Iowa reacts to proposed EPA Clean Water Rule rollback


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Regulation over streams on farmland is in dispute (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 3rd, 2019

The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.

Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.

The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.

In November, Iowa already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. The most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”

As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”

Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.

Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told the Sioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.

Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.

“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”

Iowa Pulitzer winner says ‘Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style’


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Cullen details the consequences of climate-fueled floods and heatwaves for Iowa farms (flickr).

Julia Poska | October 26, 2018

“Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style” -Art Cullen

Over the course the current midterm election campaigns, Iowan farm fields have faced high heatwaves, record-breaking rainfall, flooding and unseasonable cold. Experts say such extreme events are fueled by climate change.

Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, editor of Storm Lake, Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, published a new editorial on The Guardian last week to share his thoughts on the matter.

“Few politicians in the five states around here are talking about regulating agriculture in an era of warmer and wetter nights and long droughts,” he wrote. “Yet farmers are paying attention.”

Cullen based his argument in the findings of regional climate researchers. An Iowa State scientist predicted Iowa’s recent floods 20 years ago. Someone at the University of Minnesota predicts Iowa’s corn yield will halve by 2070. An agronomist, also from Iowa State, said soil erosion is making corn starchier and less valuable.

To combat the change, farmers have historically increased drainage tile. Cullen cited the environmental consequences of that adaption, mainly low oxygen due to excess nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico, and water quality issues within the state.

As the situation has gotten worse and awareness has risen, farmers have started making positive changes, too, Cullen said.  They’re looking at sustainability reports, cover cropping to reduce erosion, and rotating diverse crops and livestock.

Cullen calls for policy makers to “catch up” and provide more financial aid to help farmers implement sustainable practices and even retire land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suicide rates for farmers exceed rates for all other occupations


More farmers are taking their lives than any other occupation in the country, University of Iowa researchers have discovered. (flickr/Daniel Brock)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 27, 2017

The rate of suicide among farmers is drastically higher than any other occupation, according to a study done by University of Iowa researchers.

From 1992 to 2010, 230 American farmers committed suicide at an annual rate ranging from 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.92 per 100,000. Comparatively, no other occupation exceeded 0.19 suicides per 100,000 workers for any year during this same period.

Co-author of the study Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor in the UI College of Public Health, said in a UI press release that financial issues related to economic or weather conditions can contribute to the suicide rate, as well as other stressors like physical pain from labor, societal isolation, and inaccessible healthcare. Peek-Asa also said a farmer’s job is a large part of his or her identity, and he or she may take failure extremely personally.

“They struggle with their ability to carve out the role they see for themselves as farmers,” Peek-Asa said in the release. “They can’t take care of their family; they feel like they have fewer and fewer options and can’t dig themselves out. Eventually, suicide becomes an option.”

The number of farmer suicides has significantly declined since the farming crisis of the 1980s, when grain trade with the Soviet Union halted and millions of farms went under. Over 1,000 farmers took their lives that decade.

Although the suicide rate has declined since the 1980s crisis, another agricultural disaster could be on the horizon. As the effects of climate change set in through increased temperatures and precipitation, farmers could soon face serious setbacks.

In a press release issued after President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “We cannot sustain a viable food system if climate change is left unchecked … Increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather [will] wreak havoc on family farm operations, future generations, and food prices and availability for years to come.”

2017 locavore index released, Iowa slips in ranking


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(Strolling of the Heifers)
Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2017

For the sixth year in a row, Iowa’s position on the state locavore ranking has continued to slide downward.

Strolling of the Heifers, a farm and food advocacy organization out of Vermont, ranks the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) by their dedication to local food each year. This year the group used seven metrics to rank states: farmers markets per capita, community-supported agriculture per capita, farm-to-school food programs, food hub programs, direct farmer-to-consumer sales, USDA local food grants per capita, and hospitals sourcing local foods.

The state of Iowa was ranked 18th in 2017, a far cry from its second place ranking in 2012. Iowa has slid down the list each year, ranking 10th in 2014, 13th in 2015, and 14th last year. According to this year’s report, Iowa ranked in the top ten for farmers markets per capita and community-supported agriculture per capita. However, the state ranks 50th for local food-to-school programs. Iowa performs in the middle of the pack when it comes to direct farm-to-consumer sales and USDA local food grants per capita.

The 2017 index features a new metric: hospitals sourcing local foods relative to the state’s population. Hospitals and local food organizers in Vermont have led the way, but the report notes that healthcare centers across the country have been pushing for 10 to 20 percent locally-sourced food in recent years.

Steven R. Gordon is President and CEO of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. He said,

“Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is proud to be a leader in supporting local farms and producers of fresh and healthy food. Sourcing local produce not only supports our local economy but also helps our patients heal faster. Often times, when a person is ill or on various medications, their appetite diminishes and their tastes are altered. Providing our patients with in-season and locally-produced food allows us to provide meals with high flavor and nutrition.”

The state of Iowa ranked just inside the top 20 for local foods served in hospitals. The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems explains their journey to a more sustainable food system for hospitals and the benefits they’ve reaped thus far in the video posted below.

2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll released


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Jenna Ladd | May 4, 2017

Results from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll were released last month, providing insight into rural public opinion on a variety of topics.

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.

Climate change decreases number of working days for Illinois farmers


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Extreme heat and drought are becoming more common thanks to climate change, both lead to “kernel abortion” in corn plants. (Erick Larson/Mississippi State Extension)
Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2017

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.”

On The Radio – How should Iowa measure its water quality?


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Data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System showing nitrate levels in Iowa.
Jake Slobe | November 28, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses an emerging debate about the best way to measure water quality in Iowa.

Transcript: A debate has emerged over the best way to measure the success of water improvements in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A big part of Iowa’s efforts to improve its rivers, streams and lakes centers on farmers adopting conservation practices spelled out in the state’s ambitious Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state’s waterways by 45 percent.

However, an emerging and controversial debate is occurring about how the state should measure whether spending on water improvement is working.

Environmentalists, water advocates and scientists want Iowa to rely on real-time water-quality monitoring, building on the state’s existing work to measure how well the state’s conservation efforts are working.

In general, farm groups would rather the improvements be measured by counting how many acres of cover crops, grassed waterways and other conservation practices have been put in place, presuming that the more Iowa has, the better its water quality will be. They are working with Iowa State University scientists on a plan to precisely track conservation gains.

The problem is that neither of these methods guarantee Iowa will be able to quickly measure whether water quality is actually improving. This is because farm practices that cut nitrate and phosphorus levels will likely take more than a decade to produce results in major Iowa rivers and lakes.

For more information about Iowa water quality improvements, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Regional and Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.