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5 trends to watch this Earth Day

5 trends to watch this Earth Day
Isn’t it embarrassing to learn that your facts are outdated?

I grew up the oldest of five kids, so I thought I was pretty well versed on child care basics when my wife and I had our first kid last year. Turns out, a few things have changed over the years, like cribs and the number of years your child must ride in a car/booster seat.

If you’re stuck with the same perception of Iowa’s efforts to improve water quality (and farmers’ role in those efforts) that you’ve had for years, then you’re falling behind.

Earth Day is the perfect time to get caught up!

1. Cover crops are exploding!
The State of Iowa completed a first-of-its-kind science and technology-based plan to conserve the state’s soil and protect water quality (Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy) in 2013. The plan identified proven practices to help farmers reduce erosion and protect water quality – such as planting cover crops.

In 2013, Iowa farmers planted at least 230,000 acres of cover crops! That’s a conservative estimate, and it’s more than 3.5 times the number of acres planted to cover crops in 2012!

2. Iowans are leading.
Iowa has been a national leader in various conservation practices for years (for example, Iowa’s farmers lead the nation in acres devoted to grassy buffer strips that prevent erosion), but Iowans have recently taken their efforts to a new level.

When Iowa released its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers jumped onboard right away, working to implement new practices to protect water quality.

The rest of the country is taking notice. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Karl Brooks, Iowa is leading the charge to protect water quality in the Mississippi River Basin.

3. Wildlife habitat is improving.
“If you look at the best management practices for farmers in the Nutrient [Reduction] Strategy, it’s perennials, it’s cover crops, it’s wetlands – all of them will provide improved habitat,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Chuck Gipp.

Northeast Iowans are already seeing a difference, resulting from years of conservation efforts. Today, 36 spring-fed streams in northeast Iowa are healthy enough to consistently support trout reproduction, and another 30 streams support intermittent reproduction. Compare that to the 1980s, when only six Iowa streams supported trout reproduction.

“It was a gradual process, but when a watershed cooperator said he saw eagles fishing the stream again, I knew it was working,” said Jeff Pape, a farmer who has helped lead conservation efforts in northeast Iowa’s Hewitt Creek Watershed.

4. Technology is revolutionizing conservation.
You may still apply a consistent rate of fertilizer to your entire lawn every spring, but technology has farmers moving in a different direction to protect our water.

Today, many farmers use GPS technology to separate their fields into zones and test those zones for soil fertility. That data is fed into a digital map that tells a farmer’s equipment to automatically apply more or less fertilizer as he or she drives through the field – allowing the farmer to only apply the amount of fertilizer that will be used by crops.

Some farmers are taking it a step further, by varying their number of fertilizer applications and the timing of those applications, maximizing the amount of fertilizer that is used by crops and minimizing runoff.

5. Rural and urban are teaming up.
This is probably the most encouraging trend on the list. It’s easier to make progress when we’re working together – Iowa’s farmers and their city neighbors have taken that sentiment to heart.

I think of Matt Schuiteman, a farmer from northwest Iowa who partnered with Dordt College researchers to test different conservation practices on his farm to improve the nearby city’s drinking water.

Or a group of farmers in Sac County who are working together with the city of Griswold to address local water quality challenges.

It’s a movement that will help drive meaningful progress for years to come.

By Zach Bader. Zach is the Online Community Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.