Guest Columnist

Public health heroes on the farm

Cover crops grow in a field on Dick Sloan's farm in Rowley. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cover crops grow in a field on Dick Sloan's farm in Rowley. Photographed on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

This summer, in partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa, I had the privilege of helping plan and participate in five on-farm field days across Iowa. These field days highlighted the innovations of a non-traditional group of public health practitioners: farmers.

This will surprise no one — Iowa is struggling with some serious environmental health issues, most water-related. From nitrates to microcystin toxins from harmful algal blooms, from pesticides to soil erosion, Iowa’s simple corn-bean rotation is inherently leaky, resulting in a cascade of issues that not only impact people but also the planet.

Agricultural chemicals are used nearly ubiquitously in the state; just about 50 million pounds of herbicides are applied in Iowa annually. What might this mean for private well owners not protected by the Clean Water Act? For communities with drinking water sources choked by algae blooms fueled by nutrient runoff? Are there cropping systems that are not as leaky?

The field days demonstrated nearly all the problems listed above are preventable. They highlighted farmers working with the land to reduce their chemical footprint, giving farmers a platform to demonstrate to their peers:

• How extending crop rotations, increasing diversification, and employing cover crops suppresses weeds, eliminates pesticides, and improves soil quality.

• The use of flame-, electric- and mechanical-weeding as alternatives to chemical weed management.

• What different organic crop production systems look like.

Long-term studies at Iowa State University have shown many of these practices translate to:

• Higher yields.

• 88 percent reduction in herbicide use.

• 80 percent reduction in synthetic fertilizer use.

• 50 percent less fossil fuel use.

• Significant reduction in soybean diseases.

• Better soil health and retention, which means less erosion and more resilience to droughts and floods.

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• Much reduced nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in our waters, diminishing the risk of cancers and threats of harmful toxins produced by blue-green algae.

Every one of these outcomes make Iowa a healthier, better state. Investment in the solutions that deliver these outcomes is investment in a healthier Iowa.

The farmers involved in these practices are public health heroes. They are putting science into action, employing evidence-based practices on their farms to improve the health of their land and their communities. Public health practitioners, health care providers, water utilities, and Iowans should acknowledge and support these innovative farmers and their work. They’re truly farming for public health and the public good.

Robust, effective, and practical agricultural solutions to Iowa’s environmental problems are at hand. State leaders, as well as federal farm policy makers, can learn from these innovative farmers and enact policies that invest in and make the widespread adoption of these practices easy and convenient for all farms. Thriving diverse farms translate directly to economic vitality of rural communities and rural health.

Audrey E. Tran Lam, MPH, is environmental health program manager at UNI’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education. She manages the statewide Farming for Public Health initiative. Comments: audrey.tranlam@uni.edu

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