Many Iowa farm fields are turning green earlier than normal this spring as a rapidly growing number of farmers are using cover crops to help better protect the soil and water they depend on to make their living. Farmers are always looking for new and better ways to raise crops and livestock, and cover crops is a promising tool starting to catch on as way to prevent erosion, improve soil health and limit nutrient loss.
The Iowa nutrient reduction strategy was finalized last spring and thanks to the strong support from Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Legislature, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship received $22.4 million in funding to support water quality and conservation work across the state.
The Department has worked with farmers for decades to help them install practices designed to prevent erosion and keep our precious soils in place. These additional funds have helped jumpstart our efforts focused on water quality. We have had a dual focus of encouraging broad adoption through statewide cost share assistance as well as more intensive work in targeted watersheds.
We have been extremely pleased by the enthusiastic response from Iowa farmers who are interested in learning more about these practices and starting to use them on their farm.
Last fall, in just two weeks, over 1,000 farmers signed up for cost share funding to help implement new nutrient reduction practices on their farm. $2.8 million was available to help farmers try a water quality practice for the first time with Iowa farmers providing at least another $2.8 million.
Also, eight watershed demonstration projects were selected and are starting to work within the large priority watersheds identified by the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council. These projects will receive $4.1 million in funding through the Iowa water quality initiative over the next three years. In addition to the state funds, the eight projects will provide over $8 million in matching funds to support water quality improvement efforts.
We have received 8 applications for the next round of funding for watershed demonstration projects and will announce the recipients this spring so they will be able to work with farmers yet this growing season.
This winter and spring hundreds of farmers attended dozens of information sessions to discuss cover crops and other practices that help protect water quality. During the Iowa Power Farming Show in January, 44 workshops focused on cover crops were attended by more than 1,000 farmers. Nearly half of those farmers had never used cover crops before but were investing their time to learn more.
This important work is making a difference. The Cedar Rapids Gazette last month reported "Recent analyses show declining trend lines for nitrates in both the Raccoon and Iowa rivers, and a third analysis shows declines in both nitrates and phosphorus in the Upper Iowa River." You can read more at thegazette.com/2014/03/09/nutrient-levels-falling-in-some-iowa-rivers-2/#ixzz2yPJJhDoV.
We still have a long way to go and a lot of work is still to be done. But we are on the right path. Iowa is a national leader in agriculture and is also leading the way in using voluntary, science-based practices to improve water quality.
Bill Northey, a fourth generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake, is serving his second term as Secretary of Agriculture.