Cities and farmers should work together to achieve water quality goals instead of battling in a courtroom or political venues, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week during a RFD-TV Rural Town Hall in West Des Moines.

"There needs to be a collaborative effort," Vilsack said in response to a question posed by Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill. "This is very complex, and the chances of a judge not getting it right are high. That’s not a good solution. My chosen way of approaching it is an incentive-based system."

Research has shown that conservation efforts undertaken by farmers significantly reduce soil erosion as well as nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into waterways, noted Vilsack, who served two terms as Iowa’s governor. Farmers are also using precision agriculture tools to target fertilizer applications to minimize nutrient losses while boosting yields, he pointed out.

"Now that’s not to say that there isn’t nitrogen and phosphorus getting into our streams," he said. "Some of that’s naturally produced; some of it’s the result of practices. We obviously need to address that."

Adopting conservation

"The way to address it is by encouraging farmers to embrace a suite of conservation practices, which we know from (U.S. Department of Agriculture) analysis will reduce soil erosion and will reduce what goes into our rivers and streams," Vilsack said.

The USDA is partnering with state and local governments, farmers and other interested groups to fund several water quality efforts in Iowa, Vilsack said.

He visited Black Hawk County Farm Bureau member Nick Meier’s farm last week for a first-hand look at the steps Meier is taking as part of a project aimed at reducing nitrates in the Cedar Rapids water supply. The Middle Cedar watershed project, led by the city of Cedar Rapids, received $2 million in funding from a USDA watershed conservation program in addition to $2.3 million matched by area partners.

Those kinds of locally led, cooperative efforts must be ongoing, Vilsack added.

Last week in Des Moines, he announced a $3 million investment in Iowa partner-led work that will nearly double the number of acres of wetlands protected and restored in parts of the state under the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP).

The funds will be used to acquire and restore prairie pothole wetlands and associated tallgrass prairie uplands on five sites within Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Priority Areas and Ducks Unlimited Living Lakes Initiative Emphasis Areas.

The Iowa funding was part of $30 million awarded to projects in six states to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal agricultural lands.

"Through locally led partnerships like these, USDA is targeting conservation in the places that make sense, allowing us to address local concerns," Vilsack said, noting that the projects will improve water quality, prevent flooding and enhance wildlife habitat.

The bottom line, he said, is that more progress can be made by urban and rural interests working together rather than against each other.

"We have got to figure out a way that we can put reasonable people in a room and encourage them to cooperate to reach a consensus," he said. "I think we can get to a place where we don’t have to have a federal judge making the decision."

Other issues

In addition to conservation issues, Vilsack addressed challenges for beginning farmers, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, antibiotic use in livestock, rural broadband and infrastructure is­­sues, and biosecurity for animal agriculture during the Rural Town Hall meeting.

The event, taped at the Stine Barn, originally aired Oct. 19 on RFD-TV. The network will rebroadcast the show Thursday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.