In recent years, I have become acutely aware of the role agriculture plays in the nutrient overload of Iowa's waterways.
Throughout my 35 years as an Iowa grain farmer, I wondered about the source of nitrates that affect the Gulf of Mexico so adversely. I thought I was doing everything "right" on my land.
After participating in an Iowa Soybean Association water sampling program, I started tracking nitrate levels from my own farm and nitrate levels upstream and downstream in the Boone River. In May of 2013, nitrate levels in the Boone River at Webster City peaked at nearly three times the EPA level for safe drinking water. From April 1 through July 3, 2013, more than 157,000 tons of nitrogen entered nine of Iowa's watersheds, according to USGS nitrate data. These nine watersheds represent about half of the land in Iowa. I have to agree there is strong reason for alarm. However, sounding the siren does little good without offering farms viable options to help clean Iowa's waterways.
The economy of Iowa is built upon the health of its soil. We need to ensure that farmers and landowners have the resources and tools necessary to continue to maintain and enhance their soil quality. Fully funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund will provide dedicated, reliable funding to assist all farmers and landowners with implementing solutions on their land (not just those that are located within a priority watershed project). Through a Mississippi River Basin Initiative program offered to growers in the Boone River Watershed, I have implemented several of the practices that are outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Through strip tillage, nutrient management, overwintering cover crops and a wood chip bioreactor, I've seen firsthand that the goal of reducing nitrates by 45 percent in Iowa's waterways is attainable with widespread farmer participation.
I have been to numerous farmer meetings that deal with these various practices and many times I hear farmers state, "I'd like to try some of these things but I farm outside of a certain watershed and there aren't incentives for me to try out these practices." That is why fully funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund is so important for continuing to build the momentum that is in rural Iowa right now. The promotion of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is strong. The incentives offered to farmers last August by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to try cover crops were spoken for in a matter of weeks. The use of cover crops in 2013 more than doubled in acres seeded from that of 2012.
There are many who don't think farmers and the agricultural industry will voluntarily implement the practices we need to reach a 45 percent reduction of nutrients in our waterways. I think with the funding of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that goal can become a reality.
Tim Smith is a farmer partner in Wright County with Iowa Learning Farms, an Iowa State University Extension-based initiative that calls attention to the importance of improved water and soil quality through conservation farming practices.