Engaged in numerous discussions both urban and rural — from affordable housing and working through supply-chain challenges to telemedicine, welcoming diverse populations and reducing our carbon footprint — some 625 attendees joined with speakers and panelists for The Gazette’s third-annual Iowa Ideas Conference in downtown Cedar Rapids. ITC Midwest sponsored the Oct. 3 and 4 event.
Here’s a look at some of what conference speakers, panelists and attendees had to say.
During his Oct. 3 luncheon keynote, Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture, called for a zero-emissions farming economy.
He noted such an initiative would mean “significant investments” in soil conservation, including ways to contain carbon.
Turning to the dairy industry, Vilsack asked, “What if we can create manure that can be made into pellets, bagged, stored, transported and injected into the soil in a way that provides greater soil health with less concerns in the community?”
He called for “showcase farms” to be established within the next five years that operate with zero — or possibly even negative — net emissions. Such farms would let farmers “peer over the fence” and show what’s possible.
He admitted it would take time for all Iowans to get behind zero-emission farming. But by 2040 or 2050, he said, the state could be a national leader, and this country, in turn, could lead the world “to an agriculture that no longer emits nine (percent) to 14 percent of greenhouse gases.”
‘What does it look like?’
Jason Sole and Andre Wright, in the Oct. 3 morning keynote, urged collaboration. They discussed their own social initiative, Humanize My Hoodie, which in three short years has evolved from their own collaboration into a wide-reaching movement with clothing, art exhibits and presentations around the nation.
“In this audience, there’s a million ideas right now,” Wright said to attendees. “Take a page from the Jason-and-Andre book and cross-collaborate. We’re two visionaries from two different facets of life and, because of our collaboration, we’re able to make changes across the globe.”
“We’ve mixed art and science,” Sole added. “... You need to think about what would it look like for a science teacher to partner with a farmer? What does it look like for somebody who’s formerly incarcerated to collaborate with an engineer? What does it look like? We’re trying to do things that haven’t been seen before. We’re trying to create the impossible. We want you to do that, as well, at this conference.”
The overall picture
Gov. Kim Reynolds stopped by Oct. 3 for a question-and-answer session to discuss key issues such as taxes, health care, workforce and education.
When asked if the state has the financial capacity to take on more tax cuts, Reynolds replied that, “I’m always going to look at ways that we can help Iowans and businesses keep more of their hard-earned money, so we’ll have to see.”
The governor added, “We’re running (reviews of state tax credits) all of the time. We want to make sure that we’re doing it in a fiscally responsible manner, and we want to make sure that we can continue to honor the priorities, which (are) education and workforce and an integrated and coordinated health care system.
“We just have to see how that fits into the overall picture.”
Reynolds added that she intends to try again in 2020 to build an easier path for released felons to see their voting rights restored. She also plans to obtain $15 million to partner with private vendors to expand broadband in rural Iowa. The governor said she also aims to do more for water quality that might involve Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, or IWILL.
“We’ve been talking about IWILL so we’re taking a look at that — that’s a potential possibility of moving forward,” she said.
In one of the many panels in the conference’s health care track, Mike Randol, Iowa Medicaid Enterprise director, said he believed the state’s $5 billion privately managed program has “gone well.”
But he noted that while the program is about to enter its fourth year since the rocky 2016 rollout, it’s more like year one because of the turnover of managed-care companies. Those changes, he said, hampered efforts to focus on quality and better outcomes.
Randol said “the state continues to save money with managed care,” contrasted with the former state-run, fee-for-service model. He added he anticipates Human Services officials will begin a new round of contract talks sometime in January for fiscal 2021.
He also expects the state will issue requests-for-proposal to sign on a third organization.
‘A long time coming’
One panel discussion on the first day considered what will need to happen for a fledgling Iowa children’s mental health care system to be successful.
The Iowa Legislature in 2018 approved a bill creating the structural framework for such a system, with a state board to advise Iowa’s mental health regions. Gov. Reynolds signed the measure in May 2018, noting there was bipartisan support for the bill.
State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, told those attending the Oct. 3 discussion that a children’s mental health system is sorely needed.
“We’ve had an adult mental health system for many years,” Mathis said. “We have a hodgepodge of providers (for children) around the state that work very well together, but there is no system.”
Okpara Rice, chief executive of Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids, added that the creation of a children’s mental health system is long overdue.
“The fact that we might finally get some traction, getting people around the table to try to find a solution, has been a long time coming,” Rice said.
Ryan Wise, Iowa Department of Education director, said the board has quickly learned that rural and urban areas of the state have very different needs.
“There is a huge services deficit in rural Iowa that has to be addressed,” he said.
The Iowa Legislature in 2018 appropriated $2.1 million for teacher training to identify mental health issues.
The state’s area education agencies have been charged with developing the training and creating an online clearinghouse of mental health resources for educators.
“They also are piloting innovative approaches like therapeutic classrooms, working with outside providers and partnering with school districts to provide services,” Wise said.
First in the nation
In the political realm, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann pointed out, “The caucuses have put us in the limelight. Let’s face it, Iowa would be flyover country if it wasn’t for two reasons — we’re first in the nation and the Electoral College. We lose either one of those, it’s gone, and we don’t get it back.”
He and Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said Iowans don’t always understand the importance of their role in the political process, or why the two major parties will work together to maintain that lead date in the presidential selection process.
Price said his statewide party is trying to make the process more accessible next year by expanding Democratic precinct sites to include satellite caucuses at workplaces and other, non-traditional venues. Price said that will strengthen the process.
‘A competitive program’
In a panel focused on the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative — created in 2018 with task forces to focus on investment in housing, broadband connectivity, and leadership and growth — Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, co-chairman of the initiative, said Iowa has a very different housing crisis than the nation faced a decade ago.
“We have a shortage of market rate quality housing in our rural areas and it restricts our ability to grow,” Gregg said. “The biggest problem we have as a state is we have more jobs than the people to fill them. Our second-largest challenge is we don’t have the housing to accommodate the people who would fill those jobs in many of our small towns.”
Mark Reinig, of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service, said the Iowa Legislature doubled the workforce housing tax credit designated for small communities.
“It also took it from a first-come, first-served to a competitive program, which really helps attract developers to small communities,” Reinig said. “With all the disasters that have occurred in recent years, we also were able to add a codicil to where funds can be directed to communities with immediate needs.”
Patty Manuel of Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative said the broadband task force is focusing on federal broadband mapping and how it affects federal funding for new installation.
“The maps show a majority of the state is very well-served, and we are finding that rural communities definitely are not,” Manuel said. “We also are looking at upload and downloads speeds.
“If you look at the federal guidelines, they are 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up. I challenge anyone here to tell me that you can do what you want to do with only 3 megabits up.”
Changing the way young people are educated and prepared for the workforce was addressed by a panel discussion on project-based learning.
Kris Byam, of the Boone Community School District, said EDGE — Empowering Desire, Guiding Experience, a K-through-12 program — “as we built it, one of our goals was to get some exploration pieces starting early in the elementary years and also in middle school. We have a lot of interest-based or passion-based projects in middle school that our teachers and students come up with.”
“We tie those closely into our programs over at Boone High School,” he said. “At the high school level, we are doing a lot with different business partners.”
Byam said EDGE also has an apprenticeship program that partners with Boone area businesses, and companies also give projects to EDGE that can be performed one on one, such as web design and social media.
Shawn Cornally, a math and science teacher with Iowa BIG in Cedar Rapids, said the program cultivates projects from not-for-profits, businesses and government agencies.
“I am working with a team that is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Friends of Coralville Lake on the silting problem. The lake is silting up much faster than was anticipated,” Cornally explained. “Students are taking core samples, building the models, and looking at figuring where to put silt-up stations and overflow ponds.”
Michelle Hill, director and author of the Aspiring Professional Experience program in Waukee, said students learn a variety of skills such as critical thinking, complex communication, creativity, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability.
“A lot of them really struggle sometimes when a problem comes up and they instantly want to just shut down,” she said. “We say, ‘No, that’s not how it works here. We have stakeholders that are relying on you and let’s figure out how we can break it down.’ ”
The program has had about 550 partnerships with organizations and companies over the past five years.
Dawn Bowlus, director of the Jacobsen Institute at the University of Iowa, said her organization focuses on increasing teachers’ ability to teach innovation and entrepreneurship.
“When we talk with school districts that want to do this kind of work, we say, ‘Find your most innovative team of teachers, those not only interested in breaking the box, but getting outside of the box altogether,’ ” Bowlus said.
Reducing carbon dioxide
An Oct. 4 morning discussion on reducing Iowa’s carbon footprint focused primarily on the role agriculture plays in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and ways to reduce those emissions.
Cassidy Walter, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association communications director, said cover crops planted between the corn and soybean growing seasons can provide roots to store or sequester carbon dioxide in the ground.
“The latest (U.S. Department of Agriculture) study has shown that the use of ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent,” Walter said. “As ethanol plants become more efficient, that number could grow into the 70s.
“On the biodiesel side, USDA studies show greenhouse gases are being reduced by anywhere from 56 percent to 86 percent. A study performed by Argonne National Laboratory found using soybean oil reduces greenhouse gases by up to 72 percent.”
Dan Andersen, associate agriculture professor at Iowa State University in Ames, said, “We probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 pounds of carbon in the top foot of our topsoils. If you go back to when we were a prairie, we probably had 200,000 pounds of carbon, so we have reduced the amount of carbon by half.
“So the question is, if we do things like no till, cover crops or adding perennials back to the landscape, can we bring that number back up? Most of the research says yes, but it’s a long-term trend.
“What we are really looking for as researchers is, how can we speed it up?”
Chris Jones, research engineer with IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa, said using biofuels is a “really sloppy way to meet our goals for reduction of greenhouse gases.”
“In Iowa, we lose a lot of nitrogen to our streams,” Jones said. “Our streams export about a half-billion pounds of nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico every year. To produce that wasted nitrogen that enters our streams creates 1.2 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.”
Jones said Iowa’s agriculture industry has been very recalcitrant when it comes to correcting actions that create adverse outcomes.
”We have known for 30 or 40 years that tillage is bad,” he said. “We know that fall tillage releases carbon into the atmosphere.
“We know using biodiesel has some benefits, but why do only seven percent of Iowa farmers use it?”
‘A very positive day’
Panelists in an Oct. 4 discussion in the energy and environment track said the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision in August to allow 31 waivers to oil refineries — thereby exempting them from blending mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard for corn-derived ethanol and soybean-based biofuels — resulted in what panelists called “demand destruction.” That hurt growers whose export sales already have been hurt by the U.S.-China trade war.
Biofuel production adds about 63 cents to a bushel of soybeans, or about $40 per acre, said Dave Walton, a Wilton grain and livestock producer in Eastern Iowa.
“When we currently have all the trade uncertainty on an international, global level, we can’t afford to lose our domestic markets or have our domestic markets be reduced on us because of not solving these issues,” said Grant Kimberly, a central Iowa farmer who serves as executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board and director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association.
“It looks like the White House has understood that, and they’re working to resolve that,” he said. So providing that they go forward with what they’ve indicated that they are intending to do, this is a very positive day.”
‘Is everything OK?’
Some of the panels touched on their topics at a more personal level. Mary Neubauer of Des Moines, an Iowa Lottery vice president, agreed that discussions on mental health and suicide can be “uncomfortable.” But the lack of resources in Iowa moved her to talk about “my inspiration,” Sergei, her 18-year-old son, who died by suicide two years ago.
Sergei, whom Neubauer and her husband adopted in 2009, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and severe anxiety, which stemmed from his “tumultuous” childhood in Russia, she said.
Peggy Huppert, executive director of the state chapter of National Alliance on Mental Health, added two of her daughters have anxiety and depression — and the top challenge is getting past the stigma to access care.
Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and three-quarters by 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in five adults in America experiences a mental illness. Depression is the No. 1 cause of disability worldwide, statistics indicate.
Most people are not trained mental health professionals, Tammy Hoyman, CEO of the Des Moines-based Employee and Family Resources not-for-profit, said. But, she added, they don’t have to be. If a co-worker or friend appears to be struggling, ask that person out to lunch and say, “You seem quiet or tired. Is everything OK?”
To get a jump on plans for next year’s Iowa Ideas Conference, go iowaideas.com.
Gazette reporters Rod Boshart, Grace King, Trish Mehaffey and Diana Nollen contributed to this report.