. These same farmers that tore out old homesteads in order to plant more corn can establish watershed homesteads with existing NRCS programs, and sell to waiting young farmers.

These types of watershed mitigations farms already are in use around the globe. In parts of Africa, upscaling watersheds in this way has led to the creation of thousands of sustainable farmsteads and a dramatic reduction in erosion and wasted water. The Global Food Security Consortium boasts A 250 percent boost in African food production due to new common watershed guidelines, providing stable livelihoods and stable communities.

What will it take to bring more watershed mitigation farms to Iowa so we can benefit from clean rivers, more permanent rural jobs and improved nutrition? The seeds are there. We only need to nurture them.

Already, farmers can access free watershed engineering from their county Natural Resources and Conservation Service office. Cost share programs make implementation affordable. Partnerships can be developed with small-scale farmers already engaged in growing Iowa’s local food infrastructure, and others who are eager to get started. Other incentives may be possible, and would be welcome, but might not be strictly necessary.

Farmers need to voluntarily step up to the plate and save their own communities.

• Ray Meylor, of Polk City, is owner of Cherry Glen Learning Farm and a member of Iowa Veterans in Agriculture. Comments: cherryglenfarmiowa@gmail.com

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