Art Cullen: “Agri-Chemical Cabal” Has Chokehold On Iowa

Please read and share this column by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Art Cullen, of The Storm Lake Times

A rapid and significant expansion in swine facilities here and across Iowa — with unheeded calls in the legislature for a moratorium on more building — causes one to wonder just how much manure we can handle.

Even the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors is starting to push back against plans for new hoghouses — such as one just across the road from where a family intended to build its dream retirement home. There is no local control, the supervisors are getting heat and the state law ignores their concerns. Iowa Select will come in wherever it pleases.

This is the result of the pork industry insisting that any regulation of agriculture must be under the purview of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. We remember then-Rep. Russ Eddie, R-Storm Lake, himself a pork producer, declaring that you cannot have 99 sets of rules for agriculture. Hence, the supervisors can only stand on the sidelines and complain, and perhaps ask themselves why we have 99 counties, and why we pay all those supervisors to stand on the sidelines. The system was set up so it could not be controlled. When the IDNR confined feeding coordinator, Gene Tinker, started to advise counties on how they might effectively object to new permits, Tinker’s job was eliminated.

Now that statewide duty falls to Ken Hesenius of the Spencer IDNR office, who already was supposed to oversee 8,000 confinements in 10 Northwest counties.

None of us are actually certain how many confinements are in those 10 counties, or the 89 others, because IDNR cannot keep track of them all. Manure management plans are put on paper in a file cabinet and are kept dark so they do not decay.

This is the way the integrated corporate structure likes it.

So we actually do not know how much manure is being applied to Iowa land. This from two of the leading public university researchers into nitrate and phosphorous loadings into Iowa rivers who asked that their identities were not revealed for fear of losing their jobs or program funding.

One graduate research study at Iowa State figures that in Sioux County — where there are lots of cattle, hogs and chickens, more even than Buena Vista or Sac — the average nitrogen application from all sources (manure and commercial and natural) is 415 pounds per acre. Iowa State’s nitrogen application standard for the state is 140 pounds per acre. The research also shows that Sioux County purchases no less commercial fertilizer than any other of the Top 10 corn counties in Iowa. They simply are overloaded with livestock and anhydrous ammonia, wearing suspenders with two sets of belts in the relentless quest for 200-bushel corn to feed those hogs.

The result is that nitrate readings in the Floyd River are through the roof. It peaks at over 20 milligrams per liter (the federal guideline is 10 mg/l, while the University of Iowa College of Public Health recommends 5 mg/l). On Monday it was running at about 17 mg/l, like the Iowa River was, and the Raccoon River at Sac City posted a reading of 12.4 mg/l. All the stream monitors in Northwest Iowa were over any limits this week. And that is not rare.

The Des Moines Water Works sued Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over all this. CEO Bill Stowe says that the Des Moines Lobe, the richest corn ground on Earth, is oversaturated with manure. It shows up in Saylorville Reservoir with high phosphorous levels that lead to potentially deadly cyanotoxins — blue green algae that also infests Lake Erie from animal agriculture runoff. It appears that about half the Saylorville phosphorous comes from soil erosion and about half is dissolved in the water, suggesting liquid manure.

We have increased our phosphorous application five-fold since 1950.

There is no question that this land can take manure from the livestock we have. The question is why farmers in Sioux County would waste so much money on commercial fertilizer, why they aren’t soil testing or why they aren’t developing markets for their manure on land that needs it.

We probably could handle the hogs we have, and then some, with better landscape management and if we respected our neighbors.

If we grew less corn and more grass with cattle grazing it, we would have more jobs in rural communities and fewer water quality problems. If we had local control, that Iowa Select farm would go to an appropriate site and not next door to that retirement dream cottage or in a karst soil structure. There are plenty of places around Iowa to site a hoghouse, and there are plenty of places that need chicken litter. Rembrandt Enterprises is selling that product to manure-deficient counties and finds value in it. It is figuring out ways to deliver a consistent product whose value can be measured.

But when you locate next to a residence, when you skirt the rules by living the letter and not spirit of the hoghouse law, when you ignore the board of supervisors, then the agronomic and scientific and economic arguments for livestock get thrown out the window. People want a moratorium because they think it is out of control. And it is. The readings in our rivers are clear evidence. And the fear of tenured academics speaks volumes to the chokehold that the agri-chemical cabal has on this state.

Editor’s Notebook
Art Cullen

This entry was posted in Blog for Iowa and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Art Cullen: “Agri-Chemical Cabal” Has Chokehold On Iowa

  1. Anne Duncan says:

    Another great piece by Art Cullen. Thank you to him and to the researchers below.


    Study: Iowa’s share of nitrate to Missouri, Mississippi rivers disproportionate to water flow

    By Erin Jordan

    The Gazette

    A new University of Iowa study shows the nitrate flowing from Iowa farm fields is a substantial part of the total load in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

    From 1999 to 2016, Iowa’s average nitrate contribution to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya Basin was 29 percent, Upper Mississippi River Basin 45 percent and Missouri River Basin 55 percent, according to the study published April 12 in the journal PLOS One.

    Iowa’s nitrate discharge is disproportionate to the amount of water flowing into rivers that border the state, indicating the increase in nitrate share isn’t due to weather, the study shows.

    “This paints a clear picture that our state is a main contributor to the nitrate loads,” said Cindy Lane, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “It’s a huge push for us to say ‘Iowans need to do our part. We need to be accountable’.”

    Nitrogen is an essential nutrient in plant growth. But when it becomes too concentrated in water -which has happened in agricultural states like Iowa where it’s applied as fertilizer — nitrate can harm humans and animals.

    Nitrate and phosphorus washing down the Mississippi River are responsible for an oxygen-deprived dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This led 12 states, including Iowa, to adopt nutrient reduction strategies to try to cut nitrate and phosphorus by 45 percent.

    The UI study by Chris Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling and Larry Weber used data collected from 1999 to 2016 from 23 Iowa watersheds monitored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment program. These watersheds end near the Mississippi or Missouri rivers and have nearby U.S. Geological Survey gauges, which monitor water volume.

    Researchers then compared Iowa’s data with annual nitrate and water loads at sites further downriver.

    The non-Iowa share of nitrate in each river basin was significantly lower than the total river basin, indicating without nitrate from Iowa, the total nitrate load in the three basins would be steady or declining.

    The study’s authors suggest since Iowa deposits such a large share of the nitrate in these Midwest river basins, financial resources should be concentrated here to reduce the overall problem.

    Iowa also should require metrics as part of its Nutrient Reduction Strategy and make conservation strategies, such as stream buffers, mandatory for farmers, said Jen Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

    “The NRS is a promise that has fallen short,” she said. “We need to have adequate sustained funding with timelines. We need an accountability framework set up for the NRS, a nonvoluntary framework for nonpoint pollution.”

    The UI study is thought to be the first to quantify Iowa’s long-term contribution of nitrate to the Missouri River basin.


Comments are closed.