#UniteIowa ? Yeah, let’s get to work!

May 21, 2015

Iowa farmer, wetlandLast week Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson kicked off a #UniteIowa campaign, a documented crusade to find and encourage common ground between rural and urban Iowans.

He started with a trip to Orange City, to create dialogue between Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe (who’s suing three northwest Iowa counties for their alleged contributions to Des Moines’ water quality), Randy Feenstra (a rural state representative and a vocal opponent of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit), and northwest Iowans.

The arranged meeting produced a nice, cordial discussion.

Unfortunately, it didn’t create what rural and urban Iowans need most – meaningful action.

Yes, dialogue has the potential to spark action. But, as Munson acknowledges, Stowe is committed to suing his neighbors in northwest Iowa, so (realistically) sound bites were the only possible outcome.

And that’s a shame because there are lots of examples involving Iowa farmers, rural communities, cities, and local groups working together to make strides in improving water quality.

No doubt, #UniteIowa is a worthy cause. Roughly one in five Iowans are employed by agriculture, so Munson is correct in saying that rural and urban lives (and interests) are still closely intertwined.

The key is spotlighting and encouraging rural and urban Iowans who demonstrate, through their actions, that they share the mission to #UniteIowa .

Here are a few places to start:

1. Cedar Rapids

Leaders in Iowa’s second largest city, from the mayor to the city utilities director, are working together with farmers, landowners and other partners to install practices and pursue technologies to improve water quality in the area.

2. Rathbun Lake

Partnerships produce results. Just ask the residents of south central Iowa. Working together, farmers, land owners, and water treatment officials are protecting Rathbun Lake from 42,000 tons of sentiment and 179,000 lbs. of phosphorus annually.

3. Hewitt Creek

A group of 70 farmers and other participants in northeast Iowa have teamed up to protect the Hewitt Creek watershed for more than a decade. The results can be quantified by numbers (sampling is conducted monthly and after half-inch rainfails) and by wildlife activity (eagles have returned to fish in the stream).

4. Griswold

Meetings between city officials, farmers, and other nearby landowners produced a plan to use cover crops to protect the city’s municipal wells.

5. Sioux Center

Just a few short miles from Munson’s first stop on the #UniteIowa tour, farmer Matt Schuiteman and Dordt College have partnered on a variety in-field practices to help protect Sioux Center’s drinking water.

6. The 95 local governments and groups partnering on 16 watershed protection projects around Iowa

The divide between rural and urban Iowans (whether political, economic, cultural, or otherwise) has been well explored (and in many cases, embellished). While the Register points to the friction created by the Water Works lawsuit to demonstrate that the “gulf” between rural and urban is widening, the number of recently formed urban and rural partnerships to address clean water suggests that (at least in some ways) the gap is shrinking. Some Des Moines leaders may be experiencing problems working with their rural neighbors, but rural and urban stakeholders around the rest of the state are going about the business of addressing water quality together.

Learn more about ongoing rural and urban collaboration to protect Iowa’s water at www.conservationcountsiowa.com

A case of jumping too soon on a water report

May 20, 2015


When officials at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently released a report showing an increase in impaired waters in the state, environmental activists dove in head first.

Predictably, they claimed that the sky is falling. They pointed threatening fingers at agriculture. And they trashed the state’s ground-breaking water improvement strategy, even though it’s been endorsed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and copied by other states.

But perhaps they jumped in just a little too early.

As Rick Robinson, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy advisor, noted in a report, understanding what causes rivers and streams to be called “impaired” is a complex and subjective process. Impairments, which were up 15 percent over the last report, are not always a good indicator of water quality issues.

The increase in impaired streams comes primarily from additional monitoring, including monitoring for what’s called “indicator” bacteria in small, rural watersheds. And DNR says it’s getting more data now because people in those watersheds are stepping up to get better measurements, so they can work to improve the water.

It doesn’t mean that there are more impaired streams than before, the report really indicates that Iowa is doing a more thorough job of water quality monitoring, according to the DNR. And much of that, Robinson said, is because farmers and others in the watersheds are taking more readings to determine of what’s going on in the stream so they can figure out the best way to improve and protect water.

The list of impaired waterways also tends to grow rather than shrink because once a stream gets on the impaired list, it’s complicated to take it off no matter how much work is being done to improve water quality, Robinson said.

One of the primary ways to address the impairments is to gather farmers, landowners and others in a watershed to draft a watershed improvement plan called total maximum daily load (TMDL). There are 126 water bodies previously on the impaired waters list now that have approved TMDL watershed plans, and are eligible to be removed. The DNR is currently asking that 73 more be removed for a variety of reasons, such as new data or improvement plans in development.

Another complication with the list is that EPA standard for indicator bacteria has been set at levels designed for public swimming, even though beaches are rare to non-existent in most of these small, very rural watersheds. The DNR says it’s almost impossible for these watersheds to achieve the standard. But the agency is doing studies to apply a more appropriate standard.

It’s a slow process and it’s using precious limited state resources where they might be better used for higher priority watersheds and impairments.
In the end, it’s clear that the increase in impaired waters has almost nothing to do with dirtier water, as the activists claim. Instead, it’s caused by additional monitoring, the application of an inappropriate water quality standard and the fact that it’s hard to get waterways off the list once they are on.

The DNR’s impaired waters list, Robinson concludes, underscores the importance of targeted, effective solutions like Iowa’s water quality initiative, the EPA-endorsed Nutrient Reduction Strategy. As we continue to see around the state, more and more farmers are seeking solutions to reduce loss of fertilizer, save soil and improve water quality. In every farm meeting these days, conservation is at the top of the agenda.

It’s a lot more than talk; farmers are putting up real money to improve water quality.

Farmers, along with local co-ops, implement dealers and others, already combined more than $11.8 million in their own funding with more than $7.5 million in state money and are making progress. Research shows that nitrate levels in Iowa’s streams and rivers have stabilized — and slightly declined — in recent decades, as this Des Register article shows. 

Making long-term improvements in Iowa’s water quality will require a plan like the state’s water quality initiative that relies on collaboration, cooperation and investment, as well as research to find new and promising technologies. It won’t happen overnight and it’s clear that pointing fingers and jumping to conclusions without the facts, is only going to delay real progress.

For more information on what Iowa farmers are doing to improve water quality, click here. cc-logo1

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is Iowa Farm Bureau’s news services manager.  



Chipotle’s rhetoric is one bad burrito

May 12, 2015


OK, I’m a guy who’s had a few burritos over the years and I’ve always thought that the ones from Chipotle were pretty tasty.  But it’s the rhetoric spouted out these days by the fast food chain that’s giving me some severe indigestion.

Chipotle was in the headlines (again) recently when it trumpeted the fact that it had eliminated all GMO ingredients from its food menu. And, as it did a while back with commercials that compared farms to soulless factories, the fast food chain is dishing out a heap of misinformation along with its burritos and guacamole.

Now, I don’t have any trouble with Chipotle’s decision to use only non-GMO ingredients. Food choice is important. Restaurant companies have the right to serve customers any food that’s safe and wholesome –genetically improved or not—and consumers have every right to choose how to spend their dollars.

It’s also fine if Chipotle pays premium prices to farmers for specialty ingredients, such as non-GMO crops or pork from pigs raised outdoors. These niche markets provide a good way for farmers, especially younger farmers, to earn extra money and get a foothold in agriculture.

However, I do have a big problem with Chipotle’s very public and ridiculous reasoning for going non-GMO. The decision was made, a Chipotle executive said, because “it’s clear that a lot of research is needed before we can truly understand all of the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption.”

The statement, by the company’s co-chief Steve Ells, infers that there’s something scary and untested about crops with genetically modified traits.

That’s just not true.

Biotech crops are actually more researched and tested than any other food products in human history. The safety of biotech crops has been affirmed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and Academy of Dietetics, just to name a few. And then there’s the fact that trillions of meals containing GMO ingredients have been consumed around the world for decades without a single example of health problems.

In addition, biotech crops are a key tool for feeding the world’s rising population, while reducing environmental impact and providing more nutritional value in food.

No matter what they call it, this move by Chipotle is simply a marketing tactic designed to cast the chain as a more virtuous fast food choice for millennials  and others. That point was underscored in editorials which ran in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. As the Wall Street Journal editorial noted, maybe it will make their customers feel better about scarfing down a 1,000-plus-calorie burrito bowl for lunch.

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

Window to the World: A Mother’s Day Salute to Soon-to-be Empty Nesters

May 7, 2015
Laurie's daughter

Laurie’s daughter

“Let’s see the day,” I’d say, as I held my newborn daughter up to the window and peered into the backyard. “It’s going to be a sunny day, but if it rains, that’s okay; the rain will help the flowers bloom.” On and on I’d go each day, narrating our little corner of the world to my newborn daughter, who hung on every incomprehensible but melodic word.

Eighteen years later, I’m standing at the window, watching my daughter drive away. Only a few days left of high school and my little “Bird” will be winging her way to college, new friends and new wonders.

I’ve been reading old pages from the journal I kept for her, remembering the rainy Saturdays we spent watching movies in the ‘tent’ we made out of blankets in the living room, or the long ‘nature walks’ through the woods behind our house. Tucked in-between coffee-stained pages of the journal are sparkly ‘masterpieces’, created during long church services or my endless hair appointments.

There were stories about tough times, too: scraped knees, uninvited birthday parties, getting teased the first day she got glasses, the pain of braces. There were losses of beloved pets: her chocolate lab, Suzie, who died of old age, and poor Delilah, her dwarf hamster, who didn’t, thanks to the family Bengal.

My daughter is the first in five generations to not grow up on an Iowa farm. Lessons in life and death came with a vengeance on our working livestock farm; in addition to falling in love with runts that didn’t make it, there were unvaccinated cats lost to distemper, or sad, abandoned dogs who came limping down our driveway; some we saved; some we couldn’t. She won’t know what that’s like, nor will she ‘walk beans’ or paint endless fence posts. She’ll never chase a stubborn pony through a thistle-filled pasture; she’ll never drive a combine.

Farming has changed; it’s all so much more sophisticated and diverse. But, those mothers holding their newborn daughters, staring out their backyard windows, have not changed; they still cradle their child, peer through their windows and try to bring the wonder and the beauty of their world into focus for the next generation. They raise their daughters and sons, grow our food, protect the land, pray for it to rain or it to stop, and worry about the future, just like the rest of us.

As I count down the precious days left of high school, I say the same words I’ve always said as I watch my daughter head off to class: “God, be with her–keep her safe from harm, evil, illness, injury and the meanness of others. May she have a good day and be strong; thank you for bringing her into my life.”

She escapes the view of the window too soon. They all do, but the joys, worries and memories we get to keep, unite us all, no matter what the view out our window. So, let’s ‘see the day’ for what it is today and can be tomorrow, not what it was yesterday. Our children deserve it. Not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

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

Don’t be chicken about avian flu

May 5, 2015


eggsI’ve been reading and writing a lot of stories recently about avian flu, a virus that has stricken the poultry and egg industry across the country and in Iowa, killing more than 12 million birds in our state alone since April. Scientists say wild migratory birds are spreading the virus during migration, and they anticipate more cases this fall and next spring.

Last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad declared a state of emergency in efforts to provide additional state agencies and funding to help stop the avian flu. Scientists and other experts have been monitoring the virus even before it migrated to the U.S.

Obviously, this is a major concern for all poultry farmers, but they, like other farmers who raise animals in the state, continue to diligently watch over their animals, carefully monitoring their health, and calling their veterinarians at the first sign of an issue.

But what about consumers? Is it safe for me to keep eating my morning omelet?

Experts assure the virus doesn’t pose a threat to humans.

“Consumers should feel safe to eat properly cooked and prepared meat and eggs from poultry,” said Angela Shaw, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition and extension specialist in food safety at Iowa State University.

The virus has “never caused human illness anywhere,” said Ann Garvey, Iowa public health veterinarian, so consumers should continue to feel confident in the safety of eating eggs and poultry.

Great news! Not only are eggs the star of my breakfast, I also like them hard-boiled as a snack during the day and eat turkey in a wrap for lunch or as a component in meatballs for dinner. Let’s face it, poultry is a protein staple at my house.

Eating these delicious products are not only beneficial to my health, but it also helps support the farmers who have been affected by the virus. Experts say it may be several months until farmers are able to recover. This means they will see insurmountable losses. And the trickledown effect will impact area businesses that will lose sales because of the lost birds and the slowing of feed and supplies sales.

So let’s get crackin’ Iowa and continue to enjoy our eggs and poultry – for your health and the health of our farmers.

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

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