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The secret ingredient to water quality

The secret ingredient to water quality

As we have witnessed this year more than any other, life is about change.  Whether change is brought about with much hand-wringing or embraced as a bold, new challenge, change can only be successful if it walks arm-in-arm with its old (and often overlooked) friend: Patience. 

Farmers have had a long-standing relationship with Patience.  The Dutch proverb, “An ounce of patience is worth a pound of brains” serves a farmer well in hard times.  Did they hit yield targets, lock in a price, only to watch the market suddenly spike?  Were they expecting a record harvest, until torrential rains washed it all away?  Did avian flu hit their poultry barn, a devastating loss emotionally and financially, and now they have to start over?  It’s why Patience is an old friend of the Iowa farmer.

Farmers call on Patience when working the land and their knowledge, honed by generations of experience, helps them embrace the challenge of improving land and water.  And, record numbers of Iowa farmers are making conservation progress.   Yet, those who claim water quality improvements aren’t happening fast enough, are not only ignoring progress, they’re effectively turning their back on the one thing required for making progress: Patience.   

Farmers who commit to installing expensive conservation practices to improve water quality know this firsthand; they are experiencing an extensive backlog of paperwork and red tape from the federal government that has significantly slowed conservation progress.  

Just ask Carol Miller.  The longtime Ankeny family farmer has been working for two years on adding two major conservation practices to their farm: a bioreactor and a saturated buffer.

The bioreactor they want to install on their crop farm is a 40-foot-wide, 100-foot-long pit, lined with plastic, filled with wood chips that serve to filter nitrates out of water before they enter the watershed.   The saturated buffer is a grassed, middle-of-the-field buffer strip that slows and filters rainfall from their fields, before the water goes into a drainage area.  The bioreactor would cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to install; the saturated buffer is estimated to cost anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000.   Making it all happen during a down-turned ag economy, where farmers know they’ll lose money on the crops before they’re even out of the fields, takes a little assistance.

It’s why the Millers worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) experts to apply for state and federal funding to help defray the costs.  Applying for cost share conservation funding is encouraged by all who call for a big ramp-up in conservation practices, which, by the way, is pretty expensive.   And this is where Patience comes into the picture.

The Millers worked with their local NRCS office to apply for cost share funds and were approved.  Their soybean harvest was out of the fields.  They contacted a young farmer, Jacob Handsaker, who has a certified excavating company and specializes in conservation installations.  The weather was looking good.  But the application itself, and the funds attached, was in limbo.   

Faced with multiple jobs and a waiting list, Handsaker couldn’t just leave the equipment parked on the land.  The application is tied up in the review process, despite the best efforts from local NRCS staff. 

Paul Miller (no relation to the farming Millers of Ankeny) works with the Polk County NRCS.  He does his best to keep the farmers moving forward on conservation.   He also advocates for Patience, because he knows the funding approval is in the hands of government, and if you’ve ever had to work directly with the federal government, you know they don’t move fast on anything!

It also takes time to make sure the conservation practice that the farmer wants to use will work.  And not just for this year, either.   “You have to talk about it with the producer, hear how they plan to manage the conservation practice, because they do require management.  It may be different for every farm and every field and you have to ask, do you have the right equipment?  There are a lot of variables they have to cover,” says Miller.

Miller, who is one of just two NRCS employees working with all the farmers in the area, does his best to help farmers interested in adding conservation practices to their farms.   He walks them through the whole process, which is complex and often frustrating, from beginning to end.   “The paperwork takes a lot of time, too; once we go through it and work up a plan.  It’s more complex for a structure like a bio-filter, so what we’re doing now is going out and surveying, doing preliminarily engineering to make sure it will work,” says Miller.

Bio-filters and saturated buffers are just two of many measures farmers use to make measurable progress in reducing nitrates in the watershed, which farmers must do.   Putting those practices in the field takes expert help, as engineers, planners and excavators know, all too well.   “In order for us to get this bioreactor done, I had to design an entire topographical map, create a tile plan, structure that plan with a 1% slope on tile that is going into the top of this bioreactor. It’s not just something that someone can come along and say, ‘Let’s put a bioreactor here.’ It’s not that easy.  It has to be done right,” says Handsacker.  Patience, indeed!

The good news is the enthusiasm and determination to improve water quality is growing, because farmers will not be deterred, despite a down-turned ag economy, application stalls or funding shortages.  “We’re in it for the long haul, want to do our part, control erosion, and it takes time.  We know that.  We’ve been working on this for more than two years.  It’s like the continuing saga, of always evolving the plans to suit the weather, the topography, soil type; there’s a lot of things to factor in and you have to be compliant.  We’ve done four different plans on this farm because things keep changing.  And now, it may be spring before we can do this.  I really think buying a car is a lot easier!” says Carol Miller.    

Thanks to farmers’ commitment to the land, and Patience, progress is happening and more will continue. That’s because farmers never lose sight of the fact that while embracing this challenge is worth it, it won’t be without hurdles.   After all, “Patience and diligence, like faith, move mountains,” said William Penn.  We’re continuing the climb, but we’re getting there.



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