Iowa farm tech shines
By LARRY KERSHNER
AMES – State and federal organizations, government-funded ag researchers and private ag businesses held their own trade show of sort Wednesday for the secretaries of agriculture representing 45 states.
Included in the entourage were members of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force.
The event, held at the Iowa State University BioCentury Research Farm in rural Ames, included field demonstrations, tours of the facility, educational posters and trade booths, all touting Iowa’s expertise in bringing conventional farming into sustainable environmental practices.
“I don’t know anything that’s been done like this before,” said Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, who played host. Northey said the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the hypoxia task force, for which Northey is a co-chair, were set to meet, so it was decided to bring both together and show what Iowa is doing in advancing environment technology in farming.
The Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, made up of members from five federal agencies and 12 state agencies, is working to address environmental concerns associated with the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zone, also known as the “dead zone.”
In addition, Northey said the NASDA members “are not afraid of the water quality issue.” Iowa created several initiatives in getting farmer volunteers to get onboard with sustainable, environment-friendly practices and bring those efforts to their neighbors.
“This won’t get fixed by regulations,” Northey said, “but through volunteer efforts.”
Ann Mills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture under secretary for natural resources and environment, is the other co-chair for the task force. She said Wednesday’s event was ideal for her organization, which formed in 1997. “We’re interested in the Midwest practices and technology available to support farmers to remain productive, while maintaining healthy soils and (have) less nutrient runoff.”
The Gulf’s dead zone was created with increased nitrates flowing down the Mississippi River Basin, the largest watershed in the world. Part of the nitrates comes from field runoffs of farms.
“This is unique,” Mills aid of the displays and demonstrations, “and it’s a smart use of our time by talking to researchers and private entities.”
She said the task force has moved from identifying the causes of hypoxia in the Gulf to actions that need to be taken.
“We want to know how to use the new technologies and information, using Extension services and farmer-to-farmer programs.
“We’re starting to put the mechanisms in place to measure edge-of-the-field nutrient runoff into the Mississippi.”
Mills said the task force members have noted a drop in nitrogen and sulfur reaching the river.
She said the task force knows there are more than one practice that’s needed to solve the hypoxia problem. She said the organizations will also work for more cost-share for farmers to adopt these practices.
She said the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service has spent $221 million in cost-share for water quality initiatives that are protecting 1.5 million acres in the MRB. In 2013, another $80 million is earmarked for additional efforts, bringing in more organizations.
“We have a targeted approach in making a difference,” Mills said.
Some of the displays, field demonstrations and farm visits showed water quality efforts including:
- Use of cover crops that, among other benefits, tie up nitrogen in plant roots while fields lie idle between harvest and planting.
- Bioreactor filter systems that take nitrogen out of field runoff before it reaches a waterway.
- Drainage tile systems designed to back up water temporarily giving it a chance to soak down, rather than run off.
- An array of farmer-to-farmer systems.
- Research on water quality and soil impact of strip-till and no-till systems.
- Developing wetlands that filter nitrogen.
- Precision chemical application implements, using global positioning systems, that pinpoint areas in fields that do not require spraying, such as waterways and field edges.
- Farmer-to-farmer programs that encourage sustainable farming practices as well as using social media to tell farming’s story to non-rural audiences.