As spring begins and southwest Iowa’s weath­er warms, something new is showing up in the fields east of the small community of Griswold. Bright green shoots of cereal rye, oats and other cover crops, planted by farmers last fall, are starting to grow in the corn and soybean stubble near the town’s municipal water wells.

Farmers and city leaders in the Cass County community hope that those cover crops, along with other conservation practices, can turn into a win-win for everyone involved.

Griswold leaders believe that the cover crops, which studies have shown can scavenge nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil, will help moderate levels of nitrate in water drawn from the town’s three wells. That, they say, can help reduce the need for the community of about 1,000 to invest in potentially expensive mitigation plans to reduce nitrate levels in the city’s water.

Keeping land in crops
Griswold’s plan is also de­­signed to keep the land around the wells in row crop production, where it can produce crops that add economic value to the community. Otherwise, farmers and city officials said, the land would likely have to be idled in the federal government’s Conservation Reserve program (CRP).

“We are very pleased with the excellent cooperation we are getting from the farmers in our community,” said Drue Kirchhoff, who chairs Griswold’s water quality committee. 

Area farmers agreed. “It’s something that can help everyone,” said Kenny Cousins, a Cass County Farm Bureau member who farms land near the city’s water wells. “We all want to help our community, but it’s also important to keep the farmland in production.”

Area farmer Max Potter, also a Cass County Farm Bureau member, added: “It’s really important for all of us because we get our water from the same aquifer.”

More cooperation
The cooperation in Griswold is another example of Iowa farmers stepping up to work with their communities to solve water quality or other environmental issues through Iowa’s ambitious water quality improvement program, state agriculture and environmental officials said. This cooperation is being encouraged by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was launched last year to improve water quality by reducing nutrient loss from farm fields, as well as from municipal waste water treatment plants, industry and other point sources, they said.

“I think it’s a huge change. We’ve gone beyond the finger-pointing match that we used to have,” said Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “If you are going to solve this thing, you’ve got to be part of the big picture and find ways to work together to address issues.”
Farmers stepped up

For Griswold, the cover crop plan was hatched in meetings between city officials and farmers and landowners with property in the 660 acres east of town considered the capture zone for the municipal wells. “We all got together to work out this plan. We think that cover crops are a good option for all of us, and our farmers have stepped up to help,” said Kirchhoff, who operates a field tiling business.

Last fall, farmers planted cover crops on about 160 acres of the 660-acre capture zone around the wells. The Cass County farmers were able to access some cost-share money from the state for planting cover crops and also invested their own funds.

Farmers hired aerial applicators to drop cereal rye, oats, turnips and other cover crop seed into standing corn and soybean fields on most of the acres. Others were seeded after crops were harvested.

Griswold officials and farmers hope to expand cover crop acres in the coming years to cover more of the well’s capture zone. “We wanted to start out gradually so we could see how the cover crops would perform for the farmers,” Kirchhoff said.

For most of the farmers in the area, cover crops are a brand new practice, and they are learning as they go, said Brent Bierbaum, who farms land near the municipal wells and is the voting delegate for the Cass County Farm Bureau. “We are all brand new at this, but we know it’s important to give them a try to see if we can help the city.”

Beyond nitrate reduction, farmers hope to see other gains from planting cover crops. “I think we’ll see more organic matter in the soils, which will help us out in the long run,” Bierbaum said.

In addition to cover crops, farmers in Griswold’s capture zone are using other conservation practices, such as spring-only nitrogen applications, to help mitigate the city’s water issues.

All of those efforts are appreciated by Griswold’s city leaders.

“We are lucky to have the high-quality farmers that we have around here who want to take care of their land and are willing to go the extra mile and work with their community,” Kirchhoff said. “They want to leave their land and community better for the next generation.”