The Gazette: A new/old way of farming

A new/old way of farming

Some farmers warn a major change is needed

Ryan Wallace checks the moisture level of grass, clover and alfalfa hay as he bales on a field outside of Keystone, Iowa, on Wednesday, August 26, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Orlan Love, The Gazette

August 30, 2015 | 11:00 am

The state’s seemingly intractable nutrient pollution problem has convinced many Iowans that the dominant corn and soybean monoculture is simply not compatible with a healthy and sustainable environment.

“Unless there is a paradigm shift, everything people do (to address nutrient pollution) won’t make a difference,” said Bob Watson, a critic of industrial scale crop and livestock production.

Watson, of Decorah, said the industrial farming model, with its reliance on chemicals and big machinery to generate economies of scale, passes along to the public “externalized costs” of nutrient pollution, erosion and flooding that “Band-Aid conservation practices cannot fix.”

“The industrial model will fail, not catastrophically, but slowly, one piece at a time, and sustainable agriculture will be there to help put it all together again,” said Dennis Keeney, the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, writing in his recent book, “The Keeney Place.”

Industrial agriculture’s externalized costs could be reduced by a return to farming practices more in tune with natural processes, said organic farmer Nick Wallace of rural Keystone, one of a growing number of Iowans embracing a new model capable of enriching rather than depleting the landscape.

Both Wallace and Watson said they don’t blame farmers for the way industrial agriculture has evolved.

Government, universities and big agricultural corporations encouraged them to farm fence row to fence row, to get big or get out, Watson said.

They are like the frog in water that gradually was warmed until it boiled, said Wallace, who thinks their way out of the hot water is a return to the more natural and benign if not beneficial practices of their ancestors.

“Back to the way it used to be but with better technology,” said Wallace, a Practical Farmers of Iowa member who raises organic corn, oats and hay, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken and eggs on his 160-acre farm south of Keystone.

Wallace, as with other producers of antibiotic-free, free-range livestock, said his beef tastes better and is more nutritious than feedlot beef fattened on concentrated grain, and his cattle’s manure “doesn’t turn your nose.”

Practical Farmers member Greg Koether, who raises 800 cattle on 900 acres of Clayton County pasture, said his grass-fed beef brings almost twice the price of feedlot-produced beef, and there is no shortage of buyers.

“People are studying their food supply and are willing to pay more for healthful, flavorful meat” raised without antibiotics and growth stimulants in a stress-free environment, he said.

Expanded roles

Practical Farmers of Iowa members Jason and Angela Johnson, who raise grass-fed pork on a 20-acre farm near Derby in south-central Iowa, said their customers like that their hogs live a happy and leisurely life foraging for their food and socializing with each other.

Teresa Opheim, executive director of the Practical Farmers, whose 2,800 members are united by a heightened sense of stewardship, said she agrees that the predominant corn and soybean rotation — which keeps living roots in the soil for just five months of the year — is not conducive to high quality soil and water.

“We need to keep our ‘black gold’ soil covered the year-round if we want to save soil and improve our water quality,” Opheim said.

Cover crops, planted after the harvest of corn and soybeans, would be a good first step in achieving that goal, Opheim said. An even better alternative, she said, would be an expanded role for hay, pasture and small grains.

Practical Farmers cover crops coordinator Sarah Carlson said cover crops have been planted on just 400,000 of Iowa’s 23 million acres — an adoption rate of less than 2 percent and a far cry from the 60 percent adoption rate called for by Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy.

Opheim said the implementation of the nutrient-reduction strategy and the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works to compel three northwest Iowa counties to reduce nitrate runoff have called attention to the nutrient pollution plaguing Iowa waters and water downstream as far as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The strategy recommends that farmers reduce their nutrient footprints by adopting effective management strategies and conservation practices.

Keeney, the Leopold Center pioneer, called the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit “a good service.”

“We’ve tried persuasion and peer-pressure, and none of those things have worked,” he said.

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen voluntarily,” said organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke of rural Fairfield.

Thicke, who ran unsuccessfully for Iowa agriculture secretary in 2010, proposes a kinder, gentler form of regulation in which each farmer would be incentivized to formulate a nutrient-management plan.

A tolerable level of nutrient loss would be established and, consistent with farmers’ one-size-does-not-fit-all refrain, each farmer would have the flexibility to determine how to achieve the tolerable level of nutrient loss.

Ideally, the nutrient management plan would be linked to farm subsidies, just as soil-conservation plans for highly erodible acres have been linked to benefits since the 1985 farm bill.

‘A slippery slope’

“It all depends on whether a guy wants more or less government in his life,” said Osage farmer Wayne Fredericks, president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association.

Regulation is “a slippery slope that really ties the hands of farmers,” said Fredericks, who recently installed conservation practices on five field parcels that software analysis had identified as unprofitable.

Most farms have unprofitable areas — wet spots, rock knolls, sink holes, odd-shaped field corners and shaded areas along wind breaks, for example — that could be converted to water-absorbing wildlife habitat, he said.

Belle Plaine farmer John Martin, whose farm has been certified organic for more than 15 years, said he “grew up organic,” the son of a farmer who “didn’t think chemicals was the right way to go.”

Martin, who raises corn, soybeans and hay, said he has “no regrets at all” about following in his father’s footsteps.

“It’s more than the premium price I get for my crops. It’s a healthy way of life that benefits the environment,” Martin said.

Martin said he sells his crops to organic livestock producers who pay at least twice the market price for conventionally produced grain.

“It’s easy to market. They come to the farm and pick it up,” he said.

Organic farming of 240 acres, with all the extra work entailed in controlling weeds and maintaining soil fertility without chemicals, “keeps one person pretty busy,” he said.

While conventional, herbicide-dependent farmers watch their crops grow in the summer, Martin said he stays busy cultivating corn and walking soybean fields, “pulling weeds before they go to seed.” These are practices that were common on all Iowa farms before the advent of the herbicide glyphosate and crops whose genes were altered to withstand it.

To maintain soil fertility, Martin said he rotates his crops, plants cover crops and uses a commercial organic fertilizer.

“I’ll be really surprised if my corn doesn’t yield at least 180 bushels per acre,” he said.