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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted on April 26th, 2021

Recently someone in my peer group publicly stated that “I counsel students if they conduct research for an academic institution (to) avoid advocacy related to their professional focus. Your research will become biased or perceived as such and you lose credibility.” Now this statement, mind you, comes from a person who some might say has strenuously advocated for the prevention of soil erosion throughout their career. As a long-term observer of this advocacy, I will say it did nothing to hurt this person’s credibility, and in fact enhanced it.

So I am a little perplexed by the statement and can only conclude that the students felt like advocating for the wrong thing. Clearly it could not have been the prevention of soil erosion. Who determines what is acceptable advocacy? Important people, I guess. I have some ideas on that.

But thinking on this a little bit, I thought that it might be an opportunity to illustrate the contrasting mindsets we have here in Iowa for soil erosion and water pollution, especially nutrient pollution. It is surely true that soil erosion degrades water quality and rivals hydrological modification and nutrification for the amount of damage it has done to our waterways. While any drive across the countryside shows there is a wide-range of tolerance amongst farmers for erosion, almost all recognize it as a threat to their bottom line, the long-term productive capacity of the farm, and the value of their land. I suppose they might exist, but I know of no person anywhere that has been criticized for zealously advocating against soil erosion. Nutrient loss and the related water pollution—not so much. This is not a new phenomenon (it goes back decades) and it should be curious to us. Why do Dr. Jekylls advocate against soil erosion while Mr. Hydes snort anhydrous ammonia?

There are probably a range of answers for the dichotomy that exists vis a vis erosion versus nutrient loss, and I speculate on some here:

  1. Fertilizer sales data, estimates from the federal government, and farmer surveys all illustrate that on average, Iowa farmers disagree with Iowa State University recommendations on fertilizer amounts. That is, farmers think they need more.
  2. A lot of money is being made in the industry overselling nitrogen fertilizer, and there are no negative consequences to doing so. And if they get a squeamish farmer that wants to apply recommended amounts (or less), you can always try to sell inhibitor products that purport to keep the nitrogen on the field. And what business doesn’t want to sell more stuff? Nobody wants to sell less stuff. I’m always reminded of that old Tom Ryan comedy bit about baking soda and salt (2:25).
  3. Soil erosion is highly visible to both the farmer and his/her neighbors. It’s a stigma. By contrast, nitrogen pollution doesn’t show up to the human eye until it has traveled downstream where a few algae cells stumble onto it like teenagers finding keg of Busch Lite and before you know it, the entire senior class is having a pool party and breaking the furniture. Or something like that, I don’t know.
  4. Wasting nitrogen does little or no long-term damage to the farm compared to soil erosion.
  5. Erosion is regulated—nitrogen pollution isn’t, and powerful people want to keep it that way. You may not know it, but we have had federal rules in place since 1985 to reduce erosion. That year’s farm bill created Conservation Compliance, which requires farmers cropping highly erodible land (HEL) to operate in certain ways if they want to participate in federal farm programs. We have no such framework for nutrients, although we sorely need it.
  6. Excess nutrification is intimately connected to the livestock industry. Over-fertilization with manure is embedded into and endorsed by the manure management plans required by our current CAFO regulations, which even allow 100 pounds per acre of nitrogen application to soybeans. Industry people love this like the senior class loves Busch Lite.
  7. Max Bushels. I’ve written in the past about our Max Acres culture, but we could also depict it as a Max Bushels culture as well. Eking out that last bushel may require an economically unwise amount of fertilizer, but who cares! More bushels means more money is juicing the system at both the front (seeds, insurance, fertilizer) and the back (drying, shipping, storing, checkoff dollars for commodity organizations). Erosion means the opposite.

Well there you have it. If there are any students reading this, I hope you fight like hell for what you believe in, because Iowa is not going to get any better unless you do.

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8 Responses

  1. dmf says:

    I certainly hope folks in conservation/Ag related disciplines don’t end up MIA the way UofIowa’s school of public health has been during this plague clusterf*ck (I’ve only seen one junior faculty member early on sticking her neck out to speak about the murderous mismanagement at meatpacking plants), what’s the point of doing research that sits unused while your fellow citizens who support your livelihood suffer? thanks for keeping at it despite the pushback hope the incoming UI president isn’t the insider “entrepreneur” or the dues paying federalist society member and is someone who has yer back.

  2. Allen Bonini says:

    Chris – I have to take exception to your line “almost all recognize it (soil erosion) as a threat to their bottom line, the long-term productive capacity of the farm, and the value of their land.” If that were true we wouldn’t see black snow in ditches in the winter or soil filled ditches the rest of the year, not to mention steep, eroding banks along field edges of many of our rivers and streams. My former colleagues at DNR have plenty of photos showing this tragic loss of soil, and I’m sure nearly every local watershed coordinator, IDALS field staffer, and NRCS staff all have seen similar evidence of this lack of caring about soil erosion. Not to mention, farmers who cultivate rented land having no incentive to really care about erosion unless the landowner demands they farm with cover crops or no-till. And I suspect there are plenty of corporate farm managers and absentee landowners that have no idea (or even don’t really care) about how badly their land is eroding as long as the rent checks show up on time. In urban areas we tend to call these kind of landlords that don’t take care of their property “slumlords,” yet in farm country we too often make excuses for their behavior or just close our eyes to it. Too bad the SWCD’s don’t take their job more seriously, set aggressive tolerable soil loss rates, and then vigorously enforce those standards. Our state’s water quality has no real hope of improving unless and until the roughly 97% of Iowans who don’t farm decide “enough is enough” and demand policy makers set firm, enforceable regulations or minimum standards of care if a farmer wants anymore taxpayer handouts or subsidies. Failing that, the future of our water quality is bleak, at best.

  3. Carl hamman says:

    The problem with a farmer needing expertise from the gov on soil erosion is that the engineers have turned it into a very complicated calculation to design waterways. It is easier for the farmer to disc them in every year instead of looking for expertise from our gov. We can survey , design and install waterways within hours of showing up and the gov thinks it is rocket science. The soil conservation service is a complete joke.

  4. Barbara says:

    Recently, a chunk of ground sold nearby. The new landowner, who lives counties away, tore out all the terraces and the fence. (Who needs a berm to keep the soil IN the field anyway, right?) Would tearing out the terraces on highly erodible land make whoever farms that ground ineligible for any subsidy payments due to the 1985 federal rules?

    • cjones says:

      if it was part of a NRCS conservation plan, then yes, it would make it ineligible as I understand it. Might matter if it was HEL ground or not.

  5. A.M. says:

    I always appreciate this blog and learn from it. Thank you, Chris.

    It seems to me the biggest difference between soil and nutrient work is political.  Iowa soil conservation work has trundled along for decades, with many Iowans not really caring much.  Most soil is on private land, after all.

    But water is public, so pollution is too.  Many Iowans are now concerned, and some are angry.  Water quality has become a big hot political potato.  The Big Ag water-PR machine is churning 24/7, aided by many elected officials.  And just this week, a CR GAZETTE story reported that a recent survey indicates that many if not most Iowa farmers refuse to admit agriculture is responsible for most Iowa nutrient pollution, even though farm leaders do.     

    So any students who pay attention can figure out that advocating for nutrient pollution reduction in Iowa could be politically tricky.  And possibly even hazardous to career health.

  6. A.M. says:

    For anyone interested, there’s a new Iowa Farm Bureau post about water quality on the IFB website today, titled “Omitting facts on water quality misleads Iowans on progress.” It’s a good example of the combination of misleading statements, carefully-one-sided information, deep hostility toward the press, mild self-pity, and enthusiastic self-praise that is often found in Iowa Big Ag water propaganda these days.

  7. Steve Hnetkovsky says:

    Keep fighting the good fight Chris, you’re educating people and that’s the best weapon we have right now.

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