DES MOINES — Less than 10 percent of the 800-plus people who registered for the Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Des Moines attended a panel discussion Wednesday about water quality.
The 50-or-so farmers in the room were passionate about conservation, asking experts how Iowa can hasten adoption of practices, such as no-till farming and cover crop growth, shown to reduce erosion and stem the flow of fertilizer and manure into waterways.
“My problem is, I don’t hear any urgency,” said Al Schafbuch, a Benton County farmer and Farm Bureau member. “It says here we’ve got 6.8 percent of farmers planting cover crops. We can’t wait 100 years. We need to have some enthusiasm to get farmers who aren’t doing this to get on board.”
Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, in place since 2013, has relied exclusively on voluntary practices. The state needs conservation converts — like the pocket of Farm Bureau members who attended the session — to spread the word that conservation can be done without losing profitability, panelists said.
“It’s important for people like yourselves, people in this room, to speak up,” said Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and an Iowa State University professor of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering.
Helmers said he sees a silver lining in Iowa’s late harvest, which has prevented many farmers from fall tilling.
“Can we use the challenging fall to our benefit to try something new in the spring?” Helmers asked. “Maybe you didn’t get those cornstalks tilled. That’s a great opp to try no-till beans next year.”
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Matt Bormann, of Algona, expressed frustration neighbors still ask him, after many years of no-till, whether reducing tillage prevents erosion without yield loss.
“There’s a sociological problem with acceptance,” he said. “This stuff works. For those guys who have a lawn, why don’t you just till the hell out of your lawn and see what happens?”
The 2013 strategy set the goal of slashing by 45 percent nitrate and phosphorus flowing into waterways. Modeling estimates show Iowa reduced phosphorus loads in rivers and streams by 18.5 percent from 1980-1996 to 2006-2010 data, a 2017-2018 strategy update shows.
Nitrate loads, however, increased 5.3 percent between those two periods, the same modeling data show. New research from the University of Iowa shows Iowa’s stream nitrate loads doubled from 2003 to 2019.
Those numbers indicate Iowa needs to focus on nitrate leeching from farm fields into waterways, said Matt Lechtenberg, the Water Quality Initiative coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
“We’re putting our investments into practices like bioreactors and saturated buffers,” he said, referring to structures that filter field runoff. Water quality legislation enacted in 2017 provides $270 million over the next decade for projects that filter nutrients and reduce erosion.
Helmers was noncommittal about a resolution the Conservation Districts of Iowa passed earlier this year that would require Iowa farmers to leave a 30-foot buffer between traditional row crops and streams and rivers.
“From the university perspective, I don’t advocate for specific policies,” he said. That proposal, being considered Thursday by the State Soil Conservation and Water Quality Committee, would have benefits of reducing erosion and supporting wildlife, but might not reduce nitrate running underneath in drainage tiles, Helmers said.
“For that buffer to remove that nitrate, it has to see that nitrate,” he said.
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