Northey encourages farmers to keep working to improve water quality



Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey told farmers at the March annual meeting of the Northeast Iowa Agricultural Experimental Association to embrace innovative solutions to improve their operations.

“We certainly don’t want to shut the door on innovations that will create a more productive and responsible agriculture for a world that is growing,” Northey said.

Innovation has led to no-till and strip-till and improved nutrient management techniques.

“I grew up plowing,” Northey said. “We’d chop the stalks, disk and then plow, but the last 25 years I’ve been no-tilling and knifing fertilizer into the row. The last couple of years I’ve tried cover crops. There are always new pieces, and we all have opportunities to figure out what we want to try, first on a small piece of ground and then how it might grow.”

Northey said everyone has seen headlines about the Des Moines Water Works water quality lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties and stories blaming farmers for Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.

“It’s blamed on agriculture,” Northey said. “As if nutrients only come from agriculture, and only from fertilizer or manures. It’s a simplistic way of looking at things, but behind all that there are some issues we need to address. We need to figure out how we do a better job of managing our nutrients and getting them into our crops.”

Nutrient reduction strategy

“One part of my farm is going to be different than another part,” Northey said. “I have a quarter section with a peat bottom. I generally don’t have to apply nitrogen on that peat bottom when I’m growing corn because I’ve got eight percent organic matter soils that will break down and feed that corn crop, but it’s very different on the Clarion-Nicollet-Webster soil that needs nitrogen or I’ll have a dead corn crop. We need to be able to decide what works best on our farms. Cover crops are managed differently in southern Iowa than they are on my farm four miles from Minnesota. We need these options.”

Discussions led to the non-regulatory Nutrient Reduction Strategy developed with Iowa State University. Researchers developed a list of practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses such as no-till, strip-till, cover crops, nutrient management, bioreactors and wetlands.

“We need to know what works on sandy soil, a peat bottom, a side hill, in northern Iowa, in southern Iowa,” Northey said. “It’s what you do here at the research farm.”

A 2013 cost-share program helped 1,000 farmers plant 100,000 acres of cover crops. The second year, 500 new farmers put cover crops on 50,000 acres. Farmers are working through the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network and through ISU research.

“I constantly hear that farmers won’t do anything unless they’re forced to do it,” Northey said. “Forcing them is the worst way. If we show them how a practice is beneficial, they’ll engage all day. There are tons of stories we need to tell.”

If farmers are regulated, they’ll check the boxes to stay legal, and the innovation from doing what works best is stymied, Northey said.

“Remember set asides?” Northey said. “That would be a poor model to fix water quality. We need to engage the farmers who are managing Iowa’s 23 million acres of crops and let the innovation and creativity happen. Ten to 15 years from now we’ll be doing things that aren’t even available now.”

The 2012 drought resulted in crops using less nitrogen than what had been applied. With a wet 2013 spring, there was a nitrate problem in the Raccoon River that required the Des Moines Water Works to run its nitrate reduction plant.

Lawsuit against counties

The Des Moines Water Works Board has filed its complaint against the supervisors of Calhoun, Sac and Buena Vista counties as trustees of 10 Iowa drainage districts in those counties. Filed in U.S.District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, the complaint asks the court to order the drainage districts to cease “all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by an NPDES or state operating permit,” according to a blog post by Kristien Tidgren, staff attorney at ISU’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.

Northey said Iowa has 9 million acres of tile drainage and 3,000 drainage districts.

“It’s the same as if they filed against your drainage district because what happens in the lawsuit happens to every one of us,” Northey said. “A lot of parts of my farm I don’t farm if I don’t have a drainage district and tile drainage and a lot of areas here as well.”

Northey said the lawsuit wants the court to require that water discharged into the Raccoon River from the drainage districts not exceed 10 milligrams per liter nitrate, the drinking water standard.

Keep working

His message to farmers is to continue efforts to improve water quality.

“Don’t let this distract you,” Northey said. “Keep doing things on your farm to improve water quality. Hopefully this gets thrown out. But in the 10 years it’s likely to take going through the courts, we can get a heck of a lot done on our farms. We’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture to do the right things. We don’t have to, but we are. Tell your story. Invite people to your farm and show them what you’re doing.”

Cedar Rapids is working with farmers and groups to improve water quality in the Middle Cedar River Basin through a $2 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant, Northey said. Storm Lake and four other Iowa cities as well as cities in other states have received funding for partnerships with farmers as well.

“Cedar Rapids is the top corn processing city in the world and they have said that they want to work with ag,” Northey said.


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