Iowa Alliances Improve Farmer Profitability and Water Quality

City Municipalities and Rural Interests Working Toward Same Goal

While drinking water in the U. S. is among the safest in the world, elevated levels of nitrate, coupled with increasingly strong weather events and a persistent low oxygen “dead zone” in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, has the attention of businesses, governments and non-government organizations.

Farmers in Iowa and across the nation are making tremendous strides in reducing soil erosion and improving water quality. This improvement has been focused in regard to sediment and phosphorus. However, many challenges remain for reducing nitrate loss. Particularly, in agricultural areas with significant sub-surface drainage or tiling. For example, underground pipes in fields that remove excess water.

Edge of field practice helping improve Iowa water quality
Edge of field practices help improve Iowa water quality. Photo source: Joe Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association.

Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

In Iowa, the situation has city municipalities and rural interests working toward a mutually beneficial goal. Even though U.S. corn farmers increased their nitrogen use efficiency by 105 percent between 1980 and 2014, nitrate levels in Iowa’s waterways and in other Midwest states increased due to land use changes and seasonal climatic variability. That’s why diverse stakeholders worked together to develop an Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 that set a goal to reduce nutrient loading in water by 45 percent. This will benefit waterways in Iowa and those downstream.

Leading Agriculture Associations

To help achieve the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, three leading agriculture associations formed the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA). They formed IAWA to bring new ideas and resources together along with local expertise. IAWA is building private-public partnerships. This is to increase the adoption of conservation practices. These practices will lead to improved profitability for farmers and safer drinking water for consumers.

IAWA focuses on increasing the pace and scale of farmer-led efforts that improve water quality. Also a focus is designing solutions that maintain or increase productivity. Helping farmers reframe efforts around improving profitability and total return on investment, and not only on producing more agricultural output, is part of the goal. It is not uncommon for a small portion of crop fields to produce low yields despite high inputs. Using precision analytics can improve return on investment. This happens by replacing row crop production on these acres with conservation practices. These practices yield other benefits including improved water quality and biodiversity.

Profitability and Environmental Outcomes Go Hand in Hand

Improving profitability and environmental outcomes also means that public conservation services and private business planning tools and services need to work together in new ways that improve farmers’ competitiveness. IAWA is working with multiple partners to integrate conservation planning into private sector precision agriculture, record keeping and decision support platforms. In addition, IAWA is developing programs that encourage agriculture retailers to more deeply engage their Certified Crop Advisors (CCA). This CCA engagement is to directly enroll farmers in conservation practices and conservation planning.

Farmers are showing interest in newer, innovative edge-of-field practices like bioreactors and saturated buffers. Bioreactors work by diverting tile drainage flow through a bed of wood chips where microorganisms work to convert nitrate in the water to harmless nitrogen gas while reducing up to 43 percent of nitrate content in water before it reaches the stream. Saturated buffers catch water from tile lines, slow the flow and filter water through vegetation, thereby reducing nitrate concentrations in water by up to 91 percent before it reaches the stream.

Iowa Leading the Way in Water Quality

Iowa will soon have the nations’ largest installment of bioreactors and saturated buffers thanks to work pioneered by the Iowa Soybean Association and led by farmers in a small watershed in Northern Iowa. Other public and private partners have also now joined the effort.

Together, cities and rural interests must forge new relationships and programs. IAWA and multiple municipalities are in the early stages of designing a framework whereby waste water treatment facilities can use offset nutrient loading reductions as a result of investing in farmers’ conservation practices. This will help cities meet more stringent future permit obligations in a more cost-effective manner than if they were to only make investments in their nutrient removal operations. This strategy will help to provide clean water and increased flood protection in a way that’s cheaper for rate payers.

This article is featured in the 2015 Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report. To learn more about this initiative, visit here.