Busy weekend for Iowa agriculture reveals sharp differences in opinions over water quality and future of farming

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Last Saturday saw a lot of farm talk in the state’s capital city. Most of the major media attention focused on the presidential hopefuls at Bruce Rastetter’s Iowa Ag Summit, but no less important were opinions of speakers at the Food and Justice Ag Summit, a counter-Rastetter event organized by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Rounding out the all-ag weekend was the Raccoon River Watershed Association’s annual conference, this year called “Life in the Raccoon River: Water Quality.”

The Rastetter event was staged in the Elwell Family Food Center at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and produced by the Concordia Group, a West Des Moines public relations firm owned by Iowa GOP fundraiser Nicholas Ryan.

Along with the dozen Republican politicians who joined Rastetter to talk about agricultural politics and policies was an audience of about 1,000, including some 200 event sponsors and another 250 media figures. The summit was widely seen as an early indicator of caucus preferences among Iowa Republicans.

The event, described by several commentators as a “Republican cattle call,” saw the would-be candidates tightly packed into the six-hour series of 20-minute interviews and fielding Rastetter’s set list of questions, such as those about the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

While other issues were raised by Rastetter and addressed by his visitors–immigration, food stamps, GMO labeling, the rural-urban prosperity gap and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty–none illustrated the love-hate relationship the Iowa ag industry has with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as starkly as WOTUS and RFS.

WOTUS refers to recent efforts by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define more clearly the jurisdictional extent and authority of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA), particularly the meaning of the phrase “waters of the United States” as used in the CWA.

The EPA and Army Corps issued a rule last spring broadening their authority over the quality of upstream water. At the same time, the agencies released a so-called interpretive rule that reduced from 160 to 56 the number of routine farming practices exempt from CWA permits.

The remaining 56 exemptions were also changed from subjects of hitherto voluntary compliance to ones only exempt if they meet certain technical conservation standards of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Ag industry reaction to the rule changes was swift. “Howls of protest have followed,” said Boer Deng, a writer for “Nature.” “Farmers are freaked out.”

The nation’s crop and livestock organizations, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Farmers and Ranchers Association, pushed back hard against both the EPA’s narrowed definition of normal farming practices near wetlands and the proposed changes to NRCS enforcement protocol. They described the new EPA rule as a massive “land grab” and mobilized their members so well the EPA withdrew the rule last month under pressure from Congress.

The stiff resistance to the WOTUS rule from ag-industry front groups showed the independent spirit of American agriculture and its deep distrust of the federal government’s regulatory reach. That same suspicion and militant don’t-tread-on-me rhetoric was on full display at Rastetter’s summit last Saturday.

“The Waters of the United States is an overreach by the EPA,” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad told the Ag Summit audience, and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said WOTUS is “a very big threat” to American agriculture. “I don’t understand where EPA authority would end regarding U.S. waterways,” Grassley said, implying that barnyard puddles and pasture wheel ruts might soon require EPA permits.

“It’s nothing but a power grab by the EPA.”  –New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

“It’s nothing but a power grab by the EPA,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said of WOTUS. “Complex issues are best handled at the local level,” he said, and not by a federal government trying to “dictate terms” to Iowa farmers.

“No one understands these problems better than the farmers and Governor Branstad, certainly not some government bureaucrat sitting in a cubicle in Washington D.C.,” Christie said.

On this question, as on that of gestation crates a few months ago, Christie seemed to be safely following the lead of Branstad and Grassley and courting Iowa farmers and other likely caucus goers. The other Ag Summit politicians followed suit.

“The EPA should create a much more level playing field and a more certain playing field,” said former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, the “waters of the United States” may include the territorial seas, rivers, most streams, lakes, wetlands, many ditches, channels and other small drainage ways. EPA Director Gina McCarthy recently claimed 60 percent of U.S. streams and millions of acres of wetlands currently lack clear protection from pollution under the CWA.

Rastetter did not bring up a more recent issue attracting a lot of attention in Iowa: the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties over the volume of nitrates their drainage districts contribute to the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

The flip side of farmers’ fierce aversion to government interference was seen in statements about the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard. The 10-year-old RFS requires oil companies to add a fixed amount of corn-based ethanol–currently about 10 percent–to the U.S. gasoline supply, in effect working like a federally mandated price support for corn growers.

“Don’t mess with the RFS.”  –Iowa Governor Terry Branstad

“Don’t mess with the RFS,” said Branstad. “Iowa’s corn growers need access to the marketplace that big oil wants to prevent.”

Data from the National Corn Growers Association shows 96 percent of US grain production is in corn, about 12-13 billion bushels annually, of which about 60 percent is used to feed livestock, 30 percent to make ethanol, 4 percent in human food products, such as cereal, sweeteners and beverages, and 4 percent in high-fructose corn syrup. Iowa produced 2.4 billion bushels of corn in 2014.

According to Grassley, Iowa’s six-term senator, “The EPA put big oil in charge of the RFS.” He said last year’s U.S. ethanol production of 14.3 billion gallons exceeded the volume of Saudi Arabia oil imported by the U.S. Iowa produced 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2014, 27 percent of the nation’s total output.

According to the RFS, no more than 15 billion gallons of the mandated biofuels can come from corn, a limit corn growers have nearly reached.

Once again, Rastetter’s out-of-town guests largely fell in line behind Iowa’s senator and governor but this time in favor of the federal government’s direct tampering with the free market. The love-hate relationship is plain: ag-industry groups loudly oppose any expansion of the EPA’s power to regulate agricultural pollution, and they equally loudly defend the EPA’s carving out a share of the gas market for ethanol.

Counter-summit promotes sustainable agriculture, criticizes Rastetter’s Big Ag event

Across town from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, at the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) Food and Justice Ag Summit, a variety of people shared their visions of a vastly different way of doing agriculture.

Representative of several nationwide farm organizations spoke at the ICCI counter-summit, including Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, Alicia Harvie, director of advocacy and issues work at Farm Aid, Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, and Mark Schultz, policy and organizing director at the Land Stewardship Project.

Some of the most powerful statements at the ICCI event came  from local farming advocates and critics of industrial-scale ag. Stacy Hartmann, chair of Dallas County Farmers and Neighbors and an organic farmer near Minburn, said Iowans have been largely unsuccessful when it comes to fighting new factory-farm hog confinements in their own backyards, but she proposed another tactic.

“We should stop being participants in the industrial food system, stop giving it our money and instead become evangelists for good food and responsible agriculture.”       –Minburn organic farmer Stacy Hartmann

“Consumers have power,” she said. “Instead of continuing to run into brick walls with politicians, we’d be most effective changing our eating and purchasing and encouraging everyone in our lives to do the same. We should stop being participants in the industrial food system, stop giving it our money and instead become evangelists for good food and responsible agriculture,” Hartmann said.

Francis Thicke, a soil scientist who owns and operates an 80-cow, grass-based, organic dairy near Fairfield, said a wholesale shift in our ideas about agriculture is needed.

“We Americans need a dramatic change in our beliefs if we’re to have enough food for all while leaving resources and opportunities for those of the future,” Thicke said. “Diet and health statistics clearly indicate that we no longer have the world’s best food system and that it is increasingly under the control of an agro-industrial food complex. We need to find the courage to challenge those in power to create the kind of food system that can feed everyone in a healthful and sustainable way.”

George Naylor, board member of the Center for Food Safety and non-GMO corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, also spoke at the ICCI Food and Ag Justice Summit.

“From the looks of it,” Naylor said, “giant agribusinesses and their spokespeople intend to drown out the voices of everyday Iowans by aggressively promoting a vision of agriculture that puts the interests of big-money corporations before people and our environment.”

Naylor said industrial-scale corporate agriculture is promoted in the same way neoliberalism was promoted in the 1990s, as if there were no alternative.

“They’ll recruit everybody into thinking that their vision of agriculture, the status quo, is the only way forward,” he said. “They will say consumers only want cheap food, so hog confinements, nitrate and pesticide pollution and decimated rural communities are part of the bargain.”

Naylor joined the other panelists in a call to restore economic opportunity to rural America. “Nobody wants their drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, fertilizer and manure. We need policy that makes sustainable, non-polluting kinds of farming the norm, not the exception,” he said.

Other speakers at the ICCI event included Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation family farmer from Adair County, Denise O’Brien, founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, and Kathleen McQuillen, Iowa program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

Frank James, executive director of Dakota Rural Action, seemed to sum up the overall attitude at the counter-summit when, speaking to industrial agribusiness, he said, “Your system doesn’t work for eaters, farmers or the land. It only works for big business.”

Raccoon River Watershed conference focuses on water quality, ag pollution

Aliber Hall on the campus of Drake University was the venue for the 2015 Raccoon River Watershed Association (RRWA) annual conference, perhaps the lowest-keyed of Saturday’s ag-centered events. With the Des Moines Water Works’ impending lawsuit on everyone’s mind–it was filed Tuesday–it was no surprise the RRWA made water quality the theme of this year’s conference.

Morning sessions were devoted to technical reports on the water chemistry and microbiology of the Raccoon River. Gordan Brand, senior chemist with the Des Moines Water Works, described the utility’s methods of water analysis, and two academic researchers, Buena Vista University Associate Professor of Biology Melinda Coogan and Drake University Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy Keith Summerville, gave overviews of their schools’ research programs on the Raccoon River watershed.

“My work focuses on how macroinvertebrates–animals that live in the river. Think dragonfly larvae, mayfly larvae, mussels and crayfish species–can be used to indicate the health of the river,” Summerville said.

“We found that macroinvertebrate diversity differs between the north and south Raccoon rivers,” he said. “Some of this difference is driven by water quality, as higher nitrates tend to diminish invertebrate diversity, but other sources of variation are also important. Coarse woody debris, which provides hiding places and feeding sites for invertebrates, also matters a great deal. Higher coarse woody debris is associated with more diverse invertebrate communities.”

Three graduate student researchers, winners of 2014 RRWA Research and Education Grants, also reported on macroinvertebrate studies they conducted over the last year. Rebekah Reynolds of Drake University and Ethan Wilson and Alex Schriber of Buena Vista University shared data from experiments funded by the RRWA.

Ray Harden of Perry, longtime science teacher in the Perry Community School District and a founding member of the RRWA, attended Saturday’s conference and was impressed by the quality of the research.

“The two students from Buena Vista University studied the effect of a chemical that is added to soaps to make them anti-bacterial,” Harden said. “This chemical has a detrimental effect on the microscopic flora and fauna in the stream and perhaps increases the resistance of bacteria to antibiotic drugs.”

Harden said he was also interested to hear from Jim Gillespie, director of the Iowa Division of Soil Conservation in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Gillespie addressed the conference on the 2013 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS).

“The goal is to expose these conservation practices to farmers so that they eventually work them into their field operations.” –RRWA member Ray Harden

“He basically said the NRS is working,” Harden said, “but it will take time and money, and there will never be enough money from the state to pay farmers to do all of the needed practices to control runoff and reduce soil erosion. The goal is to expose these conservation practices to farmers so that they eventually work them into their field operations.”

The Iowa State University Nutrient Center, which helped draft the NRS, has calculated that attaining the reduction strategy’s target of a 42 percent cut in nutrients will require 60 percent of the state’s corn-bean and continuous-corn acres to be planted with cover crops, 27 percent of all agricultural land to be treated with wetland and 60 percent of all subsurface-drained land to be treated with bioreactors.

Iowa farmland is very far from these nutrient-reduction targets and farmers’ efforts, in the opinion of the Des Moines Water Works and others, are inadequate.

Craig Fleishman, a Minburn farmer and member of both the RRWA board of directors and agriculture advisory board, agreed the voluntary approach is not working and some form of regulation will be necessary.

“I’m not sure what the regulations will look like, but maybe they could be tied to the crop insurance program,” Fleishman said.

Dwayne Sands of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation discussed Field to Market, a program of the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Field to Market has more than 70 sponsors, including some of the largest corporations in the food, fiber and fuel industries, such as Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta, Unilever, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Cargill and others.

Sands told the RRWA attendees one of the strongest advocates for chemically free organic food is Walmart. Walmart sees the fast rise in organic food sales, and it wants to capture those consumer dollars, he said.

Sands also emphasized the role of consumers in directing companies to support conservation program.  He said the NRS will not work unless large food processing companies sign on to the program, both in their marketing and with financial support.

David Hance of rural Polk County, a RRWA board member, said Leland Searles’ presentation on the birds of the Raccoon River watershed was both beautiful and informative.

“The health of the river can be partly judged by the wildlife that lives along and in the river.  If we pollute the river water, then we kill the birds and the fish,” he said.

“The health of the river can be partly judged by the wildlife that lives along and in the river.  If we pollute the river water, then we kill the birds and the fish.”  –RRWA member David Hance

Hance said he is concerned with the deteriorating quality of river water as a direct result of “adding more tile lines in farm fields and more hog confinement buildings near the river. There is no way that we can continue on our current path without totally destroying the Raccoon River. In due time, the farmland will be so full of hog manure that every tile line will be flowing green, and we will have blue-green algae blooms up and down the river everywhere there is stagnant water.”

Hance struck a note unheard at the posh Rastetter Iowa Ag Summit: “I see a disaster coming right at us in the very near future,” he said.

Sponsors of this year’s RRWA conference were the Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Conservation Alliance, Izaak Walton League U.S., Izaak Walton League Iowa, Environmental Working Group, 1,000 Friends of Iowa, Urban Ambassadors, Trout Unlimited, Whiterock Conservancy, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Citizens for a Healthy Iowa, Urbandale Democrats, Drake University Agricultural Law Center and the Sierra Club.

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