What do you recall about the summers of your youth?  When I think of the summer of 1978, I remember bean walking with my ‘Girl Crew’ at dawn, trying to get a field done before the mid-day heat found us.   Even though it wasn’t a pleasant job walking the fields, we persevered through 102-degree heat, rain, blisters and the relentless chase of horseflies because we shared a common goal: to get a little spending money we could spend with parental impunity. 

I have many memories of those bean walking days, and the days spent with friends still bring a smile to my face.  But, the details of that experience certainly don’t, like the way the heavily-tilled black soil stuck to my shoes and how chunks of manure from a nearby feedlot, which had been flung far and wide by my uncle’s manure-spreader, made the terrain uneven.  Even on the hottest of days, there was no cooling off in the nearby creek, because it was full of leeches (and not much else).  That wasn’t unusual, because in those days, only six streams in Iowa could sustain a trout population without stocking. Our goal was a ‘clean’ field of weed-free crops which stood in neat lines between furrows of blackened soil.  A ‘clean field’ was typical of the day.  So was run-off and erosion and snowdrifts in the winters, blackened with topsoil which blew off fields during a strong wind.

How things have changed.  Those ‘clean fields’ of tilled soil have been replaced by ‘dirty fields’ of crops emerging from soybean stubble, corn stubble or more than 600,000 acres of cover crops. There are green and growing terraces which hold soil in place, even in a downpour, and 413,945 acres of wetlands where geese, ducks and herons wait for frogs amid 1,200 species of plants.  Today, trout reproduce naturally in 45 Iowa streams, and Iowa leads the nation in areas devoted to grass filters and buffer strips, which help catch nutrients and protect rivers and streams from runoff.  And, every year, more and more farmers add bioreactors.

I first saw a finished bioreactor in the Hewitt Creek watershed, a 23,000-acre watershed located northeast of Dyersville, where dozens of area farmers have banded together to add new conservation practices to reduce nitrates and phosphorus in the watershed.  There’s not much to see when you’re looking down at a finished bioreactor—just a strip of grass near the edge of a field, with a couple of small, low-to-the-ground metal boxes sticking up at both ends.  The real work is going on beneath the soil, where a pit filled with woodchips is holding water in place and through a natural, biological process, taking nitrates from water which flows on naturally-rich farm fields, and turning it into a harmless gas that evaporates. 

I got the whole picture when I went to the Randy and Carol Miller farm near Ankeny and watched a bioreactor being installed. It’s hard to appreciate the ‘back story’ until you see one being built, from the ground up.  It took a lot of coordination of experts from the area Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) office, engineers from Iowa State University, contractors with an excavating company and, yes, even Mother Nature, to get this small area near the edge of a field prepped for installation.  There is some cost involved, too; more than $16,000 since the field drainage patterns had to be re-worked on that farm, so the water could be channeled to the pit for nitrate filtration.  And, there is the issue of time.  It takes time.  They had to wait for the weather to work—not too cold, not too wet, not too early or too late.  They had to wait to get the engineering plans approved; they had to wait for paperwork to be filed; they had to wait for the contractor to be available to dig the pit; they had to wait for the wood chips used to fill the pit to be approved.  So, this one, little bioreactor in one, little field, took nearly two years to finish, from the time the farmers first learned of the option, to when the pit could be dug and filled. 

But, with so many people involved in putting this in, I couldn’t help but think of all the jobs supported by this one, little bioreactor nitration filtration pit, including the young family farmer who travels the state with his excavation company helping other farmers improve conservation on their farm.  Even creating the wood chips, which are used to fill the pit, provide jobs and make you feel good about recycling since the chips come from trees culled for emerald ash borer.    

Despite the cost, the time, the many hurdles the Millers had to jump through to get this bioreactor installed, it works.  Tests taken from the site show in less than a month, the nitrates coming off the farm were reduced by more than 50 percent; some bioreactors reduce as much as 70 percent of nitrates from the water, but they won’t work on every farm.  Some are too hilly, some are too flat, some have no nearby stream or a wetland would be a better match, so that’s why farmers like the Millers refer to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy for guidance; the science-based document has choices which work for the farmer and work for the watershed.

Back in the so-called ‘good old days’, it’s certainly nice to look back at the times and enjoy the warm embrace of nostalgia for a job well done and time spent with friends.  We knew we enjoyed each other’s company and our time spent on the farm, doing simple things.  But, there are so many things we didn’t know about farming back then.  With so many folks embracing the challenge of improving water, I’m glad to say knowledge has improved and things are changing, one practice, one field, one farm at a time.