A Farmer Member's View on Caring for Our Water

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2016

As a conservation-minded farmer, I keep thinking it shouldn't be that hard to understand Iowa’s water quality issues.  I'd like to think I'm using best practices, but, honestly I can't guarantee I'm not part of the problem. I’ve been a farmer for many years. From my experiences, working with soil conservation and with our local watershed group, and listening to scientists and others, I've reached some conclusions that I’d like to share.

(1)  This is not a simple issue.  There are no easy answers, quick fixes or magic solutions.  Searching for silver bullets just distracts from the work that needs doing. 

(2) We can always do more, where the "we" are farmers and landowners, specifically, and generally, anyone else in Iowa using water.  Those of us working on Iowa's land know the recommendations -- eliminate full-width tillage, use cover crops and more diverse rotations; use nutrient management and basic conservation practices like waterways and terraces; and remove pollutants at field edges with practices like wetlands and buffers. 

For those not involved in land management, three things pretty much cover it: (1) if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem; (2) the Golden Rule of watersheds is "do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you"; and (c) water quality should help determine who you elect to public positions.

(3) As farmers, it is tempting to get defensive. We all take pride in our farming, so it's hard not to be insulted when we get blamed by non-farmers.  We all see the frequent commercials showing the farmers who are exemplary stewards.  But do we all live up to that? It's not fair for all farmers to share the blame, but unfortunately, we must all contribute to the solution.  Those featured in commercials are not enough.

But the problem isn't all with farmers.  Government and commodity leaders need to know their dithering, denying and obfuscating sends the message that we don't have the resolve, the ability or the desire to solve complex problems.  We're admitting that Iowans lack the pride and self-respect to protect our basic resources.  That message isn't inviting to the kind of people and businesses we'd like to keep in our communities or invite to become new Iowans. 

(4) We're dealing with a problem that's bigger than nitrates in drinking water or the Gulf Dead Zone (though they get most of the press).  Our water also has silt, pathogens -- often enough to limit recreational opportunities – pesticides and even pharmaceuticals.  These water quality issues signal that we haven't yet learned how to look after our resources and assets. This is a hold-over from the time when there was always "more" over the next ridge, the next frontier.  We've run out of unexplored areas and undiscovered resources, but our attitudes haven't caught up.  Many resources can no longer be for the "owner" to exploit and plunder.  They are needed for the common good.  That's certainly the case with water. 

I fear we are not going to make progress on water quality or soil conservation as long as we insist on full-throttle ag production.   We're being told we have to feed a gazillion more people by 2000-something.  It's a noble idea, but a mirage.  If we bankrupt our soil and water feeding more mouths now, that just means more will suffer when we do exceed our ability to produce more.  Mass disruptions when population exceeds the land's capacity to produce have been the history of civilizations for more than 10,000 years. 

 Adopting a production-is-all-that-matters mentality means things like soil erosion and water pollution become acceptable.  That is not viable.  We've built a farming system that demands maximized production.  And that's the real problem.  We've created structural impediments that guarantee trouble.  From the farm bill to the tax code, to the reliance on a couple of crops, our agriculture seems to demand all-out production.  How do we change a structural problem?  Not easily.  The problem with structural aspects of any business is they are -- well, structural.  Poured in concrete, set in stone.  The first step is to acknowledge that the problems are man-made and can be corrected, even if changing them may be expensive, take time and be quite painful.

Nevertheless, it can be done. The way we farm now is not the way we farmed a generation ago. Some of our forebears were actually pretty wise, and managed their farms in ways that better cared for our collective interests. Some of the ways we farm now are smarter. Farming is continually changing, like the rest of society. At this point, we still have a lot of friends out there who appreciate farmers and want to help us change our land management practices in ways that will protect our shared well-being.

Much vexation is being made about government dictating how we farm.  We still have time to head off regulations, but not enough for more delays.  We need to acknowledge that we have problems with our current farming methods, and we're the ones who can fix them.  We can only make a difference together.

Written by John Gilbert

John farms with family members near Iowa Falls. John is a long-time member of Iowa Farmers Union, the Southfork Watershed Alliance Practical Farmers of Iowa, and the Iowa Environmental Council. A version of John's commentary was published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 18, 2016.

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