The Governor, Secretary of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources director, and mayor of Cedar Rapids walk into a room…

It’s no joke. As 15 Illinois farmers learned last week, Iowa is pursuing water quality solutions in ways that may seem laughable in other places.

In a matter of 48 hours, they heard Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, Director of DNR Chuck Gipp, State Conservationist Kurt Simon, Iowa State University and Iowa Nutrient Reduction and Education Council (INREC) researchers, the CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a representative of the Iowa League of Cities, and the mayor, city manager, and utilities director of Cedar Rapids all speak with the same voice – supporting a water quality improvement strategy that leverages collaboration by Iowa’s rural and urban stakeholders.

Even Governor Branstad dropped by an Iowa Cubs game to speak with the group about Iowa’s water quality strategy.

Armed with the united support of rural and urban leaders and proven, research-based practices in Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative, Iowa farmers have charged out of the gate, growing their adoption of existing conservation practices and implementing newer practices, like bioreactors and saturated buffers. They are acting with a sense of urgency that clearly impressed their border neighbors.

“We saw a lot of Iowa farmers who are true advocates of water quality, and we need to carry that spirit back to Illinois,” said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert. “The passion that your farmers have when they talk about what they are doing, that’s impressive. And what they are doing is impressive, especially when you can see the results first-hand out in the field.”

While Illinois farmers are embracing a host of innovative conservation solutions of their own, from growing cover crop adoption to using no till and strip till, they don’t have the same rapport with urban and state leadership that Iowa’s farmers enjoy.

“I was really amazed at the collaboration here, especially with the farmers and the government agencies,” said southern Illinois farmer Dean Campbell.

“In Illinois there are lots of state agencies with different agendas, as opposed to Iowa where you have a very collaborative culture,” said north eastern Illinois farmer Jeff O’Conner.

Iowa’s team approach has allowed the state to assume the lead in taking on the challenge of improving water quality. On more than one occasion, I heard Illinois farmers and staff joke that they often “copy what Iowa’s doing” when it comes to addressing water quality.

“We are about two years behind Iowa with our own [water quality] strategy,” said Illinois Farm Bureau’s director of natural and environmental resources, Lauren Lurkins. “Our document takes a lot of ideas from Iowa.”

Iowa has also borrowed from Illinois. In fact, Iowa’s Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC) was modeled after Illinois' NREC foundation. INREC is uniquely focused on measuring and demonstrating environmental progress, fostering innovation and development of new water quality protection technologies, and enhancing crop advisors’ and ag retailers’ roles as “change agents" working with Iowa farmers to achieve environmental goals. 

From what I could see, Illinois’ farmers have passion, expertise, and forward thinking in spades. What’s lacking, it appears, is a collaborative effort - people willing to team up with farmers to advance organized water quality initiatives on a larger scale. We know from Iowa's experience that we all have a role to play in cleaning up our water.

And while Iowa clearly has outliers who aren’t committed to working with farmers on this issue, Iowans should really take pride in the example their rural and urban leaders are setting for neighboring states and the rest of the nation. When we all work together, we can make big strides.

“People here are not running away from the problem, but facing up to it and seeing what they can do,” said central Illinois farmer Stephan Anderson. “I think that is pretty rare these days.”

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

Title Photo: Iowa farmer Al Schafbuch, right, explains his saturated buffer to Illinois farmers Jeff O'Conner (left) and Cliff Schuette (center).