Growing more food, using fewer resources

Iowa cover crops
Cover crops (like those pictured above) significantly reduce losses of nitrates and phosphorus that could otherwise end up in surface water. Iowa farmers have grown cover crop acres significantly over the past few years.

Smart people from all over the world will gather in central Iowa this week during the World Food Prize celebration to discuss the best ways to feed the world’s growing population, while protecting the environment.

It’s a steep challenge, especially with food needs expected to double by 2050. But it’s fitting that the annual discussion occurs right here in America’s heartland, where farmers are trailblazing new ways to produce more food and fuel, while using fewer resources and reducing their environmental footprint.

The amazing production gains by U.S. farmers have been a key to easing hunger all over the world, Ambassador Ken Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, has emphasized over the years.

Iowa farmers, of which some 97 percent are family-owned, have proven again and again that they can raise their yields, even in the erratic weather conditions we’ve all experienced in the past decade. Importantly, those production gains have not come at the expense of the environment.

Instead farmers are stepping up to take on the challenge of improving the state’s water and reducing soil loss with tools like precision agriculture, biotech seeds, conservation tillage. Those tools allow farmers to target fertilizers and pesticides to keep crops healthy while protecting water and soil.

It’s been an ongoing environmental effort, and that’s not cheap. To improve the environment, farmers are putting a lot of skin in the game, according to a recent scientific poll conducted by Iowa State University. It showed Iowa farmers have invested as much as $2.2 billion in the past 10 years to make those conservation improvements.

Other report cards, like a progress update on Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative, also highlight farmers’ environmental progress.

They show:

  • Iowa farmers planted approximately 472,500 total acres of cover crops in the fall of 2015. That’s an increase of 35 percent compared to 350,000 acres in 2014, and up dramatically from less than 10,000 acres in 2009. Cover crops grow during the late fall and early spring, after the fall harvest of corn and soybeans and before the next spring’s planting. They have shown to significantly reduce losses of nitrates and phosphorus that could otherwise end up in surface water.
  • The implementation of select conservation practices kept more than 3.8 million pounds of nitrogen from entering surface water in Iowa. In addition, nearly 218,000 pounds of phosphorus was kept out of surface water.
  • Buffer strips, grass waterways and wetlands, which protect waterways from soil and nutrients, are also on the rise in Iowa. In fact, Iowa farmers have enrolled more acres that any other state in the federal government’s targeted, continuous Conservation Reserve Program. Farmers’ conservation efforts are starting to show results. Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River of northwest and central Iowa have trended lower in the past 15 years despite a significant increase in corn acres in the watershed during that time.

The bottom line: It’s not easy producing more food and fuel per acre of land while using fewer resources and reducing their environmental footprint. But through innovation, entrepreneurship and plain-old hard work, Iowa farmers have proven they are up to the task. For more information, check out Iowa Farm Bureau’s Conservation Counts Iowa.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau's news services manager.

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