116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Data show that large majorities of Iowa farmers are still recalcitrant to adopting practices that could clean up our water. No-till and cover crops are two of the big ones, with even the industry’s own data showing adoption as low as 30 percent for the former and around 10 percent for the latter. And in the case of cover crops, the vast majority of the un-recalcitrant ones were made that way by filling the beds of their shiny Silverados with taxpayer cash.
The hangers-on in agriculture, i.e., those that derive their livelihoods from corn, soybeans, and livestock without getting their hands dirty, know all too well about this recalcitrance. Thus, to maintain a semblance of industry shine, ag communication shops feel it necessary to wax over the truth when communicating with the public, this in the hope that a nice clear coat will repel any attempt to regulate farm pollution.
One of the leading (and best) waxers is Iowa Select Farms, which raises about 10 percent of Iowa’s hogs brought to market. Their website could make a person think raising hogs (and applying the manure) was as ecologically wholesome as a baby bison pooping on the prairie, but alas, our rivers beg to differ. Not to be discouraged by actual water quality data and research, however, Iowa Select recently ran a story on how hog manure can ‘improve’ water quality in the Raccoon River, one of the highest-nitrate streams in North America. More hogs equal better water is the logic, I suppose. Erica Lain, Iowa Select sustainability manager (a necessary job if there ever was one), says in a recent story from the Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network that “when used correctly”, manure can actually have a positive impact on water quality. So, are we to believe some farmers are not using manure ‘correctly’? Knock me over with a feather. But if this is indeed true, then wouldn’t some laws that force ‘correct’ use, along with robust enforcement and onerous penalties for violation of the laws, be in order?
It's hard to top the hog industry when it comes to rhetoric, but the Iowa Corn Growers Association is definitely up to the task. If you listen to University Iowa Hawkeye Football on the radio, you may have heard Iowa’s highest-paid public employee, Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, tell the audience that when you drink Iowa tap water, you are trusting Iowa farmers who take extreme measures to protect Iowa’s drinking water supply that comes out of your tap. Now, I have no doubt that Kirk is a busy man and has little time to study water quality, or anything other than opposing teams’ play calling. But a reasonable person might think someone who has lived in Iowa for as long as he has would have heard and read enough tidbits on the subject to think twice before reciting Corn Grower canards on the radio. You might also think that somebody would tell him that the UI drinking water treatment plant (yes, the university has its own water treatment plant) REQUIRES NITRATE REMOVAL to maintain compliance with safe water regulations, according to the Daily Iowan, because its water source, the Iowa River, is polluted with farm runoff.
Yes, you read that right. The university’s football coach, representing the Iowa Corn Growers, wants us to reward the guys that polluted the water such that the university had to spend $6 million on nitrate removal equipment so the players and everybody else on campus can drink safe water. This is how perverse Iowa agriculture is when communicating to the public about water, and illustrates how public figures have been enlisted by the industry to spread their disinformation. Maybe the Corn Growers are thinking, well, at least the nitrate removal equipment was $1 million less than Ferentz’s annual salary, so 6 mil is chump change. Who knows. But bad water is definitely not a bargain for the rest of Iowa, where there’s been more than 6000 private wells contaminated with nitrate to unsafe levels since 2000, and about 25% of the state’s population drinks municipal water that has been treated for nitrate removal.
The bottom line is Iowa’s talking agheads have little to discuss that’s not shameless propaganda when it comes to water quality. If they want to belch out their rhetoric, I suppose that’s their right. But the public deserves better from the industry and its spokespeople.
Chris Jones is a research engineer in IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa. His research areas include water quality and agriculture, water monitoring and nutrient and sediment transport.