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Soybean group pays price for calling water bill 'timid'

Lawmakers yank $300K from Soybean Association after criticism

A tractor is used to apply 32 percent liquid urea ammonium nitrate by dripping it onto the base of young corn plants in northeast Iowa as part of a nitrate strip trial done by the Iowa Soybean Association in 2018. The trials help farmers determine ways to reduce nitrate while maintaining yield. The technique used in this photo is sidedressing, which is when fertilizer is applied between rows of young plants during spells of rapid growth. (Photo by Anthony Martin)
A tractor is used to apply 32 percent liquid urea ammonium nitrate by dripping it onto the base of young corn plants in northeast Iowa as part of a nitrate strip trial done by the Iowa Soybean Association in 2018. The trials help farmers determine ways to reduce nitrate while maintaining yield. The technique used in this photo is sidedressing, which is when fertilizer is applied between rows of young plants during spells of rapid growth. (Photo by Anthony Martin)
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As far as public criticism, it was mild.

The Iowa Soybean Association issued a statement Jan. 23, 2018, quoting Chief Executive Officer Kirk Leeds saying a water quality funding bill approved by the Iowa Legislature was “timid” and only “nibbling around the edges of what’s truly needed.”

But that was enough to anger Rep. Norlin Mommsen, a DeWitt Republican who grows corn and soybeans near Miles. Mommsen printed the Soybean Association statement and carried it around the Statehouse in January 2018 to show other Republicans.

“My concern about the Soybean Association is after we passed it (Senate File 512), he wrote a piece basically trashing it,” Mommsen told The Gazette earlier this year.

Mommsen told other lawmakers last year that Leeds, who led the Soybean Association for 26 years, should be fired.

“I got an indication that he was rogue from the board of directors,” Mommsen said. “I’m a soybean grower also and if he’s doing something contrary to what the board of directors is, then I have a problem with that.”

Rep. Lee Hein, a Monticello farmer and Republican who led the House Agriculture Committee last year, agreed.

“I question whether they truly listened to the board or if it was staff-driven,” he said of the statement.

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Leeds told The Gazette the Soybean Association board previously had agreed to support House File 612, an alternate water quality funding bill that focused on watersheds and included urban-rural partnerships. Still, Mommsen’s comments at the Statehouse caused Leeds to hold a closed-session meeting with his board, which ultimately backed the leader.

It isn’t the first time the Soybean Association has diverged from the majority of Iowa’s agricultural groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“We tend to be more progressive about research, especially on water quality, and that has caused some disagreements,” Leeds said.

Lawmakers didn’t get Leeds fired, but there were other levers to pull.

The Soybean Association had received $400,000 a year in state funding for the On-Farm Network, a program that helps farmers gather data to better manage nitrate fertilizer application on their cornfields. More precise application means less money spent on fertilizer and less excess nitrate washing into lakes and waterways.

“We leverage those funds from the state to generate matches from other funding organizations,” Research Director Ed Anderson said.

Kirkwood Community College has partnered with the Soybean Association for the last two years to test different nitrate applications to see which get the best yields with the least nitrate.

In March 2018, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired in the House by Mommsen, indicated to the Soybean Association the funding was at risk.

The 2018 budget bill, passed on the last day of the 2018 session, eliminated line-item funding for the On-Farm Network, allowing only a $100,000 one-year payment as a concession.

Mommsen and Hein said they were leveling the playing field among commodity groups.

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“The rest of the commodity groups were doing good things without our support,” Hein said. “It’s our job as legislators to set the budget and prioritize the needs of Iowans. There was a higher need someplace else to spend the money.”

But Mommsen said Leeds’ critique of the water quality bill factored into his decision.

“I’m sure their opinion of the water quality bill played a part,” he said.

Leeds said he’s been working this year with lawmakers, including Mommsen, to find other funding sources for the On-Farm Network, which has been forced to reduce nitrate strip trials because of the state budget cut. “No one else is doing research like this,” Leeds said. “We have to find funding that allows us to look at the system.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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