News reports this year are full of the record Iowa corn crop being harvested – but behind that bounty is a less-told story of environmental progress. As Iowa's farmers produce more corn to feed a growing world population, they are also improving Iowa's environment on a wide variety of fronts.
* Land management. The most striking example is land use. Iowa's farmers planted an average of 13.9 million acres of corn in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but plantings in the past decade have averaged 12.3 million acres – at the same time production has climbed over 30% from an average of 1.6 billion bushels to 2.1 billion bushels per year.
"With the yields that we achieve now, we can produce record crops without planting fencerow-to-fencerow, the way we did 30 years ago," says Nick Leibold, a grower from New Hampton and director on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. "We can put in the swales and buffer strips that control soil erosion and limit nutrient run-off, and we can leave the more fragile lands untilled."
Today, Iowa leads the nation in conservation buffer strips and is the No. 2 state in wetland restoration, but the drive for better land management continues. As an example, Iowa's corn growers fund research like the Coldwater/Palmer and Lime Creek watershed projects, which are already showing positive results for new approaches to manage erosion and water quality.
* Chemical application. Iowa's growers have also cut back on chemical applications. Programs like Integrated Pest Management and new technologies like insect-resistant corn have meant less use of insecticides. For each pound used on corn in 1978, Iowa's farmers now apply a little over 3 ounces.
The trend line for herbicide use on Iowa's corn acres is also down about 30%, and farmers' purchases of two major fertilizers, potash and phosphate, have declined. Nationwide, USDA statistics show corn growers now use less nitrogen to produce 50% more corn than in 1980.
* Conservation practices. Conservation tillage, which reduces how often fields are plowed with heavy equipment, was a relatively rare practice in the 1970s. Now it is widely adopted, and farmers say it has multiple benefits. By working more crop residue back into the soil, it improves the soil's ability to hold moisture and nutrients. Conservation tillage has reduced runoff from rainfall by 60%.
At the same time, disturbing the soil less means reduced erosion – as much as 90% less according to some research – and fewer trips with heavy equipment cut down on fuel use. "Growers are practical environmentalists," says Leibold. "When you work on the land, you can't help thinking about each decision you make and what it will mean for the future of your farm and your family."
For more information on how Iowa supplies corn for food and fuel, call Iowa Corn at 515-225-9242 or go to www.iowacorn.org.
Each year, ICPB and ICGA encourage all Iowans to recognize the contributions of Iowa's corn producers by celebrating September as Corn Month. ICPB works to develop and defend markets, fund research and provide education about corn and corn products. ICGA is a membership organization, lobbying on agricultural issues on behalf of its 6,000 members.