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Making real progress in conservation

Mike Naig

Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality, as they also protect and improve their soils. The Spokesman visited with Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig about the conservation progress farmers have already made through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the progress he expects in the future. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: As we head into the 2020 growing season, how would you assess the progress that farmers and others in Iowa agriculture are making on improving water quality?

I’m proud of the fact that we can say, in the state of Iowa, that we have never had as much effort and as many resources focused on improving water quality and soil health as we do right now. That’s really saying something, because Iowa has been a leader when it comes to soil conservation and erosion prevention for decades. 

I think a big part of the progress that we have made in water quality is because we have based our effort on science. We know that when we implement a certain practice, it has a certain outcome.

That gives us confidence in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The other thing that has made us successful is that we designed it not to just be an agriculture issue, but it’s really an everybody issue. That means we need to work on point sources, non-point sources, urban and rural, so that’s how we structured our program.

Q. What are the signals of progress in Iowa?

We are monitoring water, but that’s only part of it because the monitoring only tells you so much. That’s why we are using the logic model approach: If you want to see change in the water, you need to see changes on the land. And if you want to see changes on the land, then it takes changes in people and how they manage the practices they adopt. That’s why we are counting practices and, importantly, measuring the rate of adoption. 

We have gone from 10,000 acres of cover crops before the strategy to well over 1 million acres of cover crops today, and some estimates are close to 2 million. So now we are thinking about how quickly can we get the next million acres. My expectation, and my charge to our teams, is that we need to do the next million faster than the first million acres, and we are seeing evidence of that happening.

I’m a big fan of wetlands. They fit well on the landscape, and they treat lots of acres with a relatively small reduction in crop acreage. You also get habitat benefits.

It took us 15 years to build roughly 90 wetlands in the state of Iowa. We have more than 30 that will be built in the next two or three years. That’s an acceleration of the rate of adoption, but it’s still nowhere near where we want to be and can be if we have the right resources.

Those are two examples of where we are seeing significant adoption on the ground, but I’m also seeing an increased rate of adoption in other key practices as well. 

Q. Do you think there has been a change in mindset among Iowa farmers about taking on the challenge of improving water quality?

I certainly think that there has been a change in mindset. We have evidence to support that from surveys and attendance at conservation field days. We also know that farmers are thinking about profitability, as well as conservation and water quality. 

We’ve got farmers who are breaking fields down to the sub-acre or even sub-foot level to determine the best use of the land. You’ll have acres that are best suited for corn and soybeans. Then you’ll have an acre in the same field that is better suited, and more profitable, with some conservation practice on it. 

Those things have a direct impact on nutrient loss, and we want to help farmers make those decisions. 

Q: We are in a tough economic period in agriculture. Do you think that has changed the rate of adoption of conservation practices?

It makes sense that it does. Part of sustainability is that you can economically farm again the next year. We’ve had challenging times during the last six or seven years when we have been working on implementing the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

But, as I noted earlier, we are seeing an acceleration of adoption on conservation and water quality practices. The economy has made it tougher to invest, and yet in light of all that, we still see thousands of farmers seeing the value of investing in soil health and water quality.

  

I think that Iowa farmers and landowners deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the work and investments that have been made in a challenging economic period. 

Q: We’ve seen real progress in reducing phosphorus losses from Iowa fields, as shown in the recent annual report on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Do you think the same type of progress can be made on reducing nitrogen losses?

Absolutely. We do have a very good story to tell on phosphorus, and I can confidently say it’s because we built the soil conservation strategy on a science-based, non-regulatory approach. We of­­fered technical assistance, added financial assistance and saw tremendous adoption of soil conservation practices, such as terraces, no-till and sediment control basins, that are key to reducing phosphorus loss. 

The practices that reduce nitrogen loss are different. But if we apply the same approach, I believe that we can make significant progress on nitrogen losses.


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