The wrong target

Several environmental groups are attacking Gov. Terry Branstad for questioning a federal proposal to inspect livestock operations. The governor sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency this week protesting a federal initiative to have the state inspect livestock operations with more than 750 head. That includes the great majority of hog confinement operations in Iowa, which are typically around 1,000 head.

A great part of the cry is based out of concern that confinement units and cattle producers are polluting surface water. Except for the occasional honey wagon spill, manure is not the primary cause of nitrate pollution in any major watershed. The main cause of nitrate pollution is soil erosion when water is moving in the spring. This has been well-documented.

We have been around our share of hoghouses. They stink. No question about it. But not once have we witnessed effluent from one of these operations — unlike the old days when they wallowed in the mud around the barn, which drained to the ditch.

Few hog confinements even have lagoons anymore. Most have underground concrete manure storage systems. It reduces odor greatly and should prevent ground contamination if properly maintained. And they are properly maintained.

Environmental groups need to concentrate their efforts on promoting soil conservation. There is no question that corn production in Iowa and Illinois is the leading cause of hypoxia (a dead zone for lack of oxygen) in the Gulf of Mexico. That dead zone is killing coastal marshes that protect cities and farms from storms, it is destroying fisheries and reefs, and it is disrupting the entire Gulf Coast regional economy. Feedlot cattle and hog confinements simply do not contribute much to the problem.

It appears to be more a political attack because the Branstad Administration has always displayed indifference to the environment.

Unfortunately, it alienates producers, makes people dig in their heels for a fight, and takes our eye off the real problem: immense soil loss which is growing much worse every year. Buffer strips are ripped out and CRP ground given up in search of a gold corn bounty. No amount of voluntary effort will overcome a market that demands more acres in corn. That is the discussion we need to have, before our prairie pothole lakes disappear over the next 50 years along with the Louisiana shrimper.


Hope for rural areas

Nearly seven in 10 rural residents fear small-town life may be dying, according to a poll commissioned by the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., and conducted by prominent and respected bipartisan pollsters Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas. Among the poll’s findings:

• Over half said that owning a small business or farm is “a big part of the American dream for me.”

• 75% support tax credits and investment in new transmission lines for renewable energy transportation — a huge issue in wind-rich Northwest Iowa.

• 80% support USDA rural development loans for infrastructure (sewer, water and transporation).

• 80% support job training, Medicaid, preschool and the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.

The poll found that younger rural Americans are much more optimistic about their future than older folks. Possibly the older generation watches commercial and agricultural consolidation conflicting with their view of what rural life should look like. Younger people are more open to change and possibilities sprouting in a new rural economy built around renewable energy and biotechnology.

We’re not sure what to really make of the findings except that people believe government has a role in helping people get a start to independence. It might be the immigrant trying to grope his way through life in a new world, or it might be the person who wants to start his own custom meat business.

The main finding of the poll, outside its political implications, is that rural residents feel strongly about small towns and a level playing field. They believe that government can help foster economic growth by seed loans, lower taxes and fewer regulations. And they have a surprising sense of entrepreneurship that appears to be stronger than that or their urban peers.

Rural residents know that the economy has been steering opportunity away. They know there is a problem. But they think they can fix it with targeted government intervention. Rural residents, especially younger ones, believe they can preserve what they perceive as a way of life. That’s a view we have not seen in a generation or more.