The Poetry of Water

Have you heard the news? The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest it has ever been this summer. More than half of Iowa’s waterways remain impaired. Iowa’s legislators can’t seem to agree on means for funding practices that would help.  It hasn’t been a great year for water quality so far.

It isn’t that we don’t understand the problems or the solutions. There is plenty of information out there. Lots of smart people are speaking about the science of water quality, studying the impacts of agriculture, discussing economics issues, and monitoring water. This information is important and necessary.

It’s more that we still lack the will to create lasting changes to allow for cleaner water, more habitat and healthier soil. Perhaps we need to move beyond the technical and economic talk and express the poetry of water.  Throughout our history it has often been a well-turned phrase, public speech or essay that has motivated action in others.

Back in 2008, when Jerry DeWitt was first appointed as director of the Iowa Learning Farms, he and I went on a tour of the ILF partners who were hit hardest by heavy rains and flooding. When he got back to his office, he wrote an essay that began, “Yesterday I cried for the land. Today I must speak for the land.” You can read the full text on p.3 of the archived Leopold Letter newsletter: http://publications.iowa.gov/18617/1/LeopoldLetter2008Summer.pdf

What followed was a poetic expression of Jerry’s emotions in seeing fields eroded down to bedrock—not your typical academic writing. For several weeks after that essay was published, it was brought up in meetings, including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings, and during random conversations. It became a call to action.

Who is writing poetry for water?

Jerry showed that aptly expressed words get things done. Words make us uniquely human but poetry is what speaks to our higher angels. Writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold put language to good use on behalf of lasting, life-altering environmental change.

Who among us isn’t familiar with Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that moved us with its craft and motivated us as a nation to change our use of pesticides? Or think of all the folks who became conservationists or wildlife specialists inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949) with his essays on the land stirring a conservation ethic. I was only seven years old when my older brother read me Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Lorax (1971), and nurtured in me a life-long desire to speak for the trees. The poetry of these authors and so many others have inspired generations to think and live in the world differently.

We don’t need any more ordinary prose. We are bloated with words today. Everyone seems to be “expressing” themselves on social media and other online outlets. Could a Carson or Seuss or Leopold get through all of the word pollution today?

Our lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers need more poetry in the tradition of Carson, Seuss and Leopold—writing that expresses feelings and ideas that allow you to see beyond what is right in front of you to get at a deeper truth or beauty.

Only the best among us are brave enough to write poetry for poetry is too important to be left to professionals.

Two Black Hawk County watershed projects, in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa’s Environmental Literature class during the spring of 2017, brought us poetic stories of people in their watersheds. The work is called “Beauty Outside Our Doors” and is available as a free PDF download.  The essays are personal and purposeful and speak to a greater truth about the state of our environment in Iowa.

It would be great if every watershed improvement project in Iowa could take Black Hawk County’s lead and do a similar project with the residents in their watersheds.  It would be inspiring to see similar books written across the state.

BUT, you don’t need to live where there is an active watershed project in order to speak for water. Each one of us is called to find the poet inside of us and let people know the truth about our waterways. We are water and water is life. Clean water is essential to our existence. We ignore this at our eventual peril. After you write your piece, share it with whoever will listen. It is time for life-altering change. The water (and all of life) is counting on us.

Jacqueline Comito

Land Use Mismatches

Conservation is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea is credited to American forester Gifford Pinchot, but many have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservation is thus, a resource allocation challenge and among our many resources, land is the most finite.

We have a little over 35 million acres of land in Iowa and 82% of it is in production agriculture. In a state with world-class agricultural land values, most of those acres are living up to their potential, growing food and energy, or housing the people that make the system work. The challenge for conservation is to find acres that aren’t living up to their potential—land use mismatches.

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underperforming cropland

We could debate for a lifetime what the highest and best use of an individual parcel is. However, we can more swiftly agree on a lowest common denominator of land use. That calculus settles at the answer to the following question: Is land functioning as a place to either 1) produce a product, 2) make memories, or 3) carry out natural processes?

Some may balk at the implication that we have places failing on all three fronts. These are areas where the current land use is such that the land doesn’t produce some product, like livestock or another commodity, it fails to provide a place for friends and families to gather and make memories, and it falls short of contributing to important natural processes like purifying water or providing habitats for pheasants and bees. However, close inspection of our current landscape reveals otherwise.

Here are a few examples:

Parking Lots
In many cities, parking lots can satisfy two parts of our decision tree by promoting the sale of products and helping create memories. But many city designers get swept up in anticipation of large crowds and have thus paved thousands of acres that are rarely used, often degrading water quality and city environments.

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Parking lot in West Des Moines, Iowa. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Lawns
Studies have estimated that nearly a quarter of urban areas (as well as the areas around farm houses) are lawns. Take a drive across the state and you’ll find neatly manicured lawns spanning the horizon, often taking 20 acres at a time at substantial cost for maintenance without any return of crops, memories, or natural function. Sure, countless memories are made in the lawn, but the first two whole football fields would suffice, while the rest could be reallocated for higher uses like habitat, fruits, or vegetables.


Underperforming Areas of Crop Fields
Mismatches occur in crop fields, too. Soils, topography, and prevailing climate patterns make some areas consistently underperform. Continued inputs create hot spots for water quality issues and fluxes of greenhouse gasses while failing to yield any products in most years.

Wet areas

Barring annexation by Minnesota, Iowa’s 35 million acres are here to stay. Let’s work together to make sure they’re used to their greatest societal (and environmental) potential. That should ensure future generations still find places to grow crops, make memories, and live in a healthy environment.

Adam Janke

Adam Janke is an Iowa Learning Farms team member, Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Program Specialist at Iowa State University.

Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Exploring whether cover crop mixtures make sense on Iowa farmland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s 72nd Annual Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  In addition to attending some great sessions, meeting fellow conservationists, and exploring Madison, I participated in the Conservation Innovation Grant Showcase poster exhibition.  On display were early results from our cover crops mixtures project that began in 2013.

NCIGCoverCropsPoster-170721

 Some preliminary observations from the study: 

  • Achieved more biomass from the single species (oats or rye) than mixtures
  • Oats and rye resulted in the majority of biomass from the mixtures
  • Cereal rye was the only species to over-winter consistently
  • Generally lower pore water nitrate concentrations following rye and mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed

As we continue to analyze the data collected, the project indicates:

  • Cereal rye and oats establish readily and provide the most biomass growth when seeded on their own.
  • Cover crops can offer some water quality benefits, reducing nitrate concentration in pore water.
  • Rye and oats provide the best biomass return on seed investment! Single Species are the way to go in Iowa for corn and soybean producers.

Be sure to subscribe to our blog and check back for updates on the project, including analysis on crop yields.

Liz Juchems

 

 

Guest Blog: Fair Eats

Our final summer guest blog post comes from high school intern Josh Harms, who will be a senior at South Hamilton this fall. Take it away, Josh!

Hello, my name is Josh Harms. I am a high school intern with Iowa State’s Water Rocks! program this summer. While I have been traveling across the state of Iowa to many different county fairs, I have had the privilege of experiencing a diversity of fair food, everything from the basic corndog to the amazing tacos and black raspberry ice cream at the Wright Co. Fair. I also tried pulled pork nachos at Badger Fest, fried cheese balls at the Central Iowa Fair, a pork tenderloin at the Washington Co. Fair, and a mango smoothie followed by mini donuts at the Cherokee Co. Fair.

Throughout all the fairs I have attended, the Wright Co. Fair had the best food by far, but I guess that could just be my bias towards tacos and ice cream, especially black raspberry! After eating all these different foods, I still enjoy all the unique foods that Iowa’s fairs have to offer, but I think I maxed out my capacity for fried foods when I had chicken tenders, fried cheese balls, and a funnel cake all in the same trip!

As my internship is coming to a close, I have really enjoyed the county fairs and camps I’ve been to, and I have also learned a lot about the environment in Iowa. One thing that is really memorable is that one gram of dog poo has 23 million bacteria. Also, sediment is the #1 pollutant in Iowa. Actually, in Iowa, we lose 1 inch of topsoil every 20 years and we gain that 1 inch back in 500-1000 years. Overall, I have enjoyed working with the other interns along with traveling to all the different fairs across the state of Iowa. I would also like to thank the staff at Iowa State University for this wonderful internship opportunity!

Josh Harms

Watershed Work through a Fresh Lens

In the latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, host Jacqueline Comito traveled east to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area to chat with two energetic and engaging watershed project coordinators, Shane Wulf (Miller Creek) and Joshua Balk (Dry Run Creek). While both located in the heart of the Cedar Valley, and both affiliated with the Black Hawk Co. Soil and Water Conservation District, these guys are working to facilitate unique collaborations and promote conservation practices in two very different watersheds.

Miller Creek is largely an agricultural watershed, while Dry Run Creek has a significant urban component. And with each of those situations comes unique challenges, needs, and goals – ranging from cover crops and nutrient management in Miller Creek watershed (Shane) to helping facilitate practices that allow more water to infiltrate, like rain gardens and permeable pavers (Josh). However, regardless of the land use, relationship building is central to all watershed improvement projects!  In Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat podcast, Shane and Josh share some of their unique perspectives and creative collaborations from working in the water quality world these past few years.

Both have been very successful in building connections and facilitating healthy local community partnerships in their watersheds. Strong support from the local SWCD commissioners is key, too. In Miller Creek watershed, Shane has partnered with the City of Cedar Rapids (no, that’s not a typo!) and the Middle Cedar River Water Quality Improvement Project to invest dollars upstream in conservation practices such as cover crops. Currently, 15% of the Miller Creek watershed’s acres are in cover crops, substantially higher than the statewide average. In the Dry Run Creek watershed, Josh has worked closely with community partners like the City of Cedar Falls, University of Northern Iowa, Hawkeye Community College, and Green Iowa AmeriCorps to design and install practices like rain gardens – helping to improve water quality while students also build real life job skills! Both of these coordinators have also facilitated water quality monitoring in their watersheds, via the RetaiN and IOWATER programs, respectively.

Another really exciting collaborative project that both Shane and Josh have been involved in is Beauty Outside Our Doors: Conservation Stories of Black Hawk County. Working together with an Environmental Literature class at UNI, Shane and Josh helped to connect students with farmers and landowners throughout Black Hawk County to share the personal stories of the people and the land.

It is refreshing to hear about the many creative and collaborative approaches Shane and Josh are undertaking, and it is clear that these guys bring a great deal of passion to their work!

Josh comments, “Probably the most rewarding thing at the end of the day is just the lives you impact – the positive effect we have on our community. It’s absolutely wonderful, knowing that you’re benefitting the environment long term for the place you live in and care about.

Tune in to Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Shane and Josh! You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Just In! Opportunity to Reserve a Cover Crop Interseeder This Fall

20150827_123344Practical Farmers has been working with Hagie, Heartland Coop, IAWA and the Polk County SWCD plus a number of other organizations to offer farmers in the Polk, Dallas, Story and Boone county areas use of a new 90′ Hagie Interseeder for cover crop seeding this fall. To learn more head to this website.

To sign up to use the machine, which will be offered at a slight discount this year, get your fields in the queue here.

To contract the machine to seed your cover crops you can seed as many acres as you want but at least 20 for the minimum. You can either buy your seed through Heartland Co-op or provide the seed yourself. You can either be part of a cost share program or not. Mostly the machine is available for usage and Hagie wants to get it in use to see how well it seeds large numbers of acres during the seeding window of August-September.

Questions? Amanda Brown at the Polk County SWCD is the first contact for questions and getting your fields in the queue. She can be reached at Amanda.Brown@ia.nacdnet.net or 515-964-1883.