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Conservation Corner

The Simple River-Cleaning Tactics That Big Farms Ignore

Wed, December 20, 2017

In Iowa and elsewhere, runoff from fertilized fields pollutes drinking water and creates dead zones. Yet straightforward solutions exist.

Iowa is the largest corn producer in the U.S.—and the second largest producer of nitrate pollution in the Mississippi River Basin.

Ione Cleverley wasn’t eager to break up with her tenant, who had been farming 88 acres of her central Iowa land for more than a decade. He was affable and hardworking, but after harvesting his corn and soybeans, the farmer left her fields unplanted. Cleverley had learned that each spring, as the soil warmed and moistened, it released nitrogen—both naturally occurring and left over from the last application of synthetic fertilizer. Rain washed the chemical into her stream, which flows into the Skunk River and thence into the Mississippi.

Along its winding route, nitrogen, which converts to nitrate in water, presents two serious problems. It threatens the health of those who drink it at the tap, and when it reaches the ocean, it hyper-charges the growth of algae and aquatic bacteria, which use up most of the oxygen in the water, leaving it uninhabitable by many other sea creatures. This past summer, the Gulf of Mexico had its largest ever “dead zone”—and the largest of several hundred in the world.

After speaking with a farm consultant about how to stanch her contribution to it, Cleverley met with her tenant. “I told him I wanted him to quit tilling and plant a cover crop this fall”—whether cereal rye, clover or alfalfa, it would soak up excess nitrogen come spring. “He wasn’t too receptive,” Cleverley says, dryly. “He didn’t see the connection with downstream water quality.” Moreover, the chemical company that advised her tenant—and sold him fertilizers and seeds—had warned him that cover crops might reduce his corn and soybean yields, at least at first.

Cleverly wasn’t unsympathetic: She knew that change comes hard to farmers. But she also knew that sowing an alternate crop would eventually pay off with improved soils and higher yields. And so she gave her tenant an ultimatum: Plant a cover crop this fall, or she’d find a farmer who would.

Iowa has some of the richest farmland on the planet; an acre in Cleverley’s region can sell for upwards of $10,000. The state produces more corn than any other in the nation, and its soybean yields are second only to Illinois.
But all this production—abetted by steady applications of nitrogen fertilizer— has taken a serious toll. More than two hundred of Iowa’s community water systems struggle with high nitrate levels, periodically issuing “Do Not Drink” orders. The state is the second-largest contributor of nitrates to the Gulf in the Mississippi River Basin.

The good news is that researchers have a pretty good handle on how to solve Iowa’s water problem. In 2014 the state released a Nutrient Reduction Strategy that calls for slashing nitrate runoff by 41 percent. The plan lists a suite of tools that farmers can use to hit this mark, from applying fertilizer more sparingly—crops take up, on average, only half the nitrogen that’s applied to fields—to planting cover crops, to allowing strips of farmland to revert to unfertilized prairie.

The bad news: These recommended practices are voluntary, and relatively few of Iowa’s 88,000 farmers do them. Many, like Cleverley’s tenant, just don’t see their personal connection to the problem—and that leaves it for others to solve.

Cover crops can reduce nitrogen runoff by 30 percent, but in 2016 Iowa farmers planted them on less than three percent of the state’s cropped land. The state strategy aims for more than half. According to one analysis, 60 percent of Iowa farmers quit growing cover crops after government aid—usually $25 an acre for just one year—ends. “There is no proven economic benefit [to landowners] for taking nitrates out of the water,” says Dean Stock, a farmer and elected supervisor in Sac County.

In fact, cover crops have been shown to reduce the need for fertilizer. And after first dampening corn yields, as Cleverley’s tenant feared, they eventually increase yields. All that provides economic benefits to the farmer. But cover crops can be tricky to implement and manage. For example, as spring rains get more intense, farmers have a shorter window to terminate a cover crop—by killing it with an herbicide or crushing it with a roller—in time to plant their cash crop.

“The learning curve for these in-field practices can be steep,” acknowledges Nick Ohde, of Practical Farmers of Iowa, which promotes and teaches cover cropping. “If you’re making money as is, then change is problematic. You’re not going to see any benefits if these practices aren’t executed properly.”

But figuring out the best way to support farmers as land stewards is a complicated proposition. Sixty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by absentee landlords and rented on one-year contracts, which leaves tenants with little incentive to invest in the land’s long-term health. Thankfully, there are a handful of land owners brave enough to shoulder some risk for the greater good.

After Ione Cleverley presented her tenant with a cover-crop ultimatum, this past July, their relationship grew tense. But together they attended several field demonstrations and information sessions on cover cropping. “He still rejects those practices,” Cleverley reports, “but I’m more convinced than ever that it’s the way to go. If you own land, it’s your responsibility to take the best care of it.”

Despite his skepticism, Cleverley’s tenant did, eventually, agree to try a cover crop, but by then it was too late to apply for funding from the USDA. And so Cleverly decided to kick in half the cost of the cereal rye and radish seed herself.

“We’re starting slow, just on the bean ground this year,” she says. “I really don’t want this to fail.”


If you are interested in financial assistance with cover crop and no till incentives offered through the USDA NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, contact your local USDA NRCS Service Center for more information.

Adapted from an article by Elizabeth Royte,  published in National Geographic