Farmers want clean water and profitable operations

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Kamyar Enshayan raises questions in his editorial on Iowa’s land and water quality (“Urgency is matter of perception,” July 16). Speaking as a farmer using no-till practices and growing cover crops, I believe some of his points are valid but he misrepresents many others. I grew up on a farm that raised four crops as well as livestock. Enshayan would like us to return to that era but, unfortunately, he ignores the very reasons farmers left it in the first place.

One hundred years ago the land around my house raised sugar beets. Russian immigrant workers picked those beets which were hauled to the Waverly Sugar Company. Seventy-five years ago that same land produced sweet corn that my father handpicked and hauled to the Marshall Canning Company, also in Waverly. Fifty years ago oats and alfalfa grew in the same field, both of which were fed to our cattle and hogs. Today, I produce corn and soybeans on that ground.

I could still grow sugar beets if I wanted to, so why don’t I? Our economic system won’t pay me enough to grow beets and still stay in business. The nearest processing plant is now 260 miles away in Renville, Minnesota. My landlords won’t accept the $70 to $120 per acre average rent that beet growers pay in North Dakota when my neighbors will pay triple that to grow corn. Capitalism drives my competitors and me to specialize in what our soil and climate do best. Here in Iowa that means producing corn and soybeans and the animals that eat those crops.

Enshayan accuses farm groups of ignoring science in soil and water quality. That is just wrong. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was developed by scientists at Iowa State University, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of AG and Land Stewardship. Every one of Iowa’s farm groups, commodity organizations and agribusiness associations has stepped up with money and manpower to educate and implement it. Furthermore, farm organizations such as the Iowa Corn Growers Association, have repeatedly supported water quality proposals, including the 3/8-cent sales tax increase, that are floating around the legislature.

We should also remember that in many respects, there would be an environmental cost for reverting to farming practices of decades ago. Farmers once plowed and cultivated their fields because there was no other way to control weeds. Annual soil losses of 20 tons per acre were common and it ended up as silt in our rivers. On my farm, today, cover crops and no-till systems have reduced soil losses to a small fraction of that. The inconvenient truth is this couldn’t be achieved without the benefit of chemicals, genetic engineering and much more science. Modern science has made agriculture more productive and better for the environment in many ways, growing more bushels with less fertilizer and chemicals than decades ago.

Agriculture detractors who think that stopping the use of fertilizers and chemicals today will solve our problems tomorrow are themselves ignoring science. For example, nitrates, the center of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, occur naturally in the soil. The scientists behind the Nutrient Reduction Strategy estimated that it would take decades to work even if adequate manpower and money were available. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to do better. Farmers are the “boots on the ground” taking action now to preserve our soil and water. That’s one reason I’m enrolled in the Soil Health Partnership, a farmer-driven program that hopes to show added profitability from practices like cover crops, reduced tillage and advanced nutrient management. That’s a win for everyone.

Sustainability has to include the ability to stay in business. Farming without profit is gardening.

• Mark Mueller is director of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Waverly

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