Webinar Recap: Exploring Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa

On July 18th, Dr. Chuan Tang, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD), joined us for our monthly webinar series to  discuss an ongoing project looking to provide economic valuation to the benefit of reducing nitrate in Iowa’s water.

The economic costs of nutrient pollution are relatively well known, but to develop good policy directed at reducing nutrients in our waters it is important to estimate the economic benefits too.  To help provide policy makers this important resource Dr. Tang worked along with Dr. Gabriel Lade, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at ISU, Dr. David Kaiser, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at ISU and the head of CARD’s Resource and Environmental Economics division, and Dr. Catherine Kling, former CARD Director to conduct this study. Together they divided the benefits into three categories:Slide9During his presentation Dr. Tang explored each of these categories more closely, but here are a few highlights –

  • About 90% of Iowans receive their water from a public water supply system that are monitored for nitrate levels. Of those systems – 55% rely on groundwater and 45% on surface water sources.
  • The remaining 10% use private wells. Private well users can contact their county health department to receive free test supplies to monitor the health of their water supply.
  • Lakes and other water bodies provide an estimated $30M each year in recreational benefits.
  • In addition to acute health impacts like Blue Baby Syndrome, health researchers are examining the chronic issue from long term exposure to high nitrate levels.

Be sure to watch the archive version of the webinar for more information and check out the related publication “Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa“.

Liz Juchems

What is your hope for Iowa?

As the Conservation Station travels the state this summer, citizens of Iowa are being asked to share “What is your hope for Iowa?” hope for iowa Many inspiring speakers at the One Water Summit conference I attended last week gave me a chance to think about this question and my hope for Iowa.

The One Water Summit is an annual event organized by the U.S. Water Alliance to further their mission to build a sustainable water future for all.  I was part of the Iowa Delegation of 52 farmers, watershed coordinators, city and municipal utility officials, and agriculture and conservation organization, Iowa Water Center, and ISU Extension and Outreach representatives.

Iowa farmers and water leaders spoke on several panels, sharing how Iowa is approaching water quality improvement, implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS), and monitoring and tracking progress of the INRS.

What struck me, and many of the Iowa delegation, was that the INRS embodies the One Water approach. Across the state, several rural and urban stakeholder groups are working together to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45%.  Do we have progress to make in achieving the goals and engaging landowners, farmers, agribusiness and other partners on the scale we need to succeed?  Absolutely.  But the work of the past five years is a good foundation for moving forward.

To understand more about this regional approach and to learn how you can be involved in this effort, you are invited to attend the North Central Region One Water Action Forum on December 11-13, 2018, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The North Central Region Water Network, Iowa Soybean Association, Soil and Water Conservation Society and the US Water Alliance are organizers of this event.

The Forum will bring together researchers, educators, practitioners, farmers and policy-makers to advance more connected and cohesive approaches to water and watershed management in the North Central Region. Together, we will deepen the one water conversation, localize lessons learned by delegates and attendees of the National 2018 One Water Summit, and take steps to put one water to action in the Midwest.
One Water

So what is my hope for Iowa?  I hope that our collaborative approach to improving water quality continues to gain momentum and achieve ever increasing successes and that you all will join me at the One Water Action Forum in December.
Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manger for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

How will nitrogen reductions economically benefit Iowa?

chuan tangWatch the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on July 18 at 12:00 p.m. with Dr. Chuan Tang to learn how he and his fellow researchers are examining the economic benefits of nitrogen reductions in Iowa through the exploration of the costs of high nitrates and how meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals will be beneficial for all Iowans.

Dr. Chuan Tang, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, is exploring the costs of high nitrates in Iowa’s drinking water sources including public water supply systems and private wells. The study also analyzes the recreational benefits of meeting Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy targets.

“The state of Iowa is currently grappling with designing the best policies to address nitrate pollution in the state. This webinar will discuss an important aspect of this discussion – the benefits of nitrate reductions to all Iowans,” commented Dr. Tang.

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, July 18, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/ 

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Carrot vs Stick – Are farmers ready to change?

In a recent article from Civil Eats, author Virginia Gewin, features a couple familiar Iowa faces and asks the tough question – As farm runoff in U.S. Waters hits crisis levels, are farmers ready to change?

Addressing our water quality challenges in Iowa and across the U.S. is a serious undertaking that to-date has primarily used the voluntary approach.  Using incentives or cost share (carrots), there has been slow adoption of conservation practices like cover crops and edge of field practices.  This is where the author poses the question of whether it’s time to impose the ‘stick’ method of regulation.

In the article Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, discusses the innovative ways Iowa farmers are working with industry groups like Cargill, Pepsi, Unilever and more to implement cover crops through incentives and the challenges of providing a uniform message across sources to help producers successfully implement cover crops.  speaking_pfi-field-day-2016

ILF Farmer Partner, Nathan Anderson, shares how he transitioned cover crops in his area from a curiosity to a serious consideration among his farming neighbors.  “Farmers that I never thought would be asking me for cover crop advice are asking those questions,” said Anderson.

Be sure to check out the full article here! This story is part of a year-long series about the underreported agriculture stories in our rural communities.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Acres Grow But Rate of Growth Declines in 2017

According to the Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 22% to 760,000 total acres. While the positive growth with shrinking profit margins is notable, the rate of growth is ten percent less than the growth measured in 2016, and still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover Crop Acres 2017 (2)

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (69%) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ year-end evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only eleven percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last year. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 46% of their total row crop acres in cover crops—6% more than in 2016.

Cost Share Cover Crops 2017. (2)The overall percentage of farmers who are using cost share to seed cover crop acres has increased by seven percent over four years of Iowa Learning Farms evaluation data. Of the respondents seeding cover crops in 2017, 65% of them did so with the assistance of cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms sponsored 29 conservation field days and workshops in 2017 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 1,280 people, primarily farmers and landowners (89%). Twenty-seven percent of Iowa Learning Farms field day attendees were female.Eval Cover (2)

In January 2018, 580 farmers and landowners who attended Iowa Learning Farms field days were mailed an evaluation questionnaire to investigate whether they made changes to their farming practices. In a one-month period, 251 evaluation questionnaires were returned for a 42% response rate.

The Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report can be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Established in 2004, Iowa Learning Farms is building a Culture of Conservation by encouraging adoption of conservation practices. Farmers, researchers and team members are working together to identify and implement the best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable. Partners of Iowa Learning Farms include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA section 319).

Liz Juchems

Watershed Scale, Not Field Scale

If we hope to significantly improve water quality in Iowa and still farm profitably, we are going to need to change our mindset about our agricultural systems. We are going to need to start thinking in terms of watersheds.

Each spring I teach a graduate course for the Iowa State University Master of Science in Agronomy distance program called “Agronomic Systems Analysis.” The course is comprised of field-scale case studies that require students to consider how complex decisions must be made by taking into consideration agronomic, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decisions. This year, I incorporated a new lesson that goes beyond field scale but encourages the students to address the issues at the watershed scale.

shelbyemphemeral-e1506974374896The point of this lesson is to have students think not about a single farm or field but to think about where to target practices to be the most effective. And which practices will draw the most reduction of nutrients being lost. This is not rocket science. It has been well established that sloping land is prone to erosion. These are the areas where no-tillage and cover crops are going to be the most effective at keeping soil and phosphorus in place. It’s well understood that well drained soils with very little slope are prone to nitrate leaching. These are the areas where bioreactors, wetlands and cover crops will be most effective in reducing nitrate movement into flowing water.

For several years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have been talking about implementing conservation practices and the scale of conservation practice adoption that must occur to reach nutrient reduction goals. For instance, one scenario calls for statewide adoption of MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) rates along with 12 million acres of cover crops, 12 million acres of no-tillage, 6 million acres treated by bioreactors, and 7.5 million acres treated by wetlands. That effort to date has achieved approximately 625,000 acres of cover crops, 5 million acres of no-tillage, 950 acres treated by bioreactors and 42,200 acres treated by wetlands. We have a long way to go.

Cover crops

Reaching conservation practice goals will take everyone thinking about how his or her footprint impacts the watershed as a whole. It will take targeting practices for maximum effectiveness with minimal impact to the cost of production. Wetlands can be installed to treat water flowing from multiple fields. Prairie strips in strategic locations can minimize sediment and phosphorus loss. Saturated and riparian buffers will reduce nutrient movement and streambank sloughing of rivers and streams. It can even be as simple as installing a waterway to connect waterways from adjacent fields or no-tilling soybean into corn residue.

There can be watershed and community benefits that extend beyond the fence. Many practices can support efforts to provide habitat for pollinators, monarchs, song birds, game birds, waterfowl and deer.

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We cannot meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and improve habitat without changing our mindset about how we farm and the use of conservation. Conservation practices are most effective if they are targeted specifically in areas that will result in a continuous, complimentary system across the watershed.

How can we help you think on a watershed scale?

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.