Iowa Should Invest in Water Quality

Tony Thompson

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

Farmers are “stewards of the land”. Most Iowans have heard this expression growing up—the notion that farmers responsibly care for the land in order to leave it better than they found it for future generations. These are the true environmentalists, and there are still Iowa farmers who fit the stewardship image.

Many Iowa farmers have been practicing good stewardship on their land for decades—sometimes with, sometimes without government incentives. They use their own money to build wetlands and ponds in order to create habitat and keep rain water—and the soil and nutrients it carries with it—from washing onto their neighbor’s fields. They ensure there are buffers alongside streams, and they plant crops a reasonable distance from waterways. They see the land as more than just a commodity.

Yet Iowa still has a serious, vexing issue with polluted runoff from our agricultural land threatening the safety of our drinking water and recreational waters.

Trends in agriculture policy, the post-WWII push to produce more, and the “get big or get out” mentality that came after it, led to a shift in farmer attitudes from steward toward producer. The resulting loss of wetlands, reduced perennial cover, and increased row-cropping have created changes in the landscape . . . and in our water quality. Intensification of agriculture demands intensification of stewardship.

There has been a lot of talk lately about stewardship and conservation—enough talk. Now we need large-scale action.

It is said that a “one-size fits all” approach to agriculture won’t work, however the laws of nature do apply to every farm. Minimum tillage, buffers along streams, and grassy waterways should be minimum measures on every farm.

The good news is that these and similar practices not only improve water quality and reduce flooding downstream, they also protect the soil and increase resilience to weather extremes that benefit the farm’s productivity. Practices such as no-till and planting cover crops increase soil organic matter. According to Michigan State University Extension, increasing organic matter by 1% allows an acre of land to hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water. Retaining this water makes it available for use on the farm during rain-free times, reduces peak flows in rivers during major rain events, and reduces the amount of fertilizers, pesticides and top soil that are carried with it which pollute Iowa’s rivers and lakes downstream.

Iowa’s water quality problems are not just a farm problem; they are landscape problems. To solve these problems, the scale of the solution needs to match the scale of the problem.

Iowa policy must support stewardship on the farm and the landscape level. Such support will require significant public investments that are sustained over the long term and not subject to one time funding or a governor’s veto. Policy must also support partnerships, including leveraging both public and private sector funds to support good stewardship practices. Farmers who are good stewards of the land must also be able to maintain profitability in a competitive economic environment.

The old saying was “good fences make good neighbors.” People understood that keeping their livestock on their own land, so as not to eat the neighbors’ crops, was inherently part of being a good neighbor. There may be many fewer fences today, but the point remains: being a good neighbor requires being conscious of the people around us. Abuse of land hurts people in both time and space; people to come in the future, as well as people downstream today.

Good agricultural stewardship is not only a good investment in our streams, lakes, and wildlife. Good stewardship is a good investment in our economy, in our families, and in sustainable food production. Being good stewards, on a large scale across Iowa’s landscape in our watershed communities, is the right thing to do.

 Tony Thompson is a farmer near Elkhart in Polk County and is a board member of the Iowa Farmers Union. Contact him at Jennifer Terry is an Agriculture Policy Specialist with the Iowa Environmental Council. Contact her at

Beginning Farmer Institute Holds First Session

The fourth class of the NFU Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI) was in Washington, D.C., in September to take part in the first session of the institute. Participants learned about USDA programs, risk management, bookkeeping, how to discuss a business plan with a lender, and lesser-known opportunities to generate farm income and keep production costs in line.  Those in the fourth class are Nicole Vojtech of Ohio; Tracey Zink of Nebraska; Courtney Krueger of North Dakota; Chris Holman and Kriss Marion of Wisconsin; Harrison Topp of Colorado; Glen Hughes of Indiana; Erin Bailey of Washington; Rick Duvall of Illinois; Chelsea Kruse of New Hampshire; Troy Hunoff of South Dakota; Nicholas Levendofsky, Matt and Leah Ubel of Kansas.

The second BFI session will take place Nov. 6-9, 2014, in Minnesota. It will focus on local foods, cooperatives, and farm tours.

Notice of 2014 Elections

The 2014 IFU State Convention will include elections on Saturday, November 1. All regular dues-paying members are entitled to vote (1 vote per membership), and members must be present at the convention in order to cast a ballot. Elections will be held for the following positions:

PRESIDENT (2-year term) & VICE PRESIDENT (2-year term)

Any regular dues-paying IFU member is eligible to serve as President or Vice President. Pursuant to IFU bylaws, any member intending to stand for election as President or Vice President must notify the State Secretary no later than 30 days prior to the date of the election, and any eligible candidate who provides such notice will be placed on the ballot at the state convention. If at least one eligible candidate has notified the State Secretary on or before October 2, 2014, no further nominations will be considered on the day of the convention. In the event that no eligible candidate comes forward by the deadline, nominations will be accepted at the convention from the regular members in attendance.


There are a total of 7 positions on the IFU Board of Directors that will be voted on at the 2014 state convention. Any eligible member interested in serving in any of the open board positions may contact the IFU state office prior to the state convention to have their name placed on the ballot (please contact the state office by Monday, October 27 to allow time for ballots to be printed).  In addition, any eligible member may be nominated for any of the open board positions on the day of the convention by regular members in attendance.


District Representatives. Any regular dues-paying IFU member living in the district is eligible to serve as a District Representative on the Board of Directors.

NW District Representative – 3 positions open – 3-year term, 2-year term, 1-year term

(Boone, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Clay, Crawford, Dickinson, Emmet, Greene, Hamilton, Hancock, Humboldt, Ida, Kossuth, Lyon, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Pocahontas, Sac, Story, Sioux, Webster, Winnebago, Woodbury and Wright Counties)

SW District Representative – 1 position open – 3-year term

(Adair, Adams, Audubon, Cass, Clarke, Dallas, Decatur, Fremont, Guthrie, Harrison, Madison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Polk, Pottawattamie, Ringgold, Shelby, Taylor, Union and Warren Counties)

NE District Representative – 2 position open – 3-year term, 2-year term

(Allamakee, Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Cerro Gordo, Chickasaw, Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Floyd, Franklin, Grundy, Hardin, Howard, Jackson, Jones, Linn, Marshall, Mitchell, Tama, Winneshiek and Worth Counties)

SE District Representative – 1 positions open – 3-year term

(Appanoose, Cedar, Clinton, Davis, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Muscatine, Poweshiek, Scott, Van Buren, Wapello, Washington and Wayne Counties)


The 2014 state convention also will include the election of 1 delegate to represent Iowa at the 2015 National Farmers Union Convention, which will take place March 14-17 in Wichita, Kansas. Any regular dues-paying IFU member is eligible to serve as a delegate to the NFU Convention.  Any eligible member interested in serving as delegate may contact the state office prior to the state convention to have their name placed on the ballot (please contact the state office by Monday, October 27 to allow time for ballots to be printed).  In addition, any eligible member may be nominated as delegate on the day of the convention by regular members in attendance.

Delegates to the NFU Convention will be responsible for debating and approving the legislative policy that the NFU government relations staff will advocate for over the coming year. If elected to serve as delegate, your travel, lodging and meal expenses will be paid for by the Farmers Union. In addition to the delegate elected by members at the state convention, the IFU President and 2 IFU board members selected by the Board of Directors will attend the NFU Convention as delegates.