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Innovative conservation practices improve Iowa soil, water

Critics who claim voluntary, farmer-led efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff won’t work need to see what’s actually happening on farms around the state, Iowa Secretary of Agri­culture Bill Northey said last week at the Iowa Farm Bureau annual meeting.

"There are those who say farmers won’t do anything unless you force them," Northey said. "There’s tons of folks who will do something if you give them the tools. Our parents and grandparents would be amazed by some of the things we’re doing. It’s flat-out amazing the innovations that are going on out there."

One shining example is the Hewitt Creek watershed project in northeast Iowa, Dyersville farmer Jeff Pape said at a breakout session on Innovations in Conservation. In the eight years since the project was conceived, nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the creek have decreased, and soil health indexes are improving.

But perhaps most telling, Pape said, is that area residents are seeing wildlife return to the once-impaired creek, which runs through the Field of Dreams movie site that still draws thousands of tourists annually.

"The eagles are back fishing. People are pulling off to the side of the road to fish. You haven’t seen that," he said. "We have fish back in the stream, which tells me we have a little better water."

Farmer-to-farmer

Farmer participation in Hewitt Creek watershed projects contin­ues to climb annually, Pape added. The project started with 33 cooperators in 2005. Participation has grown to 59 cooperators this year, accounting for nearly 75 percent of farmers in the 23,000-acre watershed. Cooperators receive reports on how their soil- and water-monitoring results compare to other farms in the watershed, encouraging them to continue striving for improvement.

"I think the farmer-to-farmer part of this has been important. A lot of knowledge is passed back and forth over the fence row," Pape said. "When we first started this project, some people said there was nothing in it for them. Now they’re participating in it. They’ve learned there’s stuff there for everybody."

A watershed council formed in 2005 developed a range of cost-share incentives to encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices like grass waterways, cover crops, manure calibration, grid sampling, feedlot runoff control structures and nutrient management demonstrations, Pape explained. The Iowa Farm Bureau provided initial funding of $90,000, and project stakeholders sought other funding sources to keep projects going over the years.

"The incentives aren’t something to pay the whole project. It’s an incentive to try something you haven’t done before," said Pape.

The success of the efforts has spread to farmers outside of the watershed who have adopted some of the same practices, he reported.

Farmers have also learned a long-term approach is important, Pape pointed out. Some of the initial projects were for three-year demonstrations, but that was soon extended to five years or beyond.

"You don’t fix a stream for a water quality issue in three years," he said. "This is a forever project. It won’t end."

Trying new things

The conservation practices im­­plemented also change from year-to-year and farm-to-farm as farmers adjust to new challenges and adopt new technologies best suited for their soils, Pape noted.

"What we have in our watershed is different than in Des Moines. We can’t put a blanket over this," he said.

There are challenges associated with adopting new practices, but it’s important to experiment, added Humboldt farmer Doug Adams, who shared his experiences with cover crops at the Innovations in Conservation seminar.

"You have to try something to learn something," said Adams.

He planted a cereal rye cover crop last year, and this year added tillage radish to the mix. The main benefits of the cover crops are to recycle nutrients, combat compaction, improve soil health, reduce runoff and aid weed control, Adams said.

He hired a pilot to aerially seed his cover crops into standing crops this fall in order to give them a better start before cold weather settled in. He said the cover crop grew to 3 to 4 inches tall by harvest, and roots ran even deeper into the soil.

"It’s not what you see on top that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck," he said. "The roots can go 30 inches deep."

Making it work

The innovations of farmers like Pape and Adams provide a good example of why inflexible regulations would be a "completely wrongheaded way" of enforcing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, said Northey. Imposing regulations would lock in today’s technology, stifle creativity and ultimately won’t solve the problem, he said.

A voluntary approach offers the opportunity to both improve water quality and allows farmers to be more productive, but only if farmers take the lead in adopting conservation practices and sharing their stories, emphasized Northey, who farms near Spirit Lake.

"That only happens if we keep control of this," he said. "If we do that, we will be able to have the innovations that will make this work."