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Washington farmers are 'ahead of the pack' in keeping water clean

According to the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau Chief, Jon Tack, Iowa’s Key issue with water quality is excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the state’s surface water.

Corn — by-and-large — is a rain-fed crop in Iowa, so water quality in lakes and streams isn’t a direct issue for corn growers’ crops as nitrogen and phosphorus are desirerable to them. What there high nitrogen/phosphorus level do inciate, however, is that corn farmers are seeing valuable nutrients leaking out of their soil.

“It is a factor in how the farmers manage their crop,” said Ben Gleason, the Sustainable Program Manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “They want to keep as much for the crop as possible, so they do have to try new practices that pay more attention to water quality.”

This is becoming more of a concern as many parts of Iowa have seen increased rainfall over the past year. High precipitation can lead to more nitrogen loss, meaning worse water quality and a poorer yield for corn farmers.

To help combat this, Iowa Corn is encouraging farmers to implement more environmentally friendly methods of crop tending such as cover crops and no-till — a method of farming focused on preserving topsoil. But even if the number of farmers use these methods they might not see immediate results.

Over the past five years, Iowa has implemented a Nurtient Reduction Strategy developed by Iowa State University meant to evaluate practices that would reduce nitrogen-phospherous loss by 45 percent.

However, in June of 2018, the Des Moines Register reported nitrogen pollution feeding into the Gulf of Mexico from Iowa is up nearly 50 percent from 2003. Though, Gleason points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean efforts from farmers isn’t having a positive effect.

“Short term, we’re not going to see crazy improvements in terms of nitrogen in the water, “ Gleason said. “It does take time to adopt and see it change the natural system.”

There isn’t just one solution. Land, economic means and weather condition impact what method works best for corn producers trying to prevent nutrience loss.

Infield practices (focused on the placement of fertilizer), land-use practices (which reduce nutrient loss by retiring land) and edge-of-field practices (implementing bioreactors and wetlands) will have different levels of viability depending on place and person.

“We have pretty good science outlining the practices,” Gleason said. “But we don’t have a silver bullet, that’s for sure.”

Washington farmer Mitchell Hora has championed implementation of techniques to help reduce runoff. His Washington-based consulting company, Continuum Ag, focuses on improving soil quality for farmers. Because of this, he’s familiar with the negative effects nurtient loss has on both crops and water.

“It’s a big factor that corn growers have to be cautious of so we don’t cause issues,” Hora said. “We need to do our part to do better. We’re doing a good job, but we need to do better.”

According to Hora, generations of conservation culture has led area corn farmers to implement no-till cover crops as far back as the ‘80s, before they become as common in the U.S.

“It’s understanding what’s in your soil,” Hora said. “Understand how your soil functions. That way you can apply the nutrients that your soil is actually going to be able to use. It makes economic sense to be efficient with nutrients. We have the best soil in the world, we don’t want it to wash away, but we also want to make sure we have the nutrients to produce high yielding crops. It’s a balancing act.”

Efforts for conservation, Hora feels, extends beyond just the farmers though. By researching, reaching out and utilizing local farmers who are implementing these practices or giving their livestock feed made from corn that used cover crops, Hora believes consumers can encourage better practices as well.

While he advocates strongly for improving water quality, he doesn’t believe it should come at any costs.

“There are some groups that say ‘we have a water quality issue so we’re going to stamp on regulation,’” Hora said, a conclusion he disagrees with. “The best approach is to go and work with those individuals and help them to understand what’s going on. Each farm is going to be totally different. No-till is not going to work on every farm. Cover crops is not going to work on every farm.”

But he does feel Washington area has an edge given their years of exposure to so much running water making them more conscious of — and increasing the need for — farming which helps minimizes run off.

“Washington County does a good job,” Hora said. “We’re definitely ahead of the pack. Well ahead of the rest of Iowa and well ahead of the rest of the mid-west, but that means we have to continue to be a leader. We have to show others how to improve and encourage others to take good care of the water.”