ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

An International Perspective on Water Issues

Today’s guest blogger is Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! student intern Kayla Hasper. Growing up on a farm in southeast Iowa (Montrose), Kayla is beginning her senior year at Iowa State University, where she is pursuing a double major in Animal Ecology and Environmental Studies.

I had the opportunity of studying abroad for two weeks in the tropical country of Belize earlier this summer. While hiking through the jungle and snorkeling in the second largest coral reef system in the world, I started to consider the water quality compared to the water quality here in Iowa.

Kayla Hasper participating in an ISU study abroad program in Belize, June 2015

Intern Kayla Hasper participating in an ISU study abroad program in Belize, June 2015

The agriculture in Belize is mainly sugarcane and fruit production, which is less disrupting to the natural environment when compared to our crop production here in Iowa. Sugarcane is a perennial, therefore stabilizing the soil for the three year growth cycle. When the three years is up and new seeds need planted, it requires less tillage than crops in Iowa. Sugarcane also absorbs the necessary nutrients from the groundwater and is tolerant to insects and disease, so it requires little to no pesticides or fertilizers.


Field of sugarcane, one of the most abundant crops grown in Belize

The fruit orchards, which grow pineapple, coconut, plantains, waxy apples, guava, mangos, etc., are left with native plants growing all around the trees so that there is no soil left vulnerable to erosion.

Mangoes trees are a common site across the country of Belize

Mangoes trees are a common site in the country of Belize

While on the inland, I started noticing the ditches full of plastics, tires, and other garbage. I asked our tour guide about the trash that I was noticing. He explained to me that Belize does not have enough money, support, or governmental power to start a recycling program. Each household disposes of their trash on their own. There are designated areas around villages that you can dump your garbage, which are similar to our landfill sites. These, however, are unregulated and end up as piles of garbage right off the highways. The intense rains in the rainy season in Belize wash all of the loose, vulnerable garbage downhill in the watershed.


Designated garbage areas in Belize

He explained, though, that a lot of people in the county of Belize do care about conservation and do what they can to reduce and reuse their consumables. I also believe that the poverty in their culture forces them to become more creative with the little that they do have and to not waste much.

Out on the coast of Belize, the beaches were covered in garbage. The locals explained that the trash on the beaches was actually ocean trash from other countries. The garbage on the beaches also comes from ships that dump their trash loads in the middle of the ocean. (Side note – Water Rocks! has a great video called Isle of Plastic that addresses the challenge of ocean trash. While this song is focused on the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch, the same principles apply!)

Hopkins, Belize beach filled with garbage that has been washed on shore

Hopkins, Belize beach filled with garbage that has been washed on shore

The second week of my trip, we were staying out on an island that was part of the Turneffe Atoll system. In the Turneffe Atoll, the water was crystal clear and there was no trash in the water or on the beaches. This is partially because the coral reef system is protected, which helps reduce the amount of pollution affecting the area. This is also because the island that we were on was surrounded by many other islands, so the trash couldn’t float directly up to it as easily.

The locals are very concerned, though, about the future impacts of a casino being built on one of the islands in the Turneffe Atoll. The land was purchased before it became a protected area, so the casino is legally allowed to be built. This will have increased environmental disturbance and damage in the area. There will be increased water pollution from the boat traffic, disturbance of aquatic wildlife from the speed and sound of the boats, destruction of wildlife habitat on the island, increased pollution from the trash generated at the casino, etc.

We were given the opportunity to meet some awesome local, as well as international, researchers and conservation advocates while on the atoll. There are many studies being researched and proposals being made about protecting certain delicate areas of the coral reef system. These are areas where there are large populations of dolphins, manatees, fish, etc. that could be negatively affected by the introduction of this casino in the area.

Overall, I could tell that the residents of Belize really care about soil and water conservation. They unfortunately do not have the resources to use the best practices for their lands, but are doing what they can to keep their beautiful country clean.

Based on the amount of funding, research, and support that our state has, I am disappointed in our actions after returning from Belize. The data shows that the amount of nutrients we are letting run downstream and the amount of excess tilling we are doing in Iowa is harmful to our environment, yet many of our farmers/landowners are not doing anything about it. There are great conservation practices that we can be implementing on our land while growing our crops. I also think that farmers/landowners should raise a larger diversity of crops and livestock on their land.

Kayla Hasper