Why Use the Hammer if the Carrot Works?

Recently, I have read many editorials that are very critical of farmers’ nutrient management practices.  One particular letter in The Des Moines Register likened farmers to the proverbial fox watching the hen house.  In this case, the author was referring to the environment (land) as a defenseless chicken being preyed upon by the farmer (fox).  I have always thought of myself more as the farmer who protects his chickens from the fox, and that’s why conservation has always been one of my top priorities.

Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines, living and working with the soil every day.  As a result, we’ve changed our farming practices as new information and new technologies have become available.  I’ve seen several changes occur over the last 60 years.  In the 1950s and 60s, the soil was plowed black.  Today, however, we can no-till without disturbing the soil thanks to improvements in equipment and weed control systems.  These vast improvements have reduced soil loss, so we no longer have dust bowls or black snow in the ditches like when we plowed.

Iowa’s “carrot on a stick approach” is working.  However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has accused the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of being too soft on farmers and has threatened to take over enforcement here in Iowa.   Before we rush judgment, let’s take a look at past successes and give the new Nutrient Reduction Strategy time to work.  More than 16,000 new practices have been implemented on more than 220,000 acres by Iowa farmers since 2007.

“Iowa farmers continue to aggressively implement new conservation practices,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in an article posted Nov. 20 by farms.com about Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  “The driving force of this focused effort is best-management practices.  This also looks at new and emerging technologies… This is not about rules and regulations. This is about giving farmers tools.”

Iowa’s farmers have made big improvements – without the threats of fines – and more improvements are sure to come as a result of the collaborative approach that’s being taken to further reduce nutrient losses.  To develop the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, input was gathered from13 point and non-point source groups plus the DNR, IDALS and ISU researchers.  Many points of view were studied, yet some folks are accusing the Iowa Farm Bureau of having too much influence.  It only makes sense for the Farm Bureau, “the voice of agriculture,” to be involved as we’re the experts and the ones charged with helping contain the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

This Dead Zone is mostly blamed on Midwest farmers.  What isn’t being talked about, however, is the fact the Dead Zone was around before there were Midwest farmers!  As long as the Mississippi has been a river, it has dumped sediment into the Gulf.  Changes to our watershed have compounded the situation; the Mississippi has changed from a sprinkle can to a fire hose.  Levies and flood control are in place.  Swamps and wetlands no longer filter out sediments before they’re carried downstream.  The place where the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf has also changed over time.

Farmers’ involvement in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not enough; how the watershed and rivers are managed needs to be addressed.  You can bet that I’ll be sharing this thought with lawmakers and regulators!  I encourage you to do the same.  Everyone can share their thoughts on this plan and should.  You can review the strategy and provide feedback between now and January 4,2013, at www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu.