Iowa’s targeted, voluntary conservation efforts can do more to improve water quality than mandatory regulations like those imposed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says.

Mandatory regulations are often a one-size-fits-all solution that don’t consider the unique challenges and characteristics of an individual field or farm, says Northey, who farms near Spirit Lake. A mandated approach would also crush the innovative and cooperative spirit that Iowa’s farmers have shown in seeking water quality solutions by applying new conservation practices, he says.

“Figuring out conservation practices that work is part of a piece that we can push, but we can’t rush,” Northey says. “If we push too hard, we could end up with mistakes that turn people away.”

A cooperative approach is more likely to engage farmers in adopting conservation practices, according to Michelle Perez of the World Resources Institute, who studied how Virginia, Maryland and Delaware implemented mandatory farm environmental regulations. A primary reason for non-compliance with regulations in those states is that farmers didn’t believe the rules were written with proper agronomic or financial considerations, Perez found.

“States should recognize that since the solutions to non-point source agricultural pollution largely involve behavioral changes rather than ‘end-of-pipe’ technology solutions, states should focus on gaining buy-in from farmers for the new level of environmental management needed to achieve the new clean water goals,” Perez said in a report on her study. “Given the non-point source nature of nutrient pollution … the only way for governments to ensure with some certainty that farmers are following their plans is if farmers believe it is in their best economic interest to do so.”

Stepping up inspections

States also will likely have to step up the number of inspections and levy heftier fines to bring every farmer into compliance, she said.

Like their counterparts in Iowa, farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed said they are working to optimize fertilizer applications based on economic as well as environmental factors. It’s hard for regulations to keep up with farm best management practices, which are constantly changing as farmers adopt the most advanced technologies, said Maryland farmer Jason Scott. “We’re not just going to throw fertilizer out there if we don’t need it,” he said.

Lucas Criswell, a Pennsylvania farmer, said he’s frustrated by regulations that require certain practices that aren’t as effective as what he could do on his own. For example, he said cover crop regulations require 120 pounds of seed per acre, but he has achieved stands just as good with half the amount of seed.

“That’s the problem with a blanket approach,” he said. “My goal is to do more with less.”

Another worry for farmers in the Chesapeake watershed is a mid-point evaluation of water quality improvements due in 2017. There have been signs of improvements in the bay’s water quality by some measures, but not by others. As a result, it’s widely anticipated that stricter regulations will be imposed as states press to meet their nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals by the 2025 deadline.

Weather variability

The problem with mandates is that they fail to consider the impact of weather variability, Northey points out. Rather than set a deadline, he is encouraging farmers to keep pushing forward with efforts to apply conservation measures like cover crops, saturated buffers and wetlands that will result in long-term water quality improvements, he said.

“This is something we’ll never be done with,” Northey said. “I hope we’re constantly challenging ourselves to do better. We need to figure out new and different things that are going to be practical for different farm operations.”

Check out more stories and video interviews about federal regulations being imposed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (and the possible implications for Iowa farmers) on our Spokesman Extra page.