Farm conservation on the line in 2018 Farm Bill


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At risk USDA conservation programs include provisions to promote sustainable stewardship of forest and pasture on farms (flickr).

Julia Poska | September 28, 2018

Farmers nationwide are waiting anxiously for the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, a crucial piece of legislation that authorizes U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and funding for research in agriculture and food.

The current bill expires Sept. 30. If congress can not settle on a new bill by then, funding for those conservation, nutrition, and rural development programs, among others, could be lost for a time.

A conference committee of both House of Representatives and Senate representatives are currently working out the differences between the draft bills proposed by each chamber in June. The Senate draft is widely regarded as friendlier to conservation.

One of the House’s most controversial proposals is to cut the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which provides contractual support for people who actively mange agricultural land or forest for conservation on their property.

The House bill proposes folding the CSP’s “best features” into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a similar program that covers some cost for conservation practices on farms.

Critics say this move would eliminate the advanced  conservation practices the CSP promotes, and totally cuts funding for working lands. They believe the CSP is necessary because it allows for long-term conservation efforts, whereas EQIP deals with one-time practice establishments.

Conservation practices like cover cropping and on-farm forestry ease the stress agriculture can put on our natural resources, but they can be expensive for farmers. USDA programs provide critical resources to ensure eco-friendly farms can still turn profit.

Groups like the Nature Conservancy and Natural Association of Conservation Districts are actively advocating for the conference committee to maintain or increase conservation funding in their final version of the bill.

 

 

 

 

On the Radio- The benefits of rotational grazing


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Rooter Ranch in Texas uses the rotational grazing method. (USDA/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 2, 2018

This week’s segment gives insight into rotational grazing and how it can benefit farmers.

Transcript:

Iowa farmers may be able to use conservation grazing as a way to help encourage prairie growth.

The is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Wendy Johnson, a farmer in Charles City, likes her livestock to graze in free range patterns to improve both the quality of life for the animals and the health of the pasture. She often allows two or more different types of animals to engage in multi species grazing, a method that allows livestock to graze as they please, and fertilize the land with their waste.

Will Harris, a farmer in Bluffton, Georgia, expanded his business exponentially using careful planning and a similar free range method. After observing the grazing patterns of different livestock, he realized that these patterns could be applied to the prairie as well.

According to the Grazing Animals Project, conservation grazing involves using a mix of different livestock that enjoy eating different types of plants. This method helps control species of plants that over dominate the prairie, and encourages the growth of smaller, less dominant plant types. Johnson and Harris both hope that their method of rotational grazing will be more widely implemented by other small farmers in Iowa.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Sara E. Mason.

Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy draft released


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Female monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed pods. (Charles Dawley/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 15, 2018

A draft of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy was released on Monday, and Iowa plays an integral role in its success.

North American monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers are less than half of what is needed to guarantee a sustainable population. The black and gold pollinators spend their winter months in Mexico and southern California and travel to the northern midwest for the summer. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively in milkweed pods.

Released by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the conservation strategy draft explains that midwestern states plan to establish 1.3 billion new milkweed stems over the next two decades. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is included within the midwestern effort. Written by Iowa State University’s Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, its aims to establish between 480,000 and 830,000 acres on monarch habitat by 2038.

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said, “The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides, and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway.”

Iowa’s strategy provides evidence-based recommendations for creating monarch habitat and aims to document all voluntary efforts. 127 to 188 million new milkweed stems are estimated to be planted in Iowa in accordance with the plan.

Given that the vast majority of Iowa land is in agricultural production, the plan’s authors emphasize that agricultural lands must be a part of the solution. The strategy considers both expanding on existing conservation practices and planting milkweed stems in underutilized farm land as viable options. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will decide in June 2019 whether the monarch butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said, “Iowa falls entirely within the monarch’s northern breeding core. This means that every patch of milkweed habitat added in Iowa counts, and Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”

The full draft of the Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.
The complete Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.

Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”

Dr. Steve Hendrix speaks up for the wild bee


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Dr. Steve Hendrix was the keynote speaker at this week’s 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | March 10, 2017

When the general public thinks about bees, one image comes to mind: the honeybee.

If UI Professor Emeritus Steve Hendrix’s presentation, titled “Wild Bees of Iowa: Hidden Diversity in the Service of Conservation” had a central message, it was that nearly 20,000 other bee species exist and provide often under-recognized ecosystem services.

Hendrix gave the presentation at 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview on Thursday night to a crowd of nearly 300. He said, “All plants need pollinators some of the time, and at least some plants need pollinators all of the time.” Indeed, pollinators provide 225 billion dollars in pollination services. While honeybees receive the majority of public praise, wild bees, which are often small, solitary creatures with short life spans, do 90 percent of the pollinating on U.S. farms. Additionally, according to Hendrix’s research findings, honeybees are less effective pollinators than wild bees.

While the number of bees in the U.S. is declining, one of Hendrix’s studies provided a glimmer of hope for bees in North America. Hendrix and his colleagues compared populations of bees on large prairies with those in smaller, urban gardens and parks. Surprisingly, regardless of the area of land the bees had to roam, there was no difference in bee diversity, species richness, or abundance. The main predictor for healthy bee populations was the presence of a extremely diverse plant life.

Hendrix rounded out his presentation with a look to the future for wild bees. He emphasized once more the importance of the insects, which are largely credited with providing food security for humans. He said, “There’s going to be changes in the distribution of bees.” Due to global warming, many bee species that were previously found in southern states are making their way to Iowa. Hendrix added, “The big bees are going to be the losers in this climate change world we’re living in…it’s going to be the rare bees that are affected most.” Hendrix said that there has been limited research about what this will mean for ecosystems and human health, but encouraged all those in the audience to continue fighting to conserve habitat for bees in Iowa.

 

Statewide monarch butterfly conservation strategy released


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The Cerro Pelón Reserve near Macheros is the second most populous monarch butterfly roosting site in Mexico during the winter months. (Dylan Hillyer/personal collection)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium released its statewide strategy for the conservation and advancement of the monarch butterfly on Monday.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy aims to recover monarch butterfly populations in Iowa and North America. Developed by the consortium-a group of more than thirty organizations including agricultural and conservation groups, agribusiness and utility companies, county associations, universities and state and federal agencies-the strategy provides necessary resources and information to advance the well-being of monarch butterflies in Iowa and across the continent.

A recent report found that the population of monarch butterflies that spend the winter months in Mexico decreased by 27 percent in 2016, primarily due to extreme weather events and the pervasive loss of the milkweed plant. Milkweed is the only plant in which female monarchs will lay their eggs as well as the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. According to the consortium, about 40 percent of monarchs that overwinter in Mexico come from Iowa and its neighboring states. In the last two decades, the total monarch population has declined by 80 percent.

Monarch butterflies provide vital ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest management. They also serve as a food source to larger animals such birds and bats.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp said, “We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we aren’t going to improve the population overnight. But we have a really strong group across many different areas of expertise working together to improve the outlook for the monarch in Iowa and beyond.”

The strategy provides scientifically-based conservation practices that include using monarch friendly weed management, utilizing the farm bill to plant breeding habitat, and closely following instruction labels when applying pesticides that may be toxic to the butterfly.

In June 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Wendy Wintersteen is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. She said, “This strategy is critical to rally Iowa agriculture, landowners and citizens to continue to make progress in restoring monarch habitat.”

Congressman Chaffetz to kill House Bill 621 following public opposition


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The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017 proposed selling off an area of public lands equal to the size of Connecticut across ten western states. (Bureau of Land Management/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 3, 2017

House Republicans are expected to throw out a bill on Friday that would have sold off more than 3 million acres of federal public lands.

Environmental conservationists and hunters joined forces to oppose House Bill 621 after Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz announced it last week. The bill would have ordered the Department of Interior to immediately sell off 3.3 million acres of “disposable” land across ten western states, claiming that the land served “no purpose for taxpayers.”

Jason Amaro is a sportsman with the south-west chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said, “Last I checked, hunters and fishermen were taxpayers. That word ‘disposal’ is scary. It’s not ‘disposable’ for an outdoorsman.” Public lands in the Western U.S. provide habitat for elk, gray wolves, and grizzly bears, a vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts, and can be leased out for timber, oil, and gas extraction. The Wilderness Society values the national outdoor recreation economy at just over $646 billion.

Chaffetz said he feared the bill “sent the wrong message” on Thursday and pledged to rescind it on Friday. The Tea Party Republican commented below an Instagram photo of himself wearing hunting gear outdoors. He said, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.” Chaffetz’s comment came after many opponents of the bill overwhelmed his Instagram account with comments asking him to “#keepitpublic” and “say no to HR 621.”

Although President Trump is in favor of utilizing more public lands for oil and gas extraction, he has stated that he is opposed to selling off federally owned lands. In an interview with Field & Stream, he said, “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.” The President is also opposed to giving states ownership of public lands. He added, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”