Research forecasts Iowa corn yields could drop in half within the next half-century thanks to extreme weather – yet it’s not part of the political conversation
by Art Cullen
Farmers around here are itching to go after that amber wave of soya beans, but there was that 5in rain a couple of weeks ago and then a 7in rain, and it drives even the retired guys batty.
Those beans aren’t worth much at the elevator thanks to a Trump trade war with China, but they’re worth even less getting wet feet in a pond that was a field which the glacier made a prairie bog some 14,000 years ago – until we came along and drained it.
This year, crops in north-west Iowa are looking spotty. Up into Minnesota they were battered by spring storms and late planting, and then inundated again in late summer. Where they aren’t washed out, they’re weedy or punky. If you go south in Buena Vista county, where I live in Storm Lake, the corn stands tall and firm.
Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style.
Read the entire article at The Guardian
Art Cullen is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and editor of The Storm Lake Times. His book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper is available on Amazon
Once again, as with the last Art-Cullen-piece post here, I am surprised by what Cullen has written. I have great respect for his opinion pieces and stories, which are excellent, and he fully deserved that Pulitzer. But in this case, he seems to be blaming “politicians” while kind of letting Iowa farmers off the hook. That is kind of odd.
It’s not city dwellers who make and vote for Farm Bureau policies, for example. It’s FB farmer members. And having read various FB statements on climate change, FB members have a lot to answer for. And there has been discussion of climate change in many current political campaigns. It’s just not being discussed in reasonable ways by most Republican candidates, and the majority of farmers vote Republican.
Iowa farmers are not just innocent victims in this situation. Some farmers, the best ones, are part of the solution by seriously working to improve soil conservation and soil health. Healthy topsoil stores carbon. But the rest, the majority of Iowa farmers, are not stepping up, as Iowa’s sorry farm conservation statistics demonstrate.
Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship boasts about Iowa cover crop use, but it still only amounts to having cover crops on about 3% of Iowa’s rowcrop acres. If Iowa public schools were getting results even remotely that bad, heads would roll.
I’m not claiming most politicians are saying and doing what needs to be said and done. They aren’t. But one reason some politicians aren’t doing it in Iowa is fear of losing farm group support and the farmer vote.
Also, I don’t doubt that the annual soil loss rates around Storm Lake aren’t as bad as in many other places in Iowa. But the average rowcropped acre in Iowa has been losing more than five tons of soil per acre per year for many years. And some new research indicates that even half a ton per acre per year may be too generous an estimate of real-world soil regeneration rates. I read two-tenths of a ton somewhere. And tillage in general releases carbon into the atmosphere, and Iowa farmers are still doing a lot of tilling.
Big Ag groups sometimes complain that most Iowans don’t really understand agribusiness. They should be careful what they wish for.
I take issue with this statement, “Also, I don’t doubt that the annual soil loss rates around Storm Lake aren’t as bad as in many other places in Iowa.”
Buena Vista County was one of the three counties whose drainage districts were sued unsuccessfully by the Des Moines Water Works.
I recommend you read Art Cullen’s long version of this issue in his book. I sense him equivocating a bit on criticism of participation in the voluntary nutrient reduction program and issues related to it. At the same time, he lays out the problem in a way few who write on this matter have.
I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Thanks, Paul. I said what I did about the soil erosion rates for two reasons. First, I trust Art Cullen to get facts like that right. Second, soil erosion and nitrogen pollution are two different things. It makes perfect sense that an Iowa region with lower soil erosion would get sued for high nitrate pollution.
Soil erosion is much more of a problem in a rolling landscape like most of southern Iowa. When hilly areas are planted with rowcrops, soil erosion rates tend to be higher than when flat areas are planted with rowcrops. Soil on slopes tends to erode more than soil on flat land. It’s the same basic principle as water rolling downhill. And that eroding soil carries phosphorus pollution into creeks, rivers, and lakes,, a big cause of toxic algae blooms.
On the other hand, nitrate pollution caused by conventional farm drainage is much more of a problem in the Des Moines Lobe (north central) region of Iowa, where land is much flatter, That’s where the Iowa landscape used to be full of prairie pothole wetlands, marshes, and shallow lakes. The Iowans in that region went kind of crazy trying to drain it all. They put in thousands of miles, literally, of drainage tile, and are still adding more. They must have known on some level, even back when all that drainage really got underway, that turning all those millions of Lobe acres into cropland would bring crop prices down. And it did. But they drained it all anyway. It’s incredible how many millions of of acres of wetlands Iowa lost. Historians say it used to be possible to canoe halfway across that part of the state.
I suspect one reason that there has been so much farmer indignation about that drainage-district lawsuit is because many North Central Iowa farmers have been telling themselves for decades that they are wonderful land stewards. That’s because the soil erosion rates are lower on their flat farms than in hillier parts of Iowa. So when it was pointed out that their drainage systems were causing major nitrate pollution, it was a big kick in their self-esteem. That’s not an excuse for their angry reaction, just one reason for it.
I have read a lot of Cullen’s writing on this subject, and as opportunity arises, will be happy to read more. One basic fact, as he and you and I and many others know, is that Iowa’s voluntary nutrient reduction system isn’t working.
If you get a chance and haven’t done it already, I recommend reading about what’s happening in the Chesapeake Bay, where farmers are being required to do conservation. Many farmers there aren’t happy, but the water is definitely cleaner and the fisheries are definitely healthier. The Gulf Dead Zone should only be so lucky someday. Best wishes —
Cullen addresses everything you mention in this comment in his book, although he points out soil loss in Buena Vista County and recounts the history of dredging Storm Lake because of it. Drainage tile networks that continue to be installed, and farming fence row to fence row without buffers along creeks and streams are closely related problems and I’m not sure they can be rhetorically separated as you have done here. What Cullen has produced in the book is something much different from his short essays in the newspaper. More valuable to the discussion as well, I think.
Paul, I certainly agree with you that they are closely related problems. And while I am willing to believe what Cullen said about lower soil erosion in the Storm Lake area, that doesn’t mean that level of erosion is okay. Officially, Iowa still uses the very-outdated “T” standard which says that it’s acceptable to lose five tons per acre per year because that’s a “tolerable” loss. Bizarre. The Iowa-agriculture gap between what we now know we should do, and what we actually still do, is huge and growing.
I’d be interested in knowing whether the Cullen book is organized in a way that would allow a reader to read just the parts about agriculture and natural resources, or whether the subject matter is all intermingled.
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There are chapters, although I recommend checking the book out of your local library and reading it cover to cover. What makes the book interesting is a couple of things: Cullen’s experience and skill as a news writer, that he covered much of the farm community since the Branstad re-boot, and his obvious caution about over-stating his arguments. At some point I’ll get around to writing a book review for Blog for Iowa, although I can’t even think about that quntil after the election.
Thanks, Paul. I really look forward to reading your review.
Meanwhile, I thought what’s below might interest you. There is no need for anyone in Iowa, including Art Cullen, to soft-pedal the role farmers are playing in our environmental problems. Big Ag groups do that very well. What’s below is one more example of the constant PR (blogs, websites, contests, TV ads, print ads, radio ads, football-game tie-ins, etc. etc.) by farm groups explaining that farmers are the essence of noble. I am tired of reading this stuff, but it keeps on coming.