116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / Opinion / Staff Columnists
Norwood wants to transform agriculture
Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture John Norwood has a lot of plans for transforming Iowa agriculture. A lot. You’ll need to set aside a chunk of time to hear them all. A flowchart might come in handy.
But near the end of our roughly hourlong talk this past week, he summed up what needs to change succinctly.
“In Iowa if you can’t grow it on a million acres, it’s not worth our time,” Norwood said. “We have that mindset, a commodity mindset.”
Norwood is challenging incumbent Republican Agriculture Sec. Mike Naig.
Intensive row crop production of corn and beans is efficient and productive, Norwood said. But it’s also causing problems. More land in fewer hands has contributed to rural population loss and dying small towns. It’s led to massive soil erosion, poor soil health and, of course, dirty water. Scores of private wells are polluted. Outdoor recreation has been hampered.
Norwood, a Soil and Water commissioner in Polk County, has seen one of the state’s worst water quality sagas, as toxins from algae blooms fed by cropland runoff have complicated delivering clean drinking water to the state’s largest city and surrounding communities.
“In Des Moines, as you know, Saylorville Lake is a hypoxic zone. During some of the summer months, the water heats up the algae start blooming,” Norwood said. “The nutrients are the food. And when the toxins are produced, if you're walking around the lake with your dog, the dog drinks the water and the dog may die.
“And in Des Moines the waterworks starts detecting the algae toxins and downstream, the Des Moines River being one of the two water intakes for surface water, and they have to turn it off because they don't have the treatment technology to take that out,” Norwood said.
“Some 750 impairments in over half of our state waters. I don’t know if we characterize that as a crisis, but it sounds like it’s pretty darn close to a crisis,” Norwood said.
Iowa, Norwood argues, needs to embrace a more diverse selection of crops, such as adding a third or fourth crop to the traditional corn and beans rotation, to improve soil health and water quality.
“We can't just grow corn and beans from a resiliency standpoint, because that doesn't build healthy soils and healthy soils are critical to managing water quality. And healthy Soils are critical to delivering healthy crops. They have higher nutrient density,” Norwood said.
Norwood met with a farmer near Osage who has adopted regenerative farming practices to build more organic matter in his fields. He estimates for every 1 percent increase in organic matter in the soil, his ground can hold an extra 27,000 gallons of water per acre.
On 10 million acres of land, Norwod said that means holding back the water equivalent of 1.3 Saylorville Lakes at flood stage. “That’s a lot of water,” Norwood said.
Diversifying crops means using resources that now mostly promote markets for corn and beans to creating markets for other crops, including food crops. He champions the idea of creating “farm parks,” sort of like industrial parks, that could serve as incubators for crop diversity that would give new farmers access to land that they normally can’t afford.
“We're so busy, we tell ourselves, feeding the world we can't even feed ourselves in this state. And I see that's where part of the economic development opportunity is aligning our farms, what we can grow and produce here in Iowa, that's high quality that's fresh, that's local, that's nutrient dense, and figuring out those markets,” Norwood said.
Norwood estimates that about 2.5 million of Iowa’s 23 million acres of cropland sits in frequently flooded areas and on highly erodible land. Federal crop insurance, he contends, should not cover those areas. The dollars saved could be spent on creating wetlands or finding other environmentally friendly uses for the land.
“I'm not forcing anyone to do that, what I'm saying is we take away the incentive. We take away, or we redirect the public support to that in those areas,” Norwood said. “So, you know, if you want to continue to farm that ground and lose the crop every two or three years out of five, you know, you can, you can make that choice. But we're not bailing you out with crop insurance anymore.”
Norwood wants to modernize what he calls “ag plumbing.” Drainage districts, which now concentrate mainly on the installation of tile lines to drain cropland, would become “Water Management Districts” and expand their focus.
“That includes water filtration and aquifer recharge and flood mitigation in the wetlands. We’ve got to be thinking about pollinator habitat, too,” Norwood said.
Norwood said his efforts would be voluntary, arguing that teams of farmers, landowners and others are needed to cooperate, create changes and build markets. The real pressure to make these changes will come from what Norwood calls “megatrends.”
There’s electrification, including the growing use of electric vehicles, that creates an uncertain future for ethanol demand. More than half of Iowa’s corn crop is used to make ethanol.
Another trend is the changing eating habits of younger Americans, who eat less meat and more plant-based meat substitutes.
And there is a changing climate, which is already affecting Iowa farmers and will have a major impact on Iowa’s agriculture industry in the future.
“I was in Boone County, about three weeks ago meeting with a farmer. Doug, I'll use his first name, large operator 5,000 acres,” Norwood said. “The first thing he said to me when we sat down for our conversation with his wife and her two boys who help operate the farm was ‘John, in the years I've been farming, it's 30 percent, wetter and two degrees warmer.’ He's 78 years old. So that came out of his mouth. That wasn't me telling him about climate change.”
Smartphone cameras put Kodak out of business, Norwood said. Streaming did in Blockbuster. Will Iowa agriculture make the changes needed to survive these trends?
“Do we want a system that we're going to run into the ground 50 years from now or 100 years from now or do we want a system built to last? And do we have a moral imperative of this generation to leave these assets in as good a shape if not better for future generations? I would argue we do. And some of that's just waking people up to what's happening,” Norwood said.
(319) 398-8262; email@example.com
Opinion content represents the viewpoint of the author or The Gazette editorial board. You can join the conversation by submitting a letter to the editor or guest column or by suggesting a topic for an editorial to firstname.lastname@example.org