5 Encouraging Water Quality Stats for Iowa

April 22, 2015

Earth Day was first celebrated 45 years ago. And while Iowa has made significant environmental progress over the past few decades (including tremendous innovation, collaboration, and activity since the adoption of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013), no one will argue that we have a long way to go before April 22, 2060.

Here a handful of reasons to believe we’re heading in the right direction.

We’re #1. Iowa ranks first nationally in acres devoted to grassy buffer strips along the edges of farm fields (to protect streams from runoff) and conservation tillage (a practice to prevent soil erosion). We also rank second in combined no-till and conservation tillage acres.

Iowa wetlandsIowa has restored 285,718 “football fields” worth of wetlands. As of 2015, Iowa farmers have restored at least 377,811 acres of wetlands, up from 361,830 acres in 2014. That’s the equivalent of 285,718 football fields. Wetlands help farmers filter nutrients, so they don’t reach streams.

Iowa has grown its self-sustaining trout streams by nine-fold. Thirty years ago, Iowa had five streams with self-sustaining trout populations. Today, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counts 45.

Farmers are saving truckloads of soil. Soil erosion has been trending lower for decades, thanks to a variety of practices implemented in Iowa’s fields. From 1982-2010 (the most recent information available), Iowa’s soil erosion went down 28 percent. Of course, that doesn’t even factor in progress that’s been made in recent years. Farmers’ work through the Iowa soil conservation cost share program, alone, saves enough soil to fill 26,000 (15-ton) dump trucks per year.

Cover crops go from (virtually) zero to 21-23 (percent). Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy has illuminated the tremendous potential of cover crops (planted in fields to hold soil and nutrients in place in the winter and early spring – before corn and soybeans are planted), and farmers have jumped at the opportunity to try them in their fields.

According to Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa had roughly 10,000 acres of cover crops in 2009. That number swelled to 300,000 acres in four short years. And according to two recent surveys, roughly 21-23 percent of Iowa farmers use cover crops today.

The progress and ongoing challenge are both clear, and the only acceptable direction to move is forward. Fortunately, Iowa farmers have demonstrated their commitment to continuous improvement time and time again. Armed with new science and research-based conservation practices through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, there’s no telling how much progress we can make over the next 45 years.

Learn more about Iowa’s encouraging conservation progress and ongoing efforts to protect water quality at www.conservationcountsiowa.com .

Iowa's conservation progress

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

Tomorrow’s environmental experts are working together now

April 21, 2015

Iowa Envirothon studentsI’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert in environmental systems, species or soils. I could tell you that I’m having a difficult time trying to grow grass on the sod/clay-based soil at our home, but I couldn’t explain the science behind that.

Last week, I met students who could not only explain why, but could have probably explained why different soils form, what the soils are made of, and how they impact homeowners like me. They are carrying on a tradition of farmers and others working to understand and protect the environment, while they continue to produce food for Iowa and the world.

Specifically, these high school students were competing in the state’s Iowa Envirothon, an environmental competition for FFA students sponsored by Iowa Farm Bureau and held at Springbrook State Park near Guthrie Center. It was impressive to see so many young people interested in the environment as they competed for their chance to bring home the state title and advance to national competition in Missouri.

The students had prepared for several months in the areas of wildlife, soils, forestry and aquatics, as well as an oral presentation for state competition.

The theme this year focused on urban forestry. Students were tasked with developing and presenting a plan that would allow a city to continue to develop while protecting it from flooding.

As I walked around the outdoor stations throughout the park with students, it was clear that they were excited about being outdoors and competing for the Envirothon title.

Students not only recognized the importance of the event, but also how the information involved could help them as farmers, homeowners and informed citizens someday.

I talked to students from the St. Ansgar FFA team (which ended up winning the state competition). They explained that it was important to divvy up the information in the competition; each student became an expert in his or her assigned field.

“Our team, we all work very well together. If somebody doesn’t know something, one of us will,” said Sam Ransom, one of the members of the team.

“If we were all separate we wouldn’t be as good as we all are together,” said Connor Gordon, another team member. “We’re a pretty solid team.”

Iowa Envirothon studentsAnd the students all had different backgrounds. That’s the beauty of the Envirothon, said their instructor Jim Green.

“It’s neat because it brings into play their lifetime experiences,” Green said.

Some, like Jeremy Hackenmiller and Ransom had experiences on the farm. Others, like Britany White, Sara Bergerson and Gordon, simply enjoyed being outdoors. They all recognized the practical applications of the competition — practice in public speaking, experience identifying trees and soil types, etc.

The contest gave me confidence that there are young people learning today who will help farmers, rural residents and city folks continue to care for Iowa’s environment. I might even have to call one of the students for help in landscaping around our home. They’re the experts, after all.

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is the commodities writer for Iowa Farm Bureau.

The secret to overcoming adversity

April 15, 2015

runnersLavonne Baldwin is a beautiful woman; one you’ve never met. She struggled for decades to find a healthy weight and has gained and lost a thousand pounds, trying on and casting off various weight loss plans with the fervor of Hollywood elites trying on fashion trends. Lavonne slurped the shakes, counted the points, read books, popped pills and the weight did come off, but returned with a vengeance. But today, she’s hit on a plan that’s helped her lose 126 pounds and keep it off.

She now does two things actually: she does the work, and she embraces the ‘long view.’ Health is work and it involves sweat, dedication and attention to detail. It’s a perpetual process to find the balance that brings results. No amount of hard work will last, if you don’t embrace the long view. “I had to change my view and think about what I wanted, not just for today, but for the future. I don’t want to be 60 and not be able to walk up a flight of stairs. I don’t want to be 80 and forced to be a hermit, sitting in a chair for days on end because I don’t have the energy to do anything. I am not into denying myself anymore; I’m giving myself something; I’m giving myself the gift of time.”

Whether it’s expecting change in the mirror or change on the land, we seem to be a society defined by our impatience; if the weight doesn’t come off in a week, we look into pills to kill our appetite and give us energy. And, if 200 years of nitrate fluctuations in the watershed isn’t solved in the lifespan of a sparrow, we get ‘lawyered up’ and sue. Either approach is doomed to be repeated and fail.

I’ve learned something being a runner of 35 years, an Iowa farm girl, Mom, wife and patientdaughter; success comes with relentless effort and a willingness to collaborate, listen and encourage, because everything worthwhile takes patience.

Lavonne now is a runner. A runner without a ‘finish line.’ A runner with an inner fire that keeps her going even through new challenges. That fire kept her going even when doctors found cancer on the bottom of her foot, which turned out to be early stage melanoma. It took skin grafts to replace lost padding on the bottom of her foot where the mole was removed, but she’s running again, setting new goals.

Weight loss takes time and commitment, and miracle cures or government edicts about the size of your soda won’t work. Taking the same approach to water quality—force-fitting government edicts, arming lawyers and rushing to judgement won’t bring progress. The commitment and progress Iowa farmers are seeing through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is real; that’s because the strategy embraces the long view and provides scientific tools farmers need to reduce nutrient loss and improve water quality.

I’d like to salute all the hard-working women, hard-working farmers, and the many more who nurture our success—one step at a time. Why not follow in their footsteps? I promise the long and winding road will be worth it.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Wretched roads: a visit to Brazil highlights the value of Iowa’s infrastructure

April 9, 2015

Sape-Farm-dusty-road1(Editor’s note: Tom Block, Farm Bureau News Coordinator, is on tour of Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers studying livestock production there. Here are some of his observations.)

Traveling to Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers, we knew the roads wouldn’t be up to U.S. standards. We just didn’t realize some of the situations we’d find ourselves in during our two week market study tour sponsored by Iowa Farm Bureau.

I lived on a gravel road growing up, and there were only a couple days a year that our school bus wasn’t able make its route to pick us up. In Brazil, that’s a daily occurrence.

On one of our first farm visits, we piled into open pickup beds because our tour bus wasn’t able to navigate the roads leading to the farm’s pastures and feedlot. After riding several miles along bumpy red dirt roads, we were all caked in red dust from head to toe.

We encountered a similar situation the next day with another road that was impassable by bus due to several deep mudholes along the route. This time we stuffed 18 people into a 16-passenger van for a six-mile ride that took 30 minutes, wondering the whole time if the next mudhole would be the one that swallowed our van. (In fact, just last week a tour bus in Brazil fell through a bridge and was swept away by a river current.) For the return trip, our van driver chose to drive along a primitive path in an adjacent sugarcane field because it was in better condition that the actual road.

On another visit, our bus got stuck at the end of a drive at a state research farm. One of the farm’s supervisors assured us it would be OK to attempt the trip, because this was the same road that the trucks used during sugarcane harvest.

And that’s the point, really. These roads we were traveling on are the very same ones that Brazilian farmers use to transport their valuable sugarcane, soybean and corn crops.

It underscored the value of keeping Iowa’s road system in good shape.

Infrastructure is one of the United States’ key advantages over Brazil, which has much lower land and labor costs. But it costs a farmer in Brazil’s Mato Grasso state $2.40 a bushel to move his soybeans to the nearest port, said Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau research and commodities director. That’s four times more than it costs to move grain a similar distance from Keokuk to New Orleans, Miller said. We heard Brazil is attempting to improve its roads but an unstable and corrupt government makes progress slow or non-existent.

“Despite what we complain about sometimes in Iowa, the reality is there’s just no comparison,” Miller said .  “Iowa roads are substantially better than the road infrastructure in Brazil.”

That’s an advantage Iowa farmers, businesses and citizens can’t afford to lose.

By Tom Block. Tom is Spokesman News Coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.


A lot of folks use fertilizer, why target only agriculture?

April 7, 2015

spreaderLike many of my neighbors, I fertilized my lawn last weekend. It’s something I do every spring as the grass starts to green. I barely think twice about it. Mostly, I just want to get it over with so I can watch the basketball games on television.

But I paid more attention this year thanks to the lawsuit that Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) filed last month against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties.

The lawsuit seeks to force the drainage districts, which are in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, to obtain permits for alleged discharges. DMWW CEO Bill Stowe has also sharply criticized the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which provides farmer information on opt­­ions to reduce nutrient loss.

While they are pointing an accusatory finger at agriculture, I haven’t heard DMWW officials say much at all about homeowners, golf courses and others in the Raccoon River watershed who rely on nitrogen fertilizers to keep things green.

When I treat my lawn, I work to keep the granules off the driveway and the street, because I know that nutrients there could easily find their way to the river. Just like farmers, I want to protect the watershed.

But, I confess, I don’t use anything close to the precision tools that Iowa farmers now employ to make sure crops absorb nutrients and don’t get into water.

I didn’t do a soil test to determine how much fertilizer my lawn really needed. I didn’t add a nitrogen stabilizer to the fertilizer to make sure it stayed put until the plants could utilize it. And I certainly wasn’t using a GPS guidance system, the high-tech system that farmers utilize so they can program their application equipment to shut off to avoid streams and other sensitive areas.

Nope, I just poured the fertilizer into my spreader and took off. And I suspect most homeowners who live in Raccoon River watershed, as well as lawn services, golf courses and others in our state’s urban areas, did exactly the same thing.

We all live in a watershed and are responsible for protecting rivers, lakes and streams. It seems curious to me that DMWW seems to target its criticism only at agriculture, when Iowa farmers are really the ones stepping up and leading the way to protect water.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.


Organic, conventional or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? Let’s not judge our food choices

April 2, 2015


Eggs1Last weekend, I decided to swing by Hy-Vee in Ames for a grocery run on my way home from visiting my sister and two adorable nieces.

It was after 8 p.m., and as expected, most of the grocery shoppers were college students buying snacks to watch the March Madness games. The kid behind me in the checkout line only had two items in his basket: a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and an energy drink.

I was worn out from literally chasing my 2-year-old niece in circles, so I was trying to get out of the store as fast as I could. I have to admit, I was annoyed when I got to the egg case and a young woman was obliviously blocking the cooler.

She stood there for a good minute, staring at the egg cartons with a shopping basket in her hand. Then she walked away, without taking any eggs.

It seemed odd, because the eggs were on super sale for Easter weekend. They were such a good deal that the Hy-Vee sign read, “Limit 2 cartons.”

A couple aisles later, I wheeled my cart to the Health Market section, looking for my husband’s favorite almond milk. As I was standing there, the same young women reached into the cooler next to me and grabbed a carton of organic eggs.

I wanted to stop and ask why she ended up choosing the organic eggs, which cost more than twice that of the conventional eggs on sale.

I wanted to explain to her that studies show there isn’t a difference nutritionally or food-safety wise between organic and conventional eggs (http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2002334,00.html).

The biggest difference is how the hens are raised. On certified organic farms, the hens are fed organic grains, raised without cages and have access to the outdoors, although that doesn’t mean the hens necessarily go outside.

A recent study by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supple (http://feedstuffsfoodlink.com/story-study-compares-laying-hen-housing-systems-71-125467), which included researchers from Iowa State University, just a few blocks from the grocery store, found that both cage-free and traditional hen housing have benefits and drawbacks.

In summary, the study found that hens have better “skeletal integrity” in cage-free systems, yet death loss is higher without cages protecting the hens from each other. (The “pecking order” is real; hens will peck to death their weaker flock mates.)

I wanted to share all of this knowledge that can’t fit on an egg carton label. But then I realized that she has a right to buy whatever eggs she prefers.

Sure, my priority is to find a good deal on eggs. However, maybe she doesn’t eat a whole carton of eggs each week like my husband and I do, and she’s OK with buying organic eggs every once and a while.

I shouldn’t judge her food choices, and I hope she doesn’t judge mine. Yet I also hope that my fellow grocery shoppers aren’t making food choices based on guilt and misinformation.

We need to protect our food choices, especially for those who can’t afford to make a choice.

After all, if we’re leaving the grocery store with healthy, nutritious eggs – whether organic or conventional, then we’re making a better choice than the college student with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Although, I probably shouldn’t judge his choices either.

To learn more about the importance of protecting food choices, visit the Choose 2 Choose website at www.choose2choose.com.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

From the buffet line: Lessons about responding to consumer demand

March 30, 2015

buffet lunch1

(Editor’s note: Tom Block, Farm Bureau News Coordinator, is on tour of Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers studying livestock production there. Here are some of his observations.)

Nothing says comfort food quite like a good, old-fashioned buffet when you’re 5,000 miles from home.

That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned this week traveling with a group of Iowa farmers to learn about how livestock are raised in Brazil. With a packed schedule that has us on the road from dawn until dusk, well-stocked buffets for breakfast and lunch have been a necessity not only for nourishment, but also efficiency. We’ve been able to feed our group of 22 Iowa Farm Bureau members on the Brazil study tour in less than an hour and get back on the road as we cover 1,200 miles by bus in the wide-open countryside.

And, we haven’t gone away hungry. The buffets have featured a wide selection of familiar food choices like salad greens, pasta, beans, rice, chicken and beef. A few of us have been a little more adventurous and tried some selections not found at your typical small-town Iowa café, including eggplant,  plantains and a variety of other native foods that are unidentifiable to us, but usually tasty.

The chicken and beef selections are also a little different than what we’re used in in the U.S. Instead of chicken breasts, all we’ve eaten so far is legs and thighs — the preferred, and cheaper, option for Brazilians. The beef we’ve had is nothing like the tender, juicy cuts we’re used to at home either. We’ve learned tougher cuts are the norm — the product of the rangy, grass-fed cattle we’ve come here to see. One of our group members joked that the tough meat is a way to get people to follow their mom’s recommendation and chew food 32 times before swallowing.

In reality, on our visits to farms, research institutes and a beef processing plant, we’ve learned that Brazilian beef isn’t graded according to quality like U.S. prime, choice and select, because consumers can’t afford the pricier cuts. Since farmers here aren’t paid for producing better beef, most aren’t selecting better genetics to improve their herds.

“It changes very slowly. It’s cultural,” said the farm manager at one of the more progressive cattle farms we visited. “The older generation doesn’t want to change.”

That’s been one of the biggest surprises for our Iowa livestock farmers, who are constantly reinvesting in their farms and seeking ways to improve the quality of beef, pork, chicken and milk they produce to meet the demands of U.S. consumers.

“You have to be open to new ideas,” said Jason Brockshus, a dairy farmer from Sibley. “We’re always looking for way to improve our production and get better.”

Some of the Brazilian farms we’ve visited are starting to get that message, but for the rest of our trip we’re expecting to follow mom’s advice to chew our beef very well as we enjoy our buffet lunches.

By Tom Block. Tom is Spokesman News Coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.



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