scenic view of a river
CLEANING UP WATER: “We need more no-till and cover crops working together to improve water quality,” says no-till farmer Jerry Crew.

Will cost-share funding solve water quality problem?

Not all Iowa farmers see the recent legislation as “a huge step forward.”

After several years of debate, the Iowa Legislature passed legislation in late January to provide more cost-share funding for water quality efforts in Iowa. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 512 into law.

Leaders of the Iowa Corn Growers, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Farm Bureau, other organizations and many farmers in Iowa, including Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, called it a huge step forward for conservation and water quality protection. They admit this new money doesn’t provide enough funding to get the entire job done, “but it’s a start,” Northey says.

Iowa Farm Bureau made securing long-term and dedicated state funding for water quality a top legislative priority in 2018. The organization strongly supported SF 512. The law commits the state to provide $282 million of new money for rural and urban water quality and conservation programs over the next 12 years. The funding will come from an existing tax on metered water and gambling revenues the state collects from casinos.

Not everyone approves
The $282 million spread over 12 years is far short of the estimated $4 billion to $6 billion it will take to pay for all the conservation and water quality protection practices needed to meet the goals set forth in the statewide Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That is, a 45% reduction in nitrate and phosphorus lost from Iowa farm fields and ending up in creeks, rivers and lakes and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. But this new legislation “is a step in the right direction,” Reynolds says. The bill’s supporters heartily agree.

The February cover story of Wallaces Farmer magazine explained what’s in the new legislation, and there was also discussion of the bill on the Opinion page. In response to those articles, here are two Letters to the Editor.

Stick to no-till, cover crops

To the editor: The February Wallaces Farmer in its cover story and on its Opinion page had coverage of the new water quality bill recently signed into law, and included comments from Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey and others.

There was extensive coverage of how the new cost-share funding will help farmers pay for cover crops and other practices, but merely a perfunctory mention of the one absolutely essential, bedrock practice for improving and protecting water quality in our state. And to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). That practice is no-till! Yes, Virginia!

There is one practice alone for solution of Iowa's impaired waters. Almost all impairment is soil sediment caused by erosion, which is caused by tillage! Elimination of tillage would also restrict the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO₂, released in agriculture by more than 50%!

No-tillers are not burning fossil fuels with needless tillage, and are not breaking down soil structure and organic matter by pulling steel through the soil releasing additional CO₂. If, heaven forbid, you are a believer in the pseudo-science that man is the cause of global warming, you should be shouting the wonders of no-till from the rooftops!

I realize “climate change” is the new term, which, I guess, now passes as science, but I wonder how many true scientists would change the name to justify a false theory? It should be noted that no-till alone will not reach the end goals of the NRS, which was established to lessen the hypoxic area in the Gulf of Mexico. The NRS requires a strategy to lessen nitrates in the water, which leach through the soil profile into tile lines. Viola!

Cover crops have an excellent record of reducing nitrates as shown in trials. Iowa officials say the state provided $4.8 million in cost share last year for cover crops and other practices — that’s probably true. But the statement about farmers matching it with $8.7 million of their own money is a blatant lie! Most of the cost-share money was for cover crops, and payment of $25 per acre covers almost the entire cost of establishing and terminating the covers — and farmers pay little or nothing.

Most cost share is 50% for other practices. The amount spent by farmers “of their own money” was a lot less than $4 million, and I would challenge anyone to dispute that figure.

No-till alone? Cover crops alone? Used together, these two practices are all we need to solve the water quality problem and meet the goals of the NRS! Bioreactors, CREP sites, terraces, prairie strips, edge-of-field practices and anything else that involves “moving dirt” will never solve the problem!

Jerry Crew is a longtime no-till farmer in Webb in northwest Iowa.

Hold the fall nitrogen

To the editor: I read with interest your cover article and opinion page editorial in Wallaces Farmer (February). Thanks for explaining what’s in this latest water quality bill (HF 512) recently signed into law by Gov. Reynolds.

I live in Rock Creek watershed in Mitchell County in northeast Iowa. We’ve had a water quality program here in our watershed for the last few years. What I’ve seen is one farmer will use cover crops, no-till and other soil-saving techniques available today, but across the road a neighbor farmer will dig his farm a foot deep with tillage and could care less about soil and water quality issues.

Making available an additional $282 million in state cost-share money over the next 12 years is not the total answer. It may help somewhat, but after the money is used up, then what? Will seeing these cover crop users and demonstrations of edge-of-field practices (conservation buffers, bioreactors, etc.) convince the neighboring farms who are not doing much conservation practices today to do more?

One thing that would help is to ban fall-applied nitrogen. A significant number of farmers apply extra pounds of nitrogen in the fall because they know they’re going to lose some. A large-acreage farmer will say he doesn’t have time to apply N in the spring, that he must do it in the fall. With very few young farmers and the farms getting so big nowadays, the state of Iowa has a problem.

I’m a 68-year-old farmer, farming with my son who has an off-farm job to supplement his farm income. We have no-tilled for 20 years and sidedress our nitrogen in June, which is when the corn needs it.

More of our lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature need to drive down the gravel roads in spring and fall and see what is really happening. We need more cover crops, more no-till, more grass waterways, more terraces, etc., and definitely better management of nitrogen fertilizer.

Bob Hollatz is a no-till farmer at St. Ansgar in northeast Iowa.

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