Experts in fields from agriculture, energy and environment, higher education and healthcare gathered in Cedar Rapids for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference September 21 and 22.
The two day conference was presented as an opportunity “to connect with fellow Iowans and develop solutions for key issues facing our state.”
Dr. Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher and CGRER member proposed one solution that would reduce nitrate runoff in Iowa’s waterways by 10 to 20 percent within one year. The IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering research engineer stated that Iowa farmers should avoid planting crops on flood plains and stop tilling their land in the fall because it makes soil more susceptible to erosion if they want to see a reduction in nutrient runoff.
According to a report in The Gazette, Jones said, “It’s difficult for me to understand why these things continue. If we could do those two things, we would have a 10 to 20 percent reduction in one year.”
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that there has been a 6 million acre increase in no-till farmland since 1987.
Chris Jones further discusses the science behind nitrate pollution and what it means for Iowa’s natural resources in episode one of Iowa Environmental Focus’ Nitrate Series.
Dr. Art Bettis acts as program director for the UI Environmental Sciences program and is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. He also holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Hydraulic Research. Dr. Bettis has been at the university since 2000.
We sat down with Dr. Bettis to discuss his work within the Critical Zones Observatory program. The Critical Zones Observatory is an interdisciplinary research initiative examining the processes that take place at specific research sites across the U.S. and how those processes are altered by human action. Dr. Bettis’ work centers around the impacts of industrial agricultural on sites in the Midwest.
Jenna Ladd: What is your research focus?
Dr. Art Bettis: I am really interested in lots of things, but my main focus lately has been on soils and how they’re connected to the deeper geology. It’s how water moves through them, how water interacts with the solid materials and with the organic materials and how that impacts both the soils and the water that ends up in river and streams.
Jenna Ladd: Tell me about the Critical Zones Observatory and how it came to be.
Dr. Art Bettis: The Critical Zones Observatory (CZO) is a National Science Foundation Project that was conceived about almost ten years ago. The idea with the CZO was to sort of try to document and understand the processes that were taking place from the top of the canopy of the vegetation to the bedrock surface or to some sort of deep aquifer. It’s an integrative science program so it involves geology and hydrology and biology and land-use studies, all sorts of things. Originally, there were five observatories across the country that were funded for five years. After the first five years, there was another call for proposals and they funded four of the original observatories again and brought in another seven new observatories and the Clear Creek observatory or the Intensively Managed Landscapes (IML) critical zone observatory was one of the new ones. This is our fourth year that we’re in with this project. It’s primarily National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, but it’s also, part of the whole idea of the CZO program is to engage other agencies and groups in research. It’s supposed to be sort of a research tank where people start doing things and it attracts other people to come and start doing more things.
JL: So, there are three research sites in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Why were these locations selected?
AB: Well, the whole idea of the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO was to look at this critical zone in an area that really is an very important regional area that hasn’t been looked at. The other CZOs were all in mountainous areas or in forested regions and none of them were agricultural landscapes at all. So, that was the general impetus for setting up the Intensively Managed Landscape program. The idea was to try to capture some of the range of settings that are present to see how they may have similar issues or similar mechanisms or if they differ significantly. So, we chose Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota because they’re three really different landscapes. There’s a different lay of the land, different water issues, but they all share a common intensive row crop agricultural land use.
JL: You mentioned that these Midwestern states were brought in to see if there were similarities in the natural processes that are happening. Have you found similarities?
AB: Oh yeah, there are a lot of general things. Row crop agriculture dominates all three areas. Agricultural tile drainage is a really common thing in all three areas. Degradation of surface waters is a really common thing. The impacts on streams and lakes is a really common element. Also, sort of a non-scientific thing, the economy of all those areas is really heavily dependent upon this kind of land use. There’s a lot of commonalities. Even though it may be a really different kind of landscape, just the intensity of agricultural land use makes it similar to the Central Valley in California or places in Europe or places in China or something like that that are under those same kinds of pressures from intensive agricultural use.
JL: So humans have almost forced them into uniformity?
AB: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly intentionally engineered for crop production. That engineering of the landscape has really made it behave in ways that are more similar among those drastically different places than they would normally be.
JL: Within Iowa, why was the Clear Creek watershed selected specifically?
AB: It’s sort of a historical thing. There was a guy, Thanos Papanicolaou, who used to be a researcher in engineering at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, who had already started doing quite a few projects out there, maybe five or six years previous to the first call for the CZOs. So, he had already had a watershed experiment station kind of set up there and had already been doing some things. Then also, Clear Creek is really typical of a large part of the landscape in the Midwest that wasn’t glaciated during the last glaciation so it’s an area that has the same kinds of issues and same kinds of landscapes and soils and stuff that a lot of the other areas in the region do too, plus it’s close [laughs]. But that wasn’t the reason why. Mostly it was the previous investigations and then this similarity to a lot of other areas.
JL: So what are some of the CZOs major findings so far?
AB: What we’ve found, you know, no surprise, the workings of the landscapes have been altered a whole lot. Basically, the main finding that is sort of driving things along is that prior to intensive agricultural land use, the landscape and the processes on the landscape acted to transform materials on the landscape: To turn dead vegetation into organic matter, to turn decaying organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals without having them end up in a stream to degrade the stream. Basically, processes were around where there was a lot of contact time and things were moving sort of slowly through the system, and with agricultural land use, in an effort to increase crop production, they’ve sped everything up and the landscape has really changed from a transformer of materials into a transporter of materials. So, there’s really short residence time on the landscape: sentiment gets moved to the stream quickly, nutrients go through the system really quickly, that’s why we have to add so much now and a lot of what we add goes through the system. That’s had huge impacts, both locally and off site. That presents us with lots of problems and lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to change the system so that it transforms more things. We’re not going to go back to the way it was, we’ve changed it to where it can’t go back to the way it was, but there might be some things that can be done to alter the way things work on a landscape now in its new mode of operation.
JL: I’ve never heard it describe that way, in terms of transformation versus transportation. That’s a really nice way to conceptualize it.
AB: It’s sort of the essence of what it’s about.
JL: Can you expand a little bit about the impacts of a transportive system?
AB: A transportive system does a lot of things. Number one, it’s very efficient. Water doesn’t stay on the landscape a long time so you don’t have areas that are too wet to plant in the spring, thanks to agricultural drainage. You don’t have places that are too wet year round for agriculture. You are able to control moisture conditions in seedbeds to where your seeds are more likely germinate or find favorable conditions.
With sediment, you know, there are not a lot of positives with transportation because we removed soils and remove solid materials from the landscape and we clog streams and lakes with sediment. The downside of the water moving fast is that the water doesn’t move all by itself. It moves with either sediment or with nutrients. Really what it’s about is that the system now is better for growing crops without considering the costs. So, whether the system is better in the long run, I think, is fairly debatable.
JL: What steps has the CZO taken to engage the general public?
AB: We have an education and outreach component. We have led several field trips for both agencies and local people. Then we also engage K-12 teachers every summer. We had a workshop last summer for twelve K-12 teachers, and this year we’ve got eleven or twelve K-12 teachers that Ted Neal, over in the education department is working with. So, they’re working in the CZO. They get to choose what kind of things they’re interested in and how they want to develop some curriculum.
That’s the other thing about the CZO, the data is publicly available really fast. Of course, it’s data that might be hard for the public to digest, but the whole idea is to have it available for people that want to use it and then to make it available as things are going along. So, it’s not like data that gets stored away for years and years and nobody has access to it. That’s part of the NSF program, is to make the data very readily available to anybody who wants to use it. So there’s a really short period where the data is not available and then it’s out there for everybody.
JL: It seems like farmers get much of blame when it comes to erosion and water quality issues in Iowa. What are your thoughts on that?
AB: We work on farms so we work with farmers and we have some really great cooperators. On one side, as an environmental scientist, row crop agricultural and industrial farming is really not very good for our landscape or for our environment. On the other hand, I know these people that are totally engaged in it and sort of see that they are indeed concerned about the environment, but they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because it’s how they make a living. It’s been really interesting to sort of see both sides of this story and come to the realization that, you know, most farmers, just like most people, are good people and want to do right, but they also have to make a living, just like we all have cars. [laughs]
JL: How does climate change affect these intensively managed landscapes?
AB: That’s a huge thing. Obviously, climate change will have an impact and is having an impact on our crops on many fronts. I think we’re going to see more of these large storms and seasonal pattern issues and then along with that is just a change in weather. Like this last winter, you know, case in point. It was very weird, it froze but not for very long and so that really changes the whole subsurface hydrology and all of the relationships of what goes on geochemically and biologically in the ground.
But yeah, climate change is going to be huge. Floods are the things we think about when we’re in towns, but out in the country, whenever there’s that much water, that water is full of sediment so it’s also erosion that’s going right along with that flood—both in the channels and off the fields. That’s a real tough aspect of how we deal with our soils that intensively. Soil is like a bank account and before people started using it heavily for agriculture, there were a lot of deposits, lots of organic matter and lots of nutrients. We’ve been withdrawing for a long time [laughs], and we’re at the point now where they don’t have much in reserve so if you don’t put on chemicals, you can’t grow a crop very well after a few years. That’s also going to be really impacted by climate change because, once again, this stuff doesn’t do any good if it’s not there when the plant needs it.
JL: Are you concerned that CZO funding will be affected by the new administration?
AB: We don’t know. There was just a national meeting in Virgina earlier this month for the CZOs with NSF, and NSF is very pleased with how the CZOs have gone and there’s no talk of not having another five year funding round, which will be next year. So, you know, between you and me, it’s easy not to say climate in the CZO [laughs] and I think that’s kind of a good thing right now. There are one or two or three principle investigators for each CZO, but each one of them has probably at least 15 different investigators from different institutions. So, that’s kind of what NSF likes to see and it’s really worked well in this program. There’s a large network of international sites that are starting to come up. They’re not funded by NSF, they’re funded by their own countries. China has five now and they’re building four more real soon, Germany has three. I think there are forty of them internationally or something like that so the concept has caught on.
Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last fall. This is an increase of over 60,000 acres, but covers just 2.6 percent of the 23.4 million acres of corn and soybean crops in the state.
Various state and federal conservation programs provided funding for 353,000 of these acres, including a cost-share program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to meet the needs of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
Cover crops provide land with a vegetative cover during the months that crops are not actively growing, between the harvest and replanting. This helps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are washed into Iowa’s water bodies from agricultural lands, ultimately protecting the water quality. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrates leaching from the soil by 35 percent, and they are the the most effective practice for retaining nitrogen in the soil.
Washington County leads the state with the most acres of cover crops planted, followed by Cedar and Iowa counties, Wallaces Farmer reports.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Wallaces Farmer that he is encouraged by the increase in the practice.
“It’s obvious with the interest we’ve seen over the past few years that farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide,” Northey said to Wallaces Farmer. “Cover crops are an important tool to help improve water quality and soil health in Iowa, and it is great to see an increasing number of farmers use this practice.”
This week, Iowa Environmental Focus sat down with Dr. Brandi Janssen, Clinical Assistant Professor in the UI College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, to discuss her multi-faceted research into local food in Iowa. A trained anthropologist, Dr. Janssen collects qualitative, ethnographic data about alternative, small-scale farming in Iowa to further understand what makes local food systems successful and safe. Janssen discusses some of her findings in her recently published book, Making Local Food Work: The Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Small Farmers.
Jenna Ladd: Much of your work centers around local food. This is a big question, but why should Iowans care about making a local food system work?
Dr. Brandi Janssen: If you want an agricultural economy that’s diverse and actually supports Iowa then you have to have more than just commodity production. So, I think there are good economic opportunities, there are lots of job creation opportunities. People tend to focus on the farming piece of it, but I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for mid-scale processing and distribution. As things sort of scale-up, it’s sort of a chicken and an egg thing right now: Do you start the distribution without knowing that you have the supply or do you build up the supply and then try to find distribution for that? But I think there are enormous economic opportunities that will keep more money local, you know? So those small-scale processing and distribution opportunities, unlike a Cargill plant or whatever, are more likely to benefit the community. Plus, there is potential for diversified farming and opportunities for smaller-scale farmers so economically it makes a lot of sense.
We talk about agricultural sustainability and diversity and ag portfolio, and we should think about that both at the industry level and at the farm level and that’s one way to do it.
Dr. Brandi Janssen: What I realized when I was doing the research was that there is so much that happens between the farmer and the consumer. The local food conversation tends to focus on one of those two parties, either consumers who are doing this wonderful and altruistic thing by buying local food. You know, we stroke the consumer a lot by telling them how great they are for being local food buyers. Or the farmer and the “know your farmer” rhetoric and this kind of, when the two meet it’s this magical relationship and it’s going to solve all of our problems and I don’t…have a lot of patience actually for that type of rhetoric [laughs].
So, what I realized was that there was so much going on in between and behind the scenes even before you get to the farmers market. If you’re a producer, you’re dealing with labor, either your own or somebody else’s or volunteer labor, which is its own ball of wax in and of itself. You have regulations at the market. If you’re dealing with meat or dairy, you have all of these inspectors to help you get your product from point A to point B, to make sure that it’s safe and complies to all the regulatory standards. So, there’s just so much beyond the farmer-consumer interaction. We talk about local foods systems, but then it devolves into this discussion of the direct market relationship, and I think there’s a lot more going on. It’s not as direct as it looks.
Jenna Ladd: If you had to name an intended audience, who do you want to read your book?
Janssen: That’s a good question. Of course, I want everyone to read it, and everyone to go out and buy it and all that! I’m supposed to market it. [laughs]
I guess I have a couple audiences in mind. I’m an anthropologist by training so really when I started the book, I wanted it to be appropriate for undergraduates in anthropology. I wanted them to understand what you can do with anthropological methods right in your own community; you don’t have to go off to some exotic place to the work that we do. That’s still an important audience.
There are a lot of players for lack of a better word. I mean, there are a lot of people in the system and a lot of particularly young people who want to enhance the system and make it better, but when you walk into the co-op and all you see are pictures of farmers, you think, “Boy, but I can’t afford land in Iowa because it’s absurdly expensive, how can I contribute to this system?” I hope that understanding all of the intricacies of the bigger system, people find a place in it, you know? There are lots of other roles that are just as important. I hope that it can be a useful book for that population as well. And then, in general, kind of the foodie. There are lots of people reading books about food and agriculture right now, which is a great thing. That’s super exciting, so any of that interested population, I hope that it would be a useful or informative or…not a terrible read hopefully. [laughs]
JL: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a good goal. No, I like that a lot though because for a lot of my peers, their dream is to own land in Iowa. Everybody wants to be a small-scale farmer, which is great, but maybe not always realistic. So kind of seeing, maybe you could be the person that adds value to a product or processes food or transports it. Yeah, you can be a different kind of player to make the whole thing go.
Janssen: Yeah, and it’s just as important. The marketing angle and the focus on farmers is actually an unfortunate piece of local food. Boy, it feels like blasphemy in Iowa to sit here and say we should not focus on the farmer so much because that’s what we do here, but the reality is we shouldn’t. The truck-driver and the distributer and the butcher should be on the co-op walls and not just the three farmers who were willing to go to the photo shoot.
JL: I haven’t read the book yet, but from my understanding it kind of debunks some myths about the local food system. I think you mentioned some of them already, what are some other ones that you discuss?
Janssen: Maybe the other big one, if we want to call it myth-debunking, is the interaction between commodity farmers and local food farmers in the state. So kind of at the high-level, you know if you read mass media and journalism, attention gives them a hook so they like the “little guy is going up against corporate ag” [narrative]. It’s combative, like you’re either a commodity farmer and you’re destroying the environment or you’re a local food farmer and everything is sort of copacetic, right? So, what I found though, when I was talking to farmers, was that they work a lot with their neighbors. They interact usually pretty positively with their commodity farming neighbors. They use their equipment, they use their expertise. I mean, there are sometimes issues, pesticide spray drift is probably the big one that causes problems, but overall I think most farmers see ag as sort of a series of strategies that you use to an economic or an environmental end, right? So, almost all farmers are mixing various strategies. I mean, there are commodity farmers that do a small CSA (community-supported agriculture).
There’s a farmer story I tell that I like a lot. There’s a farmer, he’s had organic grains for over ten years but put up a Sara Lee contract turkey barn so that he could use the bedding for nitrogen for his organic row crops. Most of his organic grains go to Silk, the soy milk company, or they go to the local feed mill for organic livestock feed. So, you don’t always think of those organic markets as being enhanced by a Sara Lee barn, but that’s an interesting way to blend two completely different strategies on one farm. So, I think on the ground things are much less combative than they appear to be when you read the sort of, the Farm Bureau “Criticism of Ag is Our Biggest Problem on One Hand” and kind of, the “We’ve Got to Destroy the Corporate Ag System” on the other. That’s not really how the conversation looks in rural neighborhoods.
JL: Soil erosion and water quality problems related to agriculture have been really hot-button issues lately in Iowa. In your research, have you noticed a trend toward more diversified farms or a trend away from that?
Janssen: So, from a crop standpoint, people are still doing corn-and-soy-corn-and-soy, maybe they used to have hogs and they got out of hogs in the nineties and now they’re just doing row crop. But we are seeing, even though the numbers overall are really, really small, it’s a tiny percentage of land that’s in cover crop, we are seeing growth in that area. So it’s like, it’s not necessarily diversifying the products that are grown for sale, but it’s diversifying the practice and changing the practice so that, essentially you’ve got more ground cover through more of the year. That’s the short answer to it, ya know? So, the cover crop thing is evidence that we’re thinking about changing practices in a way that does diversify farms, just not really in the traditional sense. But it’s slow. I think people are kind of excited about it, but I’m a little more like, “Well, we’re not getting too far yet so let’s see how it’s going.” I did meet a number of farmers who did commodity crops who were adding [diversity], especially after the 2008 shift in the Farm Bill that loosened up the restrictions. It used to be if you had so many base acres in corn, you couldn’t do vegetable production…That changed I think in 2008, so since then, I’ve talked to a number of commodity farmers who were also saying, “Well, maybe ya do a vegetable operation, or a pumpkin patch or some kind of agro-tourism.” So in that way, I think. You know, I couldn’t give you statewide numbers if we’re really seeing a shift, but anecdotally at least, yeah, people are thinking about it.
JL: My next question was going to be about pushes people over the edge to make the decision to diversify their farms, and it sounds like you’re saying a lot of it depends on the Farm Bill and national policies that govern farms.
Janssen: Yeah, I think if you ever ask yourself, “Does policy change behavior?” All you have to do is look at the Farm Bill and then look out your Iowa window. [laughs] It’s a clear yes, it can change behavior. When people have more flexibility in the farm program, they seem to go for it, ya know? People are seeing that a small vegetable operation is a nice, profitable strategy.
JL: So, you direct I-CASH. What about the relationship between local food and farm safety?
Janssen: Oh, that’s a good question, and I don’t think that that’s one that we’ve really asked or answered too well. Right after I started this job I had a funny conversation with a relatively new CSA grower and I was telling him about the job. I said, “You know, the center (I-CASH) historically has really worked with big commodity farmers, but I think we should be working more with the local food and the alternative producers.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, what could hurt you on a vegetable farm?” [laughs] I said, “Do you have tractor?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Does it have a roll bar?” He said, “No.” I said, “I’m much more worried about you than some guy who is in his combine all day.”
You know, so there are a couple ways. First of all, I think we have a tendency to associate what we perceive as the health and safety of the food with the workplace as well. You know, these local food farms tend to be set apart as these, kind of, “other.” You mentioned the romanticizing of farming in general, and I think that’s certainly true. You forget that you’re dealing with real equipment, organic farming is not chemical-free, you’re using particularly a lot of disinfectants and sanitizers that can cause all sorts of problems, the equipment, the livestock, etc. It’s just as dangerous as a big farm.
I came into this job knowing a lot more about farmer behavior as it related to environmental practices. I didn’t really come in with an expertise in farm safety particularly, but I think those conversations are really parallel. In both situations you have a system that lacks a lot of regulatory oversight, both environmentally and with safety practices. You know, farms are not regulated by OSHA like factories are so you have to think about, “How do we change individual behavior?” As I stay in contact with my environmentally-focused colleagues, we’re kind of having the same conversations just about different topics, but the framework is very similar. This is a population we’ve ignored. It overlaps quite a bit.
JL: Yeah, there seems to be a need for more regulation, especially if you think about maybe people of a lower socioeconomic status or people who don’t have citizen status in the U.S. who are working on farms. People don’t have an out in those situations, and you know, they just need to make money.
Janssen: Right, it’s easy to make it exploitative and the whole push to volunteer labor in local food is a bit a blind spot too. It can be problematic. I mean, I appreciate particularly young people who want to learn more about farming and it’s a good way to do it, but it also doesn’t do much for anybody economically. If these jobs are supposed to be the better jobs then they shouldn’t be just for people who are privileged enough to be able to do them for free. They should also go to people who need the work and are also invested and going to stick around in the area. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, I guess, depends on how you look at it.
JL: On that same note, accessing local food can be difficult for some people, particularly those with fewer resources. How can a local food system address food equity issues?
Janssen: That’s a hard one. I can speak to this locally more than from a big picture, I think. You know, people want to do the right thing. It’s not like the local food movement doesn’t want to make this happen, but it’s been a little slow to start. There’s been a lot of emphasis on cost, which makes sense. There is tension between farmers making money and making food affordable. It’s absolutely true that we spend less of our take home dollar on food than lots of other things, blah-blah-blah. It’s a perfectly reasonable conversation about what the real cost of food should be. Should it be higher? But then you have this population for whom that would be catastrophic.
Again, it’s about thinking about the whole system. It’s not just thinking about the cost but also about where is it located. There is one project that I thought was really effective. Well, we’ll see because we just got it up and off the ground. So, Local Foods Connection, which I was involved with while it was here in Iowa City, now it’s in Grinnell, they started doing farm stands at the Neighborhood Centers in Johnson County. Like on a Thursday afternoon, they do a little farm stand. Purchase, not ask for donations, but purchase basically wholesale from farmers and they would often give a lot of their overage if they had extras. They would sort of just throw stuff on top. So you’re actually selling food, it’s not a donation situation, but you’re selling it at a small market at a place where people are going anyway to pick up their kids and so it’s easy for them, as opposed to saying “Oh, well we’ve got SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at the farmers market therefore, we’ve solved all of our access problems.” [laughs] Because the other piece of it is about farmers markets and their inaccessibility: they’re at times that maybe don’t work for working people, they’re sometimes not as inclusive as they think they are. They tend to be very white spaces, very middle class spaces. That [initiative], to me, ticks a lot of the boxes.
You know, it’s not just that it’s affordable but is it physically accessible? Can people get to it in a way, you know, not just actually getting there but that they feel comfortable when they are there, they’re with their own neighbors, in a community that they’re comfortable with. That’s where I think institutional purchasing can go a long way. You think about rural care facilities, many of them are pretty low budget operations. This is not where wealthy people always go to live out the end of their lives. Or rural schools, they’re the same. These are systems where people have to eat every day and they have to feed them.
One story I tell in the book is about sweet potatoes, which actually turned out to be a pretty good option for the school district. The farmer who grew the potatoes, he had an acre. He had basically a home-built planter and harvester. So you know, it was not hand labor, but he could sell certified organic sweet potatoes for about a dollar per pound. That was completely within the reach of the school district, but that only works if you are willing to grow a full acre of potatoes and specialize in it a little bit.
When I quoted that price to another farmer who has a CSA, I had the sense that I actually offended her by suggesting such a low cost. Well, if you dig your potatoes with a pitchfork, you’re never going to be able to have a price point that is accessible to an institution where you still make money. He makes money on the sweet potatoes. That’s probably a $40,000 acre, that’s a lot of money.
That’s probably a pretty windy answer, but it’s all the things! We have more to do.[laughs]
Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.
Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.
Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”
Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”
Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.
Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”
To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.
A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.
The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.
Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.
The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””
The Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, managed by the Iowa State University Extension Sociology, was established in 1982 and is the longest running survey of its kind. This year’s survey was completed by 1,039 farmers, who were 65-years-old on average. The poll is sent to the same 2,000 farmers every year so that researchers can track changes over time. This year, it asked respondents about conservation techniques, farming practices, monarch butterfly population restoration and trustworthy information sources.
According to the poll, 42 percent of farmers surveyed practice no-till farming, which can be effective in reducing topsoil erosion. On average, farmers lose 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre per year which can lead to a loss of 15 bushels of yield per acre each year, according to the Corn and Soybean Digest. Buffer strips along water ways and field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff was the most common conservation practice among respondents. Forty-six percent of farmers reported using buffer strips in 2015, while fewer than 40 percent reported implementing extended crop rotations, terraces, or ponds.
The survey also asked about participation in The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. NRCS is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with the protection of natural resources on agricultural lands. It provides technical and financial support to farmers looking to conserve soil and water. More than 60 percent of farmers said that they were currently participating in an NRCS program, just about 34 percent said that they were not. For those not enrolled in NRCS programs, their primary reason was that they did not believe they had enough natural resources on their land to warrant participation.
The farm poll also analyzed which sources of agricultural advice respondents were most likely to trust. More than any other source, farmers said they would be most likely to trust another farmer that grows nearby.
The survey is collaborative project of Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Information from the Farm Poll is used to guide policy decisions and actions and as the basis for public policy seminars, Extension reports, radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper and journal articles,” reads the Iowa State University Extension site.
Researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a study that predicts the impact climate change will have on agriculture in the state.
The research article, published in PLOS One, centers around one variable called “field working days.” This term refers to the days during which the weather is suitable for farmers to plant, till, monitor, or harvest crops. Adam Davis is a University of Illinois USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist. Davis said, “Everything else flows from field working days. If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?”
Utilizing previously developed climate models, the researchers predicted the number of field working days for farmers in Illinois from 2046 to 2065 and from 2080 to 2099. The study modeled three possible trajectories ranging from mild to severe climate change.
Notably, the study predicts that the usual planting window for corn, April and May, will be too wet for planting in the future. Too much rain can be harmful for seedlings because it can wash them away or lead to harmful fungal and bacterial growth.
Davis said, “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”
While the spring months grow wetter, summer months are predicted to become drier and hotter, especially in the southern parts of Illinois. “Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion,” Davis explained.
The article offers two possible adaptations for farmers. They could opt for earlier planting of long-season varieties that should have enough time to pollinate before summer droughts, but they’d risk getting hit by a late winter storm. Or, the researchers suggest, farmers could plant short-season cultivars that are harvested prior to summer droughts. In this case, growers could be sacrificing yield due to the shorter growing season.
Either way, Davis said, farmers should begin considering how they can best adapt to the changing climate. He said, “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”
Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.
John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.
The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.
John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”
Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,
“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”