Managing the federal government’s conservation programs has made Iowa’s progress and water quality efforts through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) look even better to Bill Northey.

As Iowa’s secretary of agriculture from 2007 through 2018, Northey was one of the Iowa water quality strategy’s chief architects. Now, as U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for farm production and conservation, he has a better perspective on conservation and water quality programs around the country. And he likes what he sees.

“Since I’ve been at USDA, I’ve got a great appreciation for the work that you all are continuing to do,” Northey said following an outdoor session with farmers in eastern Iowa to discuss derecho damage and other issues. “You’ve made huge progress.”

That water quality progress, Northey emphasized, was made by farmers who stepped up to take on the challenge of improving Iowa’s water quality by planting more cover crops, building wetlands and adopting other conservation practices, typically investing a lot of their own money. “None of this was mandated by the government.”

Continuing that momentum is critical for the future of farmer-led water quality programs, Northey said. If not, critics of farmer-led plans will have more ammo to push for strict mandates telling farmers exactly what should be done, he said. 

“If we don’t do it, somebody is going to tell us how to do it,” Northey said. “And they are not going to be as smart as a farmer on the land who knows what needs to be done.”