The ripple effect of small efforts working together can make a huge impact when it comes to water quality. Consider the North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership, which is putting a new twist on water quality initiatives. 

“Partnerships are key,” said Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association. “This project is unique due to leadership from Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance (ACWA), which is promoting more in-field and edge-of-field practices to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in Iowa waters.”

ACWA is a non-profit organization comprised of 11 ag retailers and six associate members working together to improve water quality in the Raccoon River and Des Moines River watersheds.

Their mission is helping farmers identify and implement solutions that reduce nutrient loss to Iowa’s waters. These members also know farmers must reach optimal crop yields and profitability to remain economically viable.

“Ag retailers are a trusted source of information for farmers,” Wolf said. “By equipping their agronomists with knowledge about conservation practices, we can shorten the learning curve about the value of in-field and edge-of-field practices and scale up implementation faster.”

The North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership is an extension of the successful, three-year Elk Run watershed water quality project, which started in 2015 on 22,000 acres in west-central Iowa. The expanded project involves 115,000 acres in five watersheds in four counties: Sac, Carroll, Calhoun and Greene.

With $1.6 million in Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Water Quality Initiative funding, this project is helping farmers and landowners implement suitable practices to improve water quality on their farms. Goals for the three-year project, which was launched in 2018, include the installation of 15 bioreactors, 15 saturated buffers, one targeted wetland and 11,500 new acres of cover crops.

Meeting these initial goals is an important step for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which has established a goal of 45% reduction of total nitrogen and phosphorus loading in Iowa waters. “It will take a full court press to make a dent in these goals,” Wolf said.

All in it together

Bioreactors, for example, individually may reduce nitrates in water leaving tile drains by 43%. Over time, cover crops help increase soil organic matter and reduce erosion and weeds. Fields with cover crops could reduce nitrate and phosphorus loss by 30%, Wolf noted.

Cost-share options are available to farmers in the North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership. Funding is available to cover all of the cost of bioreactors and saturated buffers, while farmers can receive $20 an acre for cover crops. Tile water monitoring is available at no expense.

Jeff Frank, a Sac County Farm Bureau member who farms near Auburn, attended a recent North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership meeting. “This conservation drainage session gave me ideas of what’s possible for my farm,” he said.

Farmers in the North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership can access soil, water and plant tissue analyses to help them make informed decisions about conservation practices that fit their acres. Farmers’ data is confidential, Wolf said.

“The North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership highlights how farming practices are connected to water quality issues downstream,” Wolf said. “Partnerships make a positive difference, because we’re all in this together.”

Maulsby is a freelance writer in Lake City.