It has to be somebody's fault

It’s often true that the problems with the easiest solutions are the hardest to solve. Whether the reasons are financial (the most common culprit), political or simply old habits refusing to die hard, no one with a seat at the table wants to address the elephant in the room on Iowa’s water quality calamity.


The Des Moines Register, widely considered the state’s publication of record, ran a story in a recent Sunday edition examining the issue and the bill that Governor Kim Reynolds signed allotting $282 million over 12 years to deal with it. Guess how many times the word fertilizer was used in the entire piece? Zero.


A cursory read of the reporting on the subject between the Missouri and the Mississippi might lead one to believe that the widespread pollution of our lakes, rivers, streams and eventually oceans is an inexplicable act of God, a phenomenon we can only address through defensive measures—like a tornado or a blizzard. But the answer is a lot simpler than most of us care to admit: if Iowa wants to clean up its waterways, farmers need to use less fertilizer and put more acres into CRP and cover crops.


Norman Borlaug and Henry Wallace, despite their shared status as demigods around these parts, played a pivotal role in ushering in the globalization of crop production with seed technology advances and, by proxy, lessening the demand for exports from places like Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, where we’ve been planting and praying since the first settlers landed here nearly two centuries ago. Darwinism is forcing the little guys out, and waning government support for ethanol has sent grain prices into an all-out free fall. If you’re a lifelong family farmer grappling with market forces you have no control over, how are you supposed to handle this?


Unfortunately, the common response has been to do anything possible to get an edge and maximize yields regardless of the long-term costs. If you took Al Pacino’s locker room speech from the end of “Any Given Sunday” and replaced the words “football” and “inches” with “farming” and “bushels,” you’d have a dead-on description of the current situation.


Fertilizers, both commercial and natural, are filled with the nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to green algae bloom and the infamous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. If you don’t believe it’s a real problem around here, take a short drive west and try to go for a swim in Pine Lake.


As is usually the case, there are layers of blame to be assigned for this mess. Chemical companies have aggressively marketed their products with promises of stratospheric yields, only to create a saturation of corn that cooperatives and elevators (some of the biggest fertilizer sellers out there) can’t build storage fast enough to keep up with.


Cash strapped media outlets have gladly accepted the advertising dollars, and the state legislature—at the behest of groups like the Farm Bureau and wealthy donors in supplementary businesses like machinery, seeds, chemicals and elevators—has catered to corporate agricultural interests in unprecedented fashion: former Governor Terry Branstad threw over $100 million in tax incentives at Egyptian fertilizer conglomerate Orascom to build a plant projected to create just 180 jobs.


Meanwhile, farmers used to living high on the hog when their cash crop sold for $7 a bushel are scrambling to find ways to make up for the lost income. Swine confinements are the next gold rush in what a friend of mine called the “never ending rainbow chase” so prevalent in his profession. They guarantee stable income, provide free manure and give the younger generations a chance to get involved in the family operation.


On the other hand, they’re also hugely controversial, and in a place like Hardin County (home to 250 of them), those in opposition to further expansions have fought back and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. At this point, is it even possible to make life in rural Iowa palatable for the family farmers with roots dating back to the Civil War era, the agribusinesses hell bent on squeezing every cent of profit out of the land, and the rest of us who just enjoy living here?


All of this tangential discussion leads us back to a greater truth: we’re caught in a self-inflicted bind, and it’s time for the good people of this state to find a way out of it. As easy as it is to drown in the negativity, there are proactive local landowners like Clark Porter in Grundy County who feel strongly about this and want to do something.


The hard part, however, is that solving the problem may force folks from across the spectrum—agriculture, government, media and industry—to re-examine our methods and take a long hard look at whether the way we’re doing things really is best for everyone. Maybe the wheel is due for a reinventing.