Covering up for conservation: cover crops take off in Iowa

October 30, 2013

NakedThere’s a new slogan in Iowa farm country these days: “Don’t farm naked.”

The slogan really has nothing to do with the clothing choices of Iowa farmers. (This fall and winter you can expect to see most farmers decked out in warm Carhatts; same as every other year.)

No, the slogan refers to the unprecedented push by Iowa farmers to plant cover crops this year to protect both their fields and help the environment. In every county of Iowa, you’ll see newly-germinated seeds of winter rye, tillage radish, triticale and other plants just starting to push through the black dirt of the newly-harvested fields. The cover crops will stay on the fields through the winter months, acting as a blanket to protect the soil from wind or water erosion. Research has shown the cover crops will also significantly reduce the chances that nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, will end up in Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Then after the snows melt away and spring rolls around, the cover crops will be removed to make way for another planting of corn and soybeans and the cycle will start over.

Cover crops are one of the key tools outlined in the innovative Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy is designed, in part, to help farmers voluntarily adopt practices which improve their soil and help keep nutrients from reaching Iowa’s waters and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy works to reduce nutrient losses from waste water treatment plants, industry and other so-called point sources.

The response from farmers was very encouraging.

Within days of offering the cost-share dollars for those planting cover crops for the first time, some 1,125 Iowa farmers stepped up to try them out. In all, cover crops and other conservation practices has been adopted on nearly 121,000 acres.

Eventually IDALS increased funding to $2.8 million to meet the demand. That means that Iowa farmers are putting up $2.8 million, and likely much more, a pretty solid investment in conservation.

Iowa ag and conservation officials expect cover crop acreage to continue expanding as farmers become more familiar with the practice of having plants growing on their fields during the months between the fall harvest and spring planting.

RalphA key to success in cover crops in Iowa is getting them seeded in time to germinate before the snows fly. That’s why many of Iowa’s cover crops were sown early by aerial applicators, who dropped the cover crop seed in standing corn and soybeans fields. The seeds eventually made their way to the ground and sprouted in the autumn sunshine. Other acres were planted right after the combines finished harvest as farmers rushed to beat the cold Iowa winter.

No matter how they are planted, cover crops will protect the soil and promote water quality. And Iowa farmers, no matter how they are dressed, are clearly stepping up for conservation.

For more information on conservation efforts in Iowa go to the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Conservation Counts webpage.Print

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is editor of the Farm Bureau Spokesman.

Standing up for sense on GMOs

October 21, 2013
Mark Lynas, once a leading opponent of GMOs, now sees the technology as an essential tool for the environment and a growing world population.

Mark Lynas, once a leading opponent of GMOs, now sees the technology as an essential tool for the environment and for feeding a growing world population.

You’ve got to admire a man who has the courage to stand up for what he knows is true, even if it means admitting, very publicly, that he was once wrong.

Mark Lynas, a well-known British climate change campaigner and author, was a vocal opponent of genetically modified (GMO) foods when the technology first was commercialized in the 1990s. He even admitted to ripping up GMO crops in protest.

But earlier this year, Lynas surprised the environmental community by announcing that he is now an avid supporter of GMOs.

Recently, Lynas told a packed audience at the World Food Prize in Des Moines that GMO plant breeding technology can help solve many of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, while helping to feed a growing global population.

Lynas explained that he changed his mind about GMOs when researching his books on climate change. “I realized that I didn’t understand molecular biology. I didn’t understand any basic information (about GMOs). It was all coming from activist groups, so I lived in a bit of bubble,” Lynas said.

Through his research, Lynas learned about the environmental benefits of GMOs. Because of GMO crops, farmers today use less pesticides, fuel and other inputs, he explained.

“As an environmentalist, I would like to see a reduction in agrochemicals …,” Lynas said. “If you improve the genetics of the crops, you don’t need to use insecticides and other crop protection chemicals. That, to me, is the way forward for somebody who is concerned about protection of the environment.”

Lynas said his recent travels to Africa also opened his eyes about the need for GMO technology. He visited with farmers in Tanzania, who are struggling with a virus that threatens to wipe out the cassava plant, a staple in the native diet.

Scientists have created a GMO cassava variety that’s resistant to the brown streak virus. But farmers aren’t allowed to plant the GMO cassava because of regulations “based on superstition,” Lynas said.

He noted that thousands of research studies worldwide have shown that GMO foods are safe for humans and the environment. “There is no evidence underlying just about every allegation that is made against genetically modified organisms,” he said.

“I’m all for diversity. I’m all for agroecology. I’m all for organic farming,” Lynas continued. “But at the same time, if some farmers want to use (GMO) crops that are resistant to pests and that reduce their use of pesticides, then they should have the option to do that.”

And that same choice should apply to consumers like you and me. If you want organic, it’s easy to find.

But we should also keep Lynas’ message in mind: GMO technology must remain a “tool in the toolbox” to reduce the need for pesticides and combat plant diseases that threaten to wipe out crops.

We can’t let misguided fear prohibit a technology that can benefit so many people who don’t have the luxury of choice.

If you want to learn more about GMOs, I recently discovered the Biology Fortified website (, an excellent, unbiased source for GMO info. You can also get expert answers to your GMO questions at

Written by Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer at the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Consider This An Invitation

October 16, 2013

The Iowa Hunger Summit included a small meal representing the meals hunger relief organizations work hard to provide to those who need assistance. Here was mine.

If yesterday’s Iowa Hunger Summit taught me anything, it’s that Iowans are actively involved in the fight against hunger and are willing to do more if asked.

Yesterday’s event (attended by nearly 700 people) featured several examples of Iowans following in the tradition of the Iowa CARES project to fight hunger in Ethiopia, the Iowa SHARES campaign to feed starving Cambodians, and Dr. Norman Borlaug, by contributing to nutrition and hunger solutions in our state and around the globe.

But they don’t tell the whole story.

According to a just-released survey from AARP, two-thirds of surveyed Iowa adults have donated food to a food drive within the past 12 months, and 84 percent said they would donate if asked. Sixty-one percent have donated food to a hunger relief organization, and 78 percent would donate if asked. Fifty-one percent have donated money to an organization, and 63 percent would donate if asked.

We take a lot of pride in being Iowans too. In honor of Hunger Action Month (September) and the Iowa Hunger Summit, Iowa Farm Bureau will donate $2,500 to the Iowa Food Bank Association.

Join us! One in eight Iowans faces the risk of hunger every day. Click here to learn how you can donate food or money to an Iowa food bank or visit the Iowa Hunger Directory to find other organizations fighting hunger in your community.

We’re Iowans. I’m confident you’ll take it from here.

Written by Zach Bader. Zach is the Online Community Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Iowa Farmers Talk GMO

October 14, 2013

farmscene1Hundreds of protestors, many who’ve never been on an Iowa farm, are heading to our state next week to protest progress in farming.  They don’t believe in genetically modified crops and no amount of peer-reviewed science or speeches from Nobel laureates will convince them otherwise.  Just as they have the right to voice their opinions and be heard, the Iowa men and women who spend years in the field growing your food also hope you will hear their stories, and let common sense prevail.

That’s because for decades, these thousands of Iowa farmers have seen what progress in farming can do.

Paul Vaassen has been growing corn and beans on his Dubuque County farm since 1962.  Although he’ll proudly admit being ‘old fashioned,’ he says there are some things that nostalgia can’t cure, like hunger.

“I don’t ‘think there’s any doubt in my mind that the genetic improvements that seed companies have developed have given us the opportunity to see greater yields, despite what Mother Nature can dish out.  We can’t forget that feeding people is really what this is all about.  Last year, for example, we were very dry and even though yields were not up to what we considered ‘normal’, they were much better than, say, 10 to 15 years ago when we had the same drought conditions, but didn’t have these great seeds that were more resistant to drought or pests.

Years ago we used planters with seeds in one box and insecticide in another, which meant we were using a lot more insecticide.  I’m happy that old planter sits idle on my farm now, because our GMO seeds help us defeat pests like rootworm and corn borer,” says Vassen.

Roger Zylstra…a longtime corn, soybeans and hog farmer from Jasper County, has seen a lot of changes, too.  If he can be more productive and more sustainable, he can also keep farming in the family, and that’s why he favors GMO crops.  “The reality is we’re trying to build and grow for the future. My youngest son just came back full time to the farm.   I work hard to build a sustainable farm for his return and only innovation helps us do that.”

Innovation has brought incredible progress to Iowa farms.  Between 1980 and 2010, U.S. farmers nearly doubled corn production, yet thanks to better seeds, better equipment and conservation practices, are using less fertilizer than they put on the ground, back with Zylstra and Vassen first got started farming all those years ago.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), farmers grew 6.64 billion bushels of corn using 3.9 pounds of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for each bushel in 1980.  Just a couple years ago, that yield busted the bins at 12.45 billion bushels, using 1.6 pounds of nutrients per bushel produced.   I’m no math genius, but by any assessment, that’s more than an 87 percent increase.  How many other industries can claim that?

When you look at the science, the numbers, the sustainability that GM crops bring and meet the men and women who grow your food, it’s hard to swallow the hysteria that the ‘anti’ crowd is selling.  Young farmers just getting started believe it’s the ‘disconnect’ that folks may have today with farmers; they just haven’t met one.  Colin Johnson is a young family farmer from Wapello county who grows corn, soybeans and hay.  He says the farmers growing food today have more in common with folks asking the questions than many realize.  Knowledge-seeking is a good thing, so long as both sides are sought out.   “Of course GMO is safe.  Of course it’s all about feeding more people, but the bottom line for me is that as a family farmer with young kids, I’m not going to put anything in the ground that’s not safe for us, or our environment.   We’re eating this food, too,” says Johnson.

Progress has brought us safer cars, cell phone coverage in the country, the internet, and countless improvements in the fields of health care and fitness.  Progress has also brought consumers more choices at the grocery store and that includes healthier choices from GMO food: fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and other vitamins and minerals.  Providing choices is what keeps farmers moving forward. “The farming practices we’ve used, the no-till and everything, it’s a great advance from where we were. I have no doubt we will continue to move forward. That’s what we do,” says Zylstra.

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

5 Things that Worry Me More Than GMOs

October 11, 2013


My wife and I are parents of a newborn and recovering worrywarts – honestly. We have enough diapers and canned food to survive a slew of historic snowstorms, and we’ve caused our pediatrician to start screening our calls…but we’re getting better.

Case in point – we haven’t lost any sleep over scientists using technology to copy a desired trait from one plant to another (i.e. GMOs).

Dr. Ruth McDonald, Chair of the Department of Food Science at Iowa State University, sums up the research I’ve read from numerous academics regarding GMO testing: “GMOs have been more thoroughly tested than any other food item ever. There has never been any evidence that GMO foods or ingredients made from GMO crops have any negative health effects – and people have been consuming GMO foods for over a decade.”

Have you ever spoken with a doctor about medicine for your pregnant or nursing wife? The best you’re likely to hear is that the medicine is “probably not harmful.” Hearing “never” is a relief.

Today’s GMOs have traits that allow them to resist drought and pests and produce better yields, allowing farmers to use less land, less water, and fewer pesticides – all good things for the environment.

Even Mark Lynas, a prominent environmentalist who helped start the anti-GMO movement (and will speak on a “Straight Talk on GMOs” panel at the World Food Prize next week), recently acknowledged that “the real Frankenstein’s monster was not the GM technology, but our reaction against it.”

Maybe your apprehension runs deeper than mine. Maybe there’s still a small part of you that’s worried the government is hiding aliens and we didn’t really land on the moon, but let’s at least agree that the following possibilities are more worrisome than GMO technology:

  1. Volcanic eruptions and polar bear attacks (you know we’re in Iowa, right?)
  2. Wage freezes for Congress
  3. Mayan Apocalypse  Zombie Apocalypse
  4. Y2K Y3K
  5. Taxes on your lottery winnings

Your turn. What will you find to stew over now that you don’t have to worry about GMOs?

Written by Zach Bader. Zach is the Online Community Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Country is cool again

October 4, 2013

Recently, I was window-shopping at a local mall, and I spotted a pair of store-front mannequins dressed in faded denim and ankle-high cowboy boots, in various shades of brown and turquoise.

I’d expect to see fancy cowboy boots on display at a Western wear shop. But this was in an urban shopping center, where most of the teenage customers have never stepped a high-heeled boot on a farm.

A few days later, I noticed that the local newspaper featured a photo of the high school homecoming court. All the homecoming queen candidates were wearing jean shorts and, you guessed it, cowboy boots.

Now I’m not great at keeping up with trends, but it seems like country is cool again. Maybe it started with Taylor Swift, the country princess who topped the pop charts. Or maybe it’s because of red-neck reality TV shows like “Duck Dynasty.”

While Uncle Si and the guys never leave the house without their camo, the Duck Dynasty wives are the very definition of “country chic,” in their skinny jeans, sun dresses and, yes, cowboy boots.
This love of all things country is trickling down to high school and college campuses. It’s not just farm kids who join the FFA anymore; FFA membership is at an all-time high nationally.

And enrollment at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture reached a record high this fall, again. Students are recognizing that agriculture offers a wide variety of career options, such as precision ag technology, horticulture, communications and public policy.

While fashion trends will come and go and the “country” chic is sure to fade like stone-washed denim, agriculture won’t ever go out of style. There will always be a need for farmers and ag professionals to take on the challenge of feeding people like you and me while protecting our environment.

Looking good in cowboy boots is just a bonus.

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

Taking positive steps for the environment

October 2, 2013

It’s officially fall. This means pumpkin-flavored everything in the stores, cooler temperatures, and the thought of winter coming soon. For me and my husband, this also means extra time spent outside taking care of our lawn.  We are repairing dead patches in our backyard and trying to determine the next step in our backyard renovation project, while making sure we take care of the environment.

As we planned improvements to our backyard, I thought about one farmer I visited with in August.  Last spring’s wet weather kept Jim Anderson from planting a crop, but it didn’t prevent him from making conservation improvements on his 260-acre field that will provide environmental benefits next year and for generations.

“This is the right thing to do for this farm,” Anderson said. “It is very expensive to do, but it is the right thing to do for this farm.”

He added terraces, which look like a series of steps carved into the side of a field, to both decrease erosion and surface runoff. That’s important to Anderson because at the bottom of the field is Lake LaShane, which is a reservoir for the city of Lamoni. In addition, Anderson hired Steve Hofmann, a farmer who is also owner of Hofmann Excavating, to add drainage tile to his fields. The more than 13,600 feet of tile will help carry excess moisture away from his fields to optimize crop growth and reduce soil erosion.

conservationHofmann said adding terraces and tiling helps decrease erosion and surface runoff, which fits with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s efforts to reduce nutrients in water sources.

“Everything that’s bonded to the soil is going to stay right here,” Hofmann said. “It’s not going to wash down stream.”

Like Anderson, farmers across Iowa are doing the right thing on their farms by preserving their ground and protecting their water sources using a variety of techniques—like terraces and tiling. And they are embracing technology—like using GPS to accurately apply fertilizers and weed killers only where they’re needed. This reduces the amount of fertilizer and weed killers used and the area they are used on.

Check out Iowa Farm Bureau’s Conservation Counts website  to see more examples of how Iowa farmers are continually improving their conservation methods.

So the next time my husband and I rake and determine the best methods in which to care for our little backyard, I’ll think of Jim, and other farmers, who are taking steps to care for the environment on a much larger scale.

By Bethany Baratta.

Bethany is the commodities writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.


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