Getting Iowa farmers to embrace the 'C' word

REMBRANDT, Ia. — Iowa Public Television host Mike Pearson asked farmer Kevin Jesse a question that could be critical to the state's efforts to improve its ailing water quality: What do you say to a farmer who tried cover crops but decided they didn't live up to the hype?

Growing cover crops require a "huge learning curve," Jesse told Pearson, host of "Market to Market," and about 50 farmers and service providers during a forum last week in northwest Iowa. "We deal with all these fears in agriculture — all the what-ifs. … We're working through those issues.”

As Iowa ramps up its discussions on how to pay for better water quality, new initiatives are aimed at getting more farmers to aggressively embrace conservation, a word many associate with higher costs and lower production.

Among those efforts: A new $9.5 million federal conservation grant that will bring in 45 agribusinesses, nonprofit and professional groups that work regularly with farmers to talk about conservation. The grant partners range from crop advisers at local elevators and Practical Farmers of Iowa to corporate giants such as Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer.

The grant builds on years of work by groups such as Iowa State University, Iowa Soybean Association and others. It's part of a broad effort to move from demonstration projects to full-scale implementation — a monumental challenge that will require, for example, farmers who now plant 500,000 acres of cover crops to increase that to 12 million acres.

The strongest sales force for the effort is the farmers themselves, say ag, conservation and environmental leaders.

"That farmer-to-farmer education is crucial in adoption," said Jim Jordahl, director of programs and operations at the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, a group backed by three large farm groups.

"As our partners reinforce that message about the importance of water quality practices, I think we're really going to see some things happening," said Jordahl, whose group kicked off receiving the federal grant with a farmer outreach meeting near Rembrandt.

The grant's private partners are bringing $38 million to the initiative that includes cash, as well as technical advice and in-field demonstrations. The state will kick in $4.75 million to target conservation adoption in five key watersheds across the state, including the headwaters of the Raccoon River.

The backing for more funding

The river is central to a lawsuit that Des Moines Water Works filed last year, alleging that underground drainage tiles in three north Iowa counties are funneling high levels of nitrate into the Raccoon, one of two sources of drinking water for central Iowa's 500,000 residents.

The lawsuit, along with efforts to meet the state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy (its blueprint for improving water quality), has sparked debate about how best to jump-start efforts to build conservation practices, especially from rural areas.

Iowa Farm Bureau Federation delegates last week voted to support finding a new source of funding that could help the state meet the strategy's goal to cut by 45 percent the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that leave the state and contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Officials estimate meeting that goal could cost between $750 million to $1.2 billion over several decades. The state and farmers invested about $105 million in the effort last year.

Previous reports, commentary: Iowa Water Quality Issues Special Report

A diverse group of business, farm, conservation and wildlife groups said Monday they’re backing a proposal that would create a new three-eighths of 1 cent sales tax that would generate an estimated $180 million annually for natural resources protection.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 that sets up the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Fund, but lawmakers have failed to find a dedicated source of revenue.

Getting farmers on board

But “it's not just money that's a barrier" to improving water quality, said Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council.

Even if lawmakers, taxpayers and state leaders could agree on dedicating more money to water quality improvement goals, farmers, land owners and others play a critical role in adopting conservation practices.

Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, along with several Iowa farm groups, contend growers have invested in strong conservation efforts with or without state and federal financing.

Northey, who farms near Spirit Lake, points as evidence of grower interest to a record 900 first-time Iowa farmers participating this year in a $3.8 million state cost-share program. Farmers are investing nearly $6 million in conservation, even as they struggle to post a profit.

U.S. farm income this year is expected to be 42 percent lower than the peak in 2013, the lowest level since 2009.

The Des Moines Water Works and other groups contend that farmers will not make the changes and investments needed, especially at the level needed, without being forced by federal regulations.

A couple of different surveys show the challenges advocates for a voluntary water-quality approach face:


  • A farmer survey included in this year's Nutrient Reduction Strategy progress report indicates that nearly 83 percent agree they care about Iowa's water quality.
  • Similarly, 75 percent say they would like to improve conservation practices to help meet the strategy's goals.
  • Yet, 57 percent of farmers surveyed say their nutrient management practices were "sufficient to prevent loss of nutrients into waterways," suggesting, the report said, "a level of contentedness surrounding status quo practice implementation."
  • Moreover, a recent Iowa State University study looking at cover crops says: Most Iowa farmers surveyed see cover crops benefits — cutting soil erosion, improving soil health, and reducing nitrogen and other nutrient losses — yet a minority had adopted them, "likely due to the countervailing strength of perceived risks."

"Most farmers are still not sure if the practice is right for them," said J. Gordon Arbuckle, an ISU associate sociology professor who led the study. "I think the research and outreach community needs to focus more on helping farmers to understand and manage the potential risks."

Farmland owners reluctant

Arbuckle said farmland owners also can be a hurdle to adoption of cover crops and other conservation efforts. Some are hesitant to pay for costly edge-of-field practices that can cut nitrate losses, such as bioreactors and saturated buffers, or in-field practices that can reduce soil erosion, such as terraces and grassed waterways.

About half of Iowa’s farmland acres are rented, meaning that growers leasing land may be hesitant to improve land they don’t own and may not be farming in the future, depending on discussions over rent prices.

And Heathcote said practices such as cover crops also may take a couple of years to show improvements in soil health that could lead to better yield.

She said farmland owners and tenants need more discussion about conservation and how the costs are covered. In some cases, the landlord may foot the costs; sometimes, the costs might be shared. "If you're renting the land, you want to know if you'll benefit from that investment," Heathcote said.

Cover crops, which use and hold in place nutrients in the spring before corn or soybeans are planted, can cut nitrogen losses by about 31 percent, experts say.

Farmers at the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance's event last week hashed over cover crops challenges and benefits. Farmers in the five targeted watersheds will get more assistance than typical with conservation practices.

Making cover crops work

Jesse, who farms in Buena Vista County, digs into the ways farmers can overcome common challenges — from failing to get cover crops such as cereal rye to germinate in the fall, to deciding when to terminate it in the spring and equipment modifications needed to plant corn into it.

Too little rain in the fall could mean farmers have nothing to show for the money they invested in cover crop seed and equipment.

Too much rain in the spring could mean farmers struggle to kill the cover crops, potentially delaying planting corn or soybeans.

And if killing the cover crop is mismanaged, it could reduce yields, especially on corn, in the fall.

But Troy Elbert, a Pocahontas area farmer, said he's seen cover crops increase water infiltration, help suppress weeds and raise yields, especially for soybeans.

He also feeds the cereal rye — or ryelage — to his family's cattle.

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers' Midwest cover crops research coordinator, said she hears firsthand farmers' apprehension about cover crops.

"Farmers are so anxious to plant in April, and herbicides don't work when it's 45 degrees at night," she said. "We have to be patient in the spring if we're going to do cereal rye before corn."