It is the time of year when the word "debate" is in the air.
The debaters at a breakfast meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists on Oct. 15 were not the usual candidates, however. Neither is running for office and political affiliations were set aside when Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey took on Des Moines Water Works director Bill Stowe on the subject of surface water and ag's role in cleaning it up.
As the man responsible for making sure the nitrate levels of drinking water are safe for the 500,000 customers he serves and for explaining to them why their rates keep going up and up, Stowe wants to see results and he wants them soon. And he makes no bones about his opinion that agriculture is the biggest contributor to his problems, blaming ag activity for 72% of the nitrate load in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers.
Will it work?
As the man responsible for getting Iowa farmers to reduce nutrient loading and adopt practices that improve water quality, Northey is all about getting maximum buy-in to voluntary programs that will reduce nutrient loading in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, but he says the regulation that Stowe advocates will make that job harder and probably result in less progress.
Stowe said this has been a difficult year in terms of nutrient load with 70 days of the last year bringing nitrate levels to record heights.
He said he thinks the voluntary nutrient reduction strategy put in place two years ago is failing, with September nitrate concentration reaching the highest level in history at 14 parts per million compared to the permissible drinking water rate of 10 ppm.
Northey countered that this year's problem has been largely caused by extremely wet weather and that two years is not enough time to educate enough farmers about the practices that will solve the problems.
He maintains however, that the right way to solve the problem is to develop the science that proves to farmers that agronomic practices such as cover crops, grass waterways, wetlands and bioreactors along with nitrogen application timing and spacing will work to reduce the nutrient load at the same time it improves their land and saves them money.
He said there already 13 project areas where farmers are working to implement nutrient manage best practices on 100,000 acres.
Stowe countered that there are 13 projects out of 88,600 Iowa farms with about 23 million acres in row crops. In his view, that's not enough farmers buying in and not enough measurement of what works and not enough reduction to get the job done in an acceptable time frame.
He said he would be happy if he saw a 45% reduction in nitrogen load by 2025 – a time frame that Northey says is too short to accomplish so much.
Not an easy job
He said not all conservation or management practices will work for all farmers and that it will take time and experimenting to figure out what works best for individuals. What won't work, he said, is for the government to step in and mandate what practices all farmers have to observe.
"All you get with that is farmers trying to stay legal," he said. "You don't get the experimentation and innovation that really solves the problem."
Stowe agreed that it isn't an easy job. But he likened the current situation to coming home and finding somebody had dumped his used worn-out mattress over your fence.
"As it stands, the ag community is dumping its trash in our back yard," he said. "That needs to stop."
For more on the nutrient reduction plan, how it works and how the whole issue could impact Kansas farmers, be sure to look for your November Kansas Farmer magazine.