Taking care of the water we share

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Jim Grief, guest columnist

I, like many farmers in the area, have read with concern the many opinion pieces recently published in The Gazette painting farmers as uncaring and profiteering bad actors in taking care of our environment. While planting is a busy time here on my farm, I feel compelled to set the record straight.

First, as farmers and fellow Iowans we want the safest, best quality water for our state. Our families, like yours, drink the water and enjoy using the state’s many lakes, rivers and waterways. My wife Sharon and I have raised three children on our fifth generation farm. The water we drink falls on our farmland, supplies our shallow wells and is essential to growing our crops.

You have probably heard about how high nitrate levels in our water systems being caused by agriculture. The Environmental Protection Agency says these increased nitrate levels in our water sources come from several places including fertilizer runoff from fields, septic system leaks and the movement of naturally occurring nitrates. High levels of nitrogen are naturally a part of Iowa’s black topsoil, on average it contains 10,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre of organic matter. Drainage, soil types and weather can all play a role in managing these levels.

In order to manage the soil to raise a crop, farmers apply nitrogen when they plant corn much like people do to fertilize their lawns. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, growers use less nitrogen to produce more than 50 percent more corn than was produced in 1980. During harvest, corn removes 100 pounds per acre and soybean removes 175 pounds per acre. After soil tests, farmers typically apply 150 to 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre when growing corn to replace this loss. Fertilizer is one of the most expensive inputs we have in growing corn. It is in our best interest to only apply it when and where it’s needed.

In addition to farming for more than 40 years, I am a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) with the American Society of Agronomy, meaning I have been tested and certified to meet a benchmark for practicing agronomy. I’m the owner of an ag service company where I advise farmers in crop management, soil testing and suggesting the precise use of nutrients where they are required.

My profession has changed drastically with the advent of precision agriculture. Today, we grow more using less fertilizer. Different fields require different practices to improve water quality. We can now use this technology to map the soil types within a field to understand what practices will be most effective.

Farmers need the ability to figure out what practices work best on their farm. This is why we support the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, recognizing that water quality is a complex issue. Wetlands are just one practice that farmers employ to reduce nitrate losses, but they cannot be placed everywhere. For maximum nitrate reduction, the landscape and tile drains must be laid out in a certain way. Requiring all farmers to set aside three percent of their land for wetlands for example, would be expensive and not effectively reduce nitrate loss. This is why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary approach. This allows farmers to choose what works best for their land, soils, crops, and climate.

Farmers acknowledge we need to farm sustainably to maintain not only consumer trust, but the future of our families in farming. According to the 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, Iowa’s farmers spent $1.3 to $2.2 billion during the last ten years implementing conversation practices. Iowa Corn is committed to collectively funding and working with both private and public partnerships to intensify the progress we have already experienced improving farmers’ conservation practices.

Collaboration and planning remain the keys to our water quality efforts. For example, in Cedar Rapids officials launched a $4.3 million project to improve the Cedar Rapids Watershed. This includes farmers installing saturated buffers, wetlands and planting cover crops to improve water quality. These crops, which I also plant on my cornfields, help trap the nitrogen in the soil.

Iowa’s corn farmers are committed to adopting the latest technology, data and production practices to reduce nutrient loss. We’re making progress and will continue to find innovative solutions in improving the way we farm to protect our shared water resources.

• Jim Grief, of Monticello, is a farmer and director of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Comments: pview@netins.net; www.iowacorn.org

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