116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
On Feb. 11, The Gazette invited many of the players involved in water quality initiatives for a discussion on the various proposals to clean the state's waters related to agricultural nutrient runoff. Representatives of government (State Sen. Rob Hogg and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett), representatives of environmental groups, as well as a representative from the Des Moines Water Works who is involved in a lawsuit over water quality in Central Iowa. Iowa farmers were also represented in the room by the Linn County Farm Bureau.
Let me be up front on my background, I farm with my father on a 300 acre corn and soybean farm in southeast Iowa, so I do have a stake in this conversation. Furthermore, I consider myself a progressive, a liberal, so I tend not to side with business interests over the common good.
That being said, this conversation appeared to pit farmers against the world. For obvious reasons, the water quality issue is directly impacted by water running off Iowa farmland caused by heavy rains. But, what was interesting in looking at all of the proposals currently in existence, all look at the farmer as the only party to be held to account. Nowhere in the room was the rest of the agribusiness community. No multinational machinery manufacturers (application equipment), fertilizer suppliers (commodity flowing into the water), or major direct consumers of the crop outputs of Iowa farms (major hog processors and grain processors we know locally).
Farmers produce grain and livestock based on demand from these major agriculture processors who have the ability to show profit from their business activity by adjusting their products' price. Major suppliers to grain and livestock production also profit greatly from the Iowa farmer. They, too, have control of what they charge the farmer for their products. Farmers, on the other hand, are subject to no ability to set the price of their commodities and shoulder risks of weather and disease (mitigated by crop insurance). Why are large agribusinesses interests not represented at the table as part of the solution?
The only proposal that hinted at their involvement came from Mayor Corbett who supports a proposed solution that involved private contributions (no names or permanent contributions, mind you) to fund research and implementation of (as yet) unknown solutions that had no rule of law. What this hinted of to me is this: The non-farm agribusiness community recognizes that they have a HUGE interest in a solution, but would rather be part of one that does not involve regulation and certainly doesn't want to be called to the carpet as a responsible party.
Over the years, we have seen what non-regulatory, voluntary efforts have done to improve water quality: Water quality at its worst to the point that local water utilities feel the need to resort to legal action to cover their costs to remove excess nitrates and other chemicals. This is akin to closing the barn door hours after the horse left the yard.
I think the Iowa public understands what needs to happen, but the 800 pound gorilla in the room are the multibillion dollar non-farmer interests who want to continue to profit off the backs of the Iowa farmer without accepting some of the blame for the situation and contributing to its resolution.
' Russ Gerst farms in Southeastern Iowa with his parents. Comments: email@example.com