116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There are two schools of thought for addressing Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). The first entails a voluntary approach guided by vigorous leadership for financial support and educational outreach while a second approach prefers regulations, fines and lawsuits. Both would need similar dollar investments for on-farm conservation in order to meet NRS goals.
Four years ago a team consisting of the Iowa DNR, IDALS, Iowa State University and several independent appointees chose a strategic plan to address nutrients in surface water. DNR Director, Chuck Gipp, explained that the plan was based on the team's view that bureaucratic control of 88,000 different farms in Iowa would be too cumbersome and costly to implement. That decision becomes easier to understand when we consider just the geographic differences in farming from the Mississippi River bottomlands of Southeast Iowa, to the Driftless Region hills of Northeast Iowa, to the prairie potholes of Northwest Iowa, to the loess hills of Southwest Iowa.
After two years of the strategic plan, we find leadership stepping up to the plate. Leadership surfaced from both the public and private sectors. Private leadership is apparent to farmers through their membership organizations and occupational publications.
Ideas for financing the NRS are varied and numerous. But too many ideas have been mired in more of a ‘don't look at me' evasiveness than a ‘how can I help' offer. Such a view ignores the fact that countless environmental costs incurred by manufacturing, retail, and transportation are passed along to the consumer, but such an option does not exist for farmers who can't set their own prices.
Fortunately, where there's a will, there's a way. By report, we know that the second year of the NRS and NRS associated projects were funded by at least $105 million. The largest of the contributors are; The USDA/NRCS - $34 million, IDNR - 16 million, IDALS - 18 million, and 36 million from a DNR/IDALS revolving fund. Iowa's state-funded efforts have now leveraged millions in both private and federal funds. A $9.5 million federal grant was released to IDALS and the Iowa based Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership in February. Those funds will be leveraged with $33 million in investments from the private sector. The Middle Cedar Partnership Project will receive $2 million from USDA and $2.3 million from 16 project partners. Iowa's efforts to tackle water quality and flood challenges also received a $97 million boost from a federal Housing and Urban Development grant.
Cost-sharing expensive conservation projects becomes a necessity when production surpluses sink farm income to break-even levels as it has for close to three years now. However, not all farm conservation needs to be cost-shared. By simply cutting back on tillage many farmers can improve their bottom line and reduce nutrient laden erosion. On the other-hand, the NRS expects to dot the landscape with practices such as cellulosic bioreactors, saturated buffers and cover crops which are very expensive and poorly understood.
On my farm, cover crops would cost about $65,000 annually. Also, I'm trying to get engineering expertise in order to install a saturated buffer, but the Iowa NRCS lost their only such expert to a better job in Ohio. Finding public and private funds for the research, outreach, and application of practices that benefit everyone and everything downstream is imperative.
When it comes to securing money for farm conservation, motivated leadership wins hands-down over net-negative lawsuits and bureaucracy building. But once funding is obtained, it will then be up to farmers and landowners to respond favorably or face government controls.
l Curt Zingula is a Linn Co. grain farmer, Director on Iowa's Watershed Improvement Review Board, and past President of Linn Co. Farm Bureau.