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This might hurt some feelings

Posted on December 23rd, 2020

To be radical is to simply grasp the root of the problem. And the root is us.

Howard Zinn, 1999.

There’s a page on my website where I post the powerpoint slides from presentations I conduct. I took a look at that page this morning, and over the last five years I have conducted 69 programs for various groups, or about one a month on average. I reckon that at about half of these I get the question, “what can be done”, this in regard to Iowa water quality and pollution generated by the corn-soybean-CAFO production model.

People have been thinking about “what can be done” for a long time. Because of industry and farmer recalcitrance and hostility toward regulation, various ideas for improving water quality have focused on either (1) enticing farmers to voluntarily adopt practices that reduce erosion and nutrient loss without major modifications to the production system or (2), promotion of concepts like increased crop diversity and improved soil health that do require substantial management changes. I suppose you could also throw land retirement in there, but this has not been tried on any significant scale in Iowa since the 1980s.

The public has long been expected to be a financial participant in category (1) solutions, and Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy is aligned with this cost-share concept. It’s also been apparent for a while now that momentum is building to ask the public to financially support category (2) solutions, and in fact this has already happened with public dollars used for cover crops, which are unharvested plants that help retain water and nutrients and enhance desirable soil qualities, thereby reducing water pollution.

This momentum seems to have gained steam since the election with the category (2) concept being repackaged (yet again) as regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture focuses on building (or rebuilding) soil organic matter to improve water and nutrient cycling, reduce erosion, increase biodiversity, and sequester greenhouse gases. You can think of soil organic matter as the waste of live stuff and the remains of dead stuff, along with some fungi and other microscopic beasties that live in the soil. Various modern farming practices, especially tillage, tend to reduce organic matter and degrade that which remains.

The idea of regenerative agriculture in its several nomenclatures has been floated many times over the past 80-90 years or so, and has been embraced with varying degrees of seriousness. But the concept has never had widespread buoyancy in corn belt agriculture beyond a modest turn to port on tillage, that is, less mold-board plow (overturning the soil on top of itself) and more “conservation” tillage (disking and chiseling, primarily), something that was tugged along by conservation compliance in the 1985 Farm Bill. In Iowa, about 21% of the crop land is still in conventional tillage, 34% no-till, and 42% in reduced or “conservation” tillage (1). Tillage is seen by many farmers as more necessary for corn than soybean. Cover crops are used on about 4% of Iowa’s cropland, according the latest Iowa Nutrient Strategy progress report (2).

With the incoming Biden administration apparently serious about climate change, many in the NGO, foundation and academic world are excited about the prospect of the federal treasury’s barn door being flung open to help proselytize for regenerative agriculture. Born-again farmers would be paid to implement regenerative agriculture practices that will lay carbon to rest in their soils, instead of having it marauding around the atmosphere, melting polar ice caps and energizing super storms. And presumably this will improve water quality for the reasons stated earlier. This all is what we call “monetizing ecosystem services” in the biz, because apparently the intrinsic value of healthy soil, reduced erosion, and cleaner water is so low to the farmer that they won’t do it unless we pay them to do it.

Now permit me to say now that I am all for regenerative agriculture and I have stated so in this space, albeit without using the specific term. But there is a whiff of something moldy hovering over this. Even the optimists know these types of approaches will likely take generations to deliver the water quality we want. But, I can tell you there is a feeling of futility about Iowa water quality—4% of the land in cover crops after eight years of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a kick in the crotch, let’s just be honest. So, we’re going to give mouth-to-mouth to the constipated Soil Health movement of the last decade and rebrand the resulting Lazarus as Regenerative Agriculture. It’ll probably be worth at least another 4-8 years of relevance for a lot folks, relevance being the real long-term goal here and one of the reasons our water still stinks.

Again, to emphasize—I’m down with regenerative agriculture or whatever fancy ornamental names you want to hang on this tree. But for crying out loud, shouldn’t we be asking agriculture to perform at some baseline level of environmental performance before brainstorming yet another unaccountable way to funnel your money to them for uncertain outcomes? These are folks that brag about the size of their bulging federal largesse while the rest of the country tries to recover from the worst crisis in a century (see below). The public has been asked to invest over and over and over again in this production system; isn’t it about time we had a say in how it is operated?

There are things we can do now that would improve water quality now. But many of us need to could quit worrying about our relevance for five minutes and have the courage to state the obvious. What follows is the answer I give when asked “What Can Be Done.” At least three of the five points I make are universally acknowledged throughout the industry to be bad practices. All five of them are things that allow the existing production system to remain largely intact, with or without soil health, regenerative agriculture, or whatever you want to call it. The reason we don’t do these things isn’t because they won’t work, it’s because there are a lot of cowards when it comes to Iowa water quality.

  1. Ban row crop agriculture in the 2-year flood plain. We plant 400,000 acres where inputs like fertilizer and pesticides are washed away into the stream network and the Gulf of Mexico every other year (3). This is an area of land that exceeds the combined area of all our state parks. This is perverse. Why are we doing this?
  2. Ban fall tillage. Universally recognized as a practice with disproportionately bad environmental effects, people at Iowa State University have been discouraging it for decades. It’s especially bad following a soybean crop. Increases soil erosion (keep your eye open for “snirt” this winter), increases nutrient loss, increases greenhouse gas losses from farmed fields. I get that if a farmer likes tillage and wants to farm a lot of acres, he/she might feel pressed for time in the spring to get it all plowed. And if you spend your winters in Ft. Myers or Scottsdale, it might be nice to have the plowing done so you have time to get the RV cleaned up for Northern Minnesota in July. Not my problem. It’s polluting our water, it’s not necessary for growing corn and soybeans in Iowa and it’s ridiculous that we still allow this. Side story: Several years ago, I was talking about this in a meeting and farmer angrily pounded his fist on the table and said: “You know why we do fall tillage? Because we have to!” Ok. I would have liked to have said, “You know why I tolerate bad water? Because I have to!”
  3. Ban manure on snow and frozen ground. Again, pretty much universally acknowledged as a sub-optimal practice, if not down right stupid. And in the case of manure on snow, clearly destructive of water quality. Yes, we already have some rules about this in Iowa, but they are so riddled with loopholes that they are practically meaningless. Example: if there is snow on the ground on March 1, it’s pretty easy to find some with manure on it. Great for smelly snowball fights, really bad for our rivers. I get that the manure pit may fill up faster than expected; again, not my problem. Build a bigger pit!

    Manure applied to snow-covered hillslope in Iowa.

  4. Make farmers adhere to Iowa State University fertilization guidelines. What’s the point of ISU having a Nitrogen fertilizer rate calculator if nobody is going to follow it? Despite what you might hear from the ag advocacy organizations, farmers do over apply fertilizer. It’s endemic to Iowa’s production system. Also, newsflash: Nitrogen IS cheap; in fact, it’s hardly ever been cheaper than it is now. If I’ve said it once I will say it a thousand times: how do we give farmers license to do whatever they want with inputs and then ask the taxpayer to mitigate the pollution? It’s insanity.
  5. Reformulate CAFO regulations. Let’s face it, Iowa’s Master Matrix regulatory framework for livestock operations is like a zip tie handcuff on King Kong. It enables farmers to apply manure nutrients beyond crop needs, and it provides for no management of nutrient inputs at the watershed scale, sentencing many rivers to a polluted oblivion. We cannot continue to wantonly cram hogs into Iowa and meet the objectives of the nutrient strategy, at least not without effectively regulating nutrient inputs. And believe me, I am far from the only person that knows this. The fact that this continues to go unacknowledged by our politicians, the industry, and many of the state’s institutions is nothing short of sinister.

Well, there you have it. Nothing on that list should cost you, the taxpayer, a dime. But I will tell you, if you want clean water, you will have to demand it.

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

If you don’t know, Howard Zinn (quote at the beginning) managed to write at once what might be the most admired and the most hated book about America (the latter almost certainly is true): A People’s History of the United States. If Zinn was right, true change in America comes from below and progress only happens when people resist and organize. If you’re waiting for the water quality elites here in Iowa (and you can put me in that group if you want to) to solve the water quality problem, you’re going to wait a while. Sorry. The industry will pollute your water for as long and to the degree that you let it.

  1. Agriculture census shows more conservation acres in Iowa.
  2. Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2018-19 Annual Progress Report.
  3. Personal Communication, Calvin Wolter, Iowa DNR, December 8, 2020.


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10 Responses

  1. Allen Bonini says:

    Chris – my only substantive comment/suggestion (at least until after January 21 when I’ll be retired and no longer bound by the limits of being a DNR employee) is to suggest you change the language regarding alternative uses of the land. Instead of talking about “retiring” the land, it is really more about putting into a better use other than for just growing a monoculture of corn and soybeans. While retirement of us humans may have appeal to some of us 🙂 we are really talking about converting more land to an alternate use that is better for the health of the soil, the air, and the water. So it will be far from retired. And hey, even some of us homo sapiens don’t “retire.” We just transform ourselves into a better, more productive use. 🙂

    • cjones says:

      thanks for this great comment Alan! stay safe this during the holidays. Looking forward to seeing the post1/21/21 A.B.

  2. Steve Roe says:

    Chris, I appreciate your comments and share your angst. In 1995 I had lunch with L.D. McMullin, the General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works at the Downtown Rotary Club. A casual question along the lines of “How are things at the Water Works?” initiated an eye opening explanation of the challenges to provide clean water. Among his final comments, one sentence captured the crux of the problem. He said that the onerous is put on the end users to face the financial burden of cleaning up the water, but have no say in how the land upstream is cared for! He did not think politicians would be of any help.

  3. dmf says:

    good stuff but seems to me the what can be done question isn’t about technical fixes (as you’ve demonstrated we know many of those answers) but how to get enough of our fellow Iowans to care enough to campaign and vote?
    Also too much of the coverage of these matters (especially on our local NPR) is framed in terms of individual farmer choices and not enough on how those choices are severely limited by legislative and market forces (and of course the overlaps of them).

  4. John Norwood says:


    Another well argued piece. I think language matters to shift thinking and policy, as Alan suggests, and I talk about frequently. We’re not retiring land or taking it out of production. We’re shifting what the land produces.

    The public at large has a critical interest in converting that land (2.5 of our 23 million acres that is chronically unprofitable as row crop acreage) to other uses that are more productive for the system, add diversification and resiliency, deliver public goods, and may be profitable when incentives are realigned and new systems put in place. More wetlands, pasture and buffers for example .

    CAFOs are another nut we need to address as you suggest. You and I have both studied and written and spoke on this topic. We produce 50 million hogs per year. Holy cow. In my ideal world, I’d like to see manure treated and scrubbed so the methane doesn’t dissipate into a tve atmosphere. We used public subsidies to develop and deploy solar and wind. We need a systems based approach for digesters. Europe has figured out how to do this. We can too.

    Finally, I think removing subsidies or redirecting them to do the things we want to see from a public perspective are likely to be more feasible, politically, than outright bans. I agree we need more oversight of nutrient application. I’d suggest a broader tax on all forms of nitrogen to help create a fund to modernize our drainage infrastructure and targeted land acquisition that mitigates nitrogen leakage. To help with all of this, I’d like to see a real-time, comprehensive statewide monitoring system at the river level that can be used as a management and investment tool a la management guru, Ed Deming. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Let’s customize and target our strategies and resources based on system loads.

    Happy holidays!

    John Norwood, Polk County, Soil & Water Commissioner

  5. Baledog says:

    I hardly know where to start, and you certainly don’t have to post this.
    I am a certified organic grain and forage producer I have documented 175 bu. corn yield from a tilled clover base. Higher yields are unquestionably expected.
    From extensive web search with the objective to understand why compost might be superior to manure, and to understand why no till might not build SOM as promised. At last I hit Bruce Railsback, “Common redox reactions in the oxidation of organic matter”
    My understanding of chemistry is limited, but it seem to me that biology is as willing to use applied nitrogen to burn SOM as it is to use tillage induced oxygen to burn SOM.
    Is there traction here, or is this observation flawed?

    • cjones says:

      My intention with the piece is not to endorse no-till. That being said, there is no question that it reduced erosion on HEL. Just no doubt about that.

      I agree with that “common redox reactions in the oxidation of organic matter.” that basically describes organic farming.

      Your comment that biology is as willing to use applied nitrogen to burn SOM as it is to use tillage induced oxygen to burn SOM. In strictly anaerobic conditions, yes, bacteria will use nitrate (NO3) as an oxygen source as they consume organic matter. However, the thermodynamics are much more favorable with O2 so if there is any available (very likely in most soils that aren’t ponded or have a perched water table), they will use O2.

      Some will also tell you that N fertilizers “supercharge” the bacteria and this will result in consumption of organic matter. Some also believe this is offset by the extra organic matter generated by additional stover that results from fertilization.

      How N is balanced between mineralization (oxidation of SOM) and immobilization (creation of SOM through plant growth) is basically what you are managing in organic systems. the timing of it–when N becomes available to the corn through mineralization is obviously important. *Usually* in these systems there is less opportunity for loss of N to the stream network, because of time windows where it can be lost are shorter.

      Hope that helps. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  6. David Osterberg says:

    Hi Chris, Thanks for endorsing Howard Zinn’s People’s History. It was one of the best books I’ve read. And thanks for the great analysis of Iowa’s Ag problem, also some of the best I’ve read. do

  7. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Those “five things we can do now” are great. I’m somehow reminded of that funny story about the naked emperor and the bold little kid who pointed out the nakedness. Thank you, Chris.

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