By Matt Helmers
Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you looked at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, and it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy until they hear the “sticker price,” or the scale of practice implementation and cost.
For example, one scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (approximately 12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.
Using the assumptions from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy for wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in about 7,600 wetlands for the scenario noted above. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone. See what I mean — quite a sticker price!
Need to increase use of these practices
While the scenario above relies heavily on cover crops, bioreactors and wetlands, there are other practices and land-use systems that could result in cleaner water.
We need to continue to increase implementation of no-till to help reduce surface water runoff and consider ways we can have more diversified cropping systems, whether that is through diversified crop rotations, pasture systems or dedicated perennial energy crops. We have many options, but any of these options require substantial implementation of different systems or practices than are currently being used.
So, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction, such as the economic benefits of cleaner water, as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.
BIG JOB AHEAD: To achieve Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, enormous gains are needed in the use of farming and conservation practices to reduce nitrate loading. Iowa needs to reach the required level of use for every practice, not just one.
Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed or how the system needs to change to successfully scale up the practices.
Investment in people, training
For large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors.
Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.
I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners. It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.
Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.