Finally, we get tested

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

It’s about time that Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered up some real coronavirus testing in one of Iowa’s top food processing centers: Buena Vista County. On Saturday, the state will administer COVID-19 tests in Storm Lake to people who have pre-registered at the testiowa.com website. This program was not created until April 21. The virus was detected in January. The wait is inexcusable.

We must take what we can get. The state reportedly will set up a drive-through and assign a strike team to Storm Lake to trace contracts and the like. In Perry, one day there were a handful of cases; after testing, the results soared to more than 730. We have no idea how many cases exist in our county because testing has been limited to about 200 kits used primarily for health care and nursing home employees.

Reynolds has pledged to get 3,000 tests per day done but has not come close to meeting the goal in partnership with a Utah company that was awarded a $26 million no-bid contract and the Iowa Hygienic Lab (which suffered a $105,000 budget cut from the legislature last session and was trimmed by 17 employees — we sure could use them now).

As we have described before, food processing and other critical workers live in a state of anxiety, if not fear, by not knowing if they or their workmate nearby is infected. Other meatpacking towns were tested — in Waterloo, more than 1,000 workers tested positive, which temporarily shut down the huge Tyson pork plant.

Hundreds of workers have called in sick at the Storm Lake facilities since the shutdown began in March. The company relaxed its sick leave policy. Still, it is impossible to know if it is safe to go to work until we have comprehensive testing. Tyson has tried to provide workplace counts where testing has been performed. We expect that information will be made available immediately — within 72 hours of Saturday, when the test results are supposed to be completed. We should know the number of tests performed, the number of positive and negative results, and what the breakdown is for critical workers. Since meatpacking and nursing homes are the two hottest coronavirus spots in the nation, we deserve to know that information collected from Iowans and paid by their taxes. It is crucial to public safety to know how many of us carry the virus.

We need to test every Tyson and Rembrandt Foods worker, every grocery worker, and every health care employee now, not over a matter of weeks. Storm Lake and Buena Vista County have been ignored by the governor since this crisis began, and we deserve better.

Nobody is buying it

An update on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: To stop pollution of surface waters, the Iowa Legislature created watershed authorities to convince property owners to install conservation practices or engineered wetlands that could capture stray nitrate and phosphorous. If we can’t keep it in the fields, we can at least catch it in a wetland and filter it, the defeatist logic goes. So it was ordained that the first watershed authority would be in the North Raccoon, since this area was the target of the infamous Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. Some $2.5 million was offered to agland owners, and just $500,000 has been awarded in the past couple years. The directors discussed giving it up but the authority will go on, just in case, as the unspent funds flow elsewhere in Iowa.

It doesn’t take a wizard to figure out why it flopped:

First, the government is asking farmers or their landlords who have been losing money or dropping cash rents seven years in a row to kick in 10% of the cost of that wetland or conservation improvement. The government would like the farmer to spend a dollar to take land out of production so it can spend $10 to convert that land to a public benefit (to reduce the nitrate load on Des Moines). That won’t work.

Second, everyone who has studied it understands that bioswales simply won’t cut it. They are part of the answer. Those of us long in the tooth know how land use has changed in this region in the past half-century. The pastures are plowed up and the planter runs right over the Raccoon River banks. Every last low spot has been drained to grow corn to feed hogs owned by the Chinese or to send to an ethanol plant that has been shut down.

Food prices go up. Farm prices go down. And the Gulf of Mexico is still suffocating from our oxygen-starving fertilizer excess.

We are growing too much corn and beans and raising so many hogs we lost count — literally, the state lost count. Prices for every ag commodity are a third too low, at least. The answer is to ditch the authority and pay farmers to plant grass. Reduce tilled acreage. Return livestock to pasture and out of unsustainable feedlots. Build soil health, increase productivity and reduce chemical costs. That last part is the rub: reduce chemical costs through integrated crop and pest management. That won’t do for the agri-chemical complex running this state. We need to engineer chemical filtration devices so the Kochs and Bayer can sell the chemistry that grows the corn that feeds the hogs that pollutes the Gulf. Even if nobody wants them.

We need a farm policy that puts farm prosperity first. We can do that and clean up the Raccoon once our priorities are in order. Asking farmers to subsidize Bayer and Dow DuPont’s excesses is a recipe for failure and inertia.

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