Moving forward

This week we observe National Soil and Water Conservation Week. All Iowans over the past year developed a keener awareness of and interest in the topic by virtue of the debate over, and subsequent dismissal of, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. Over the courses of the lawsuit, most Iowans came to an agreement that we have a serious water quality problem. It was reflected in the positions of Gov. Terry Branstad and former US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Each knows what Iowans are thinking.

And it is this:

Most Iowans think farmers and landowners are trying hard to conserve soil and clean water. Two-thirds of farmers express interest in better stewardship for profit, which suggests that there is work to do with the other third. Many farmers say it is difficult educating absentee landlords about conservation practices that do not have immediate payoffs.

Most Iowans agreed that downstream urban water consumers should not have to pay directly for the costs of cleaning up the rivers from nitrate and phosphorous.

And we all wish that we could come to a voluntary means of achieving all our goals: clean air and water, healthy soil, profitable farms and sustainable rural communities.

It’s just not that easy. And yes, it will take time.

Recent polling analysis we found on the progressive blogsite suggests that moderate, independent Iowa voters strongly identify with the Democratic positions on civil rights and the environment. A candidate who can integrate a message of environmental innovation that enhances rural communities and agriculture without excessive regulation can gain traction. Even in Northwest Iowa.

Conversely, agribusiness and the Republican Party have to figure out how to shape a message that appeals to those very voters on an issue that has vaulted to the front of the state agenda: water quality.

We hope those messages can concentrate on a few key ideas heading quickly into the 2018 electoral debate:

• That we need cattle to return to the Iowa landscape. Nature will demand it eventually. The lower Great Plains cannot long support the water demands of big feedlots where the bulk of US cattle are sourced. The demand for increased agricultural resiliency will dictate, someday sooner rather than later, that grass is restored to marginal Iowa land and that it will be under hoof.

• That we need to give clear market incentives through the US farm bill to reward stewardship. We read last Sunday in The Des Moines Register of a great suggestion from the Practical Farmers of Iowa: Reward sustainable practices with lower crop insurance rates. Already, no-till corn growers are 30% less likely to receive indemnity payments from subsidized crop insurance. They should be rewarded with lower premiums. And taxpayers who want improvements in environmental stewardship deserve a return on their investment in crop insurance. We also need to be loud and clear with our congressional delegation that we cannot stand for massive cuts in the USDA’s conservation, research and feeding programs.

• That we restore the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. We need more research on how Iowa farmers and landowners can make money while not depleting the land and polluting our water. Iowa needs to learn — to remind ourselves, really — how diversity makes agriculture whole and rural communities prosperous. Tyson and Rembrandt Foods are responding to consumer demand by adopting sustainable practices in livestock production. We can all work together with agri-industry to alter our course slightly in a way that gets us all rowing together in the same direction. We did it when we pledged to feed the world. We can do it with a pledge to make Iowa the leader in whole system agriculture again.

Right now the people are ahead of the politics. They wanted to get antibiotics out of livestock production for rate of gain and got it done by pressuring business through politics. The right leadership can get it done for clean water, strong farms and healthy communities in Iowa. Ron Corbett, the mayor of Cedar Rapids, has been trying to shape that message for the GOP. He is a good and moderate man. We wish him well.  John Norris, on the other side, so far is the Democrat with the strongest fusion of agriculture, the environment and rural community. Norris, who helped see us through the Farm Crisis with the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, excites us with his message for rural communities. Others will step forward, and that is what we need right now.

Iowa will find a way forward. We always do.