Posted March 16, 2017 by the Iowa Soybean Association 

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It’s one thing to hear farmers and ag retailers are working to improve water quality and fine-tune nutrient management. It’s another to see it.

Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance (ACWA), Capital Crossroads, and NEW Cooperative Inc. teamed up last week to provide about 30 urban residents and environmentalists an opportunity to learn how technology and advances in crop production help farmers raise enough grain to meet worldwide demand in an environmentally sustainable way.

The event was held March 9 at NEW Cooperative’s fertilizer and chemical warehouse in Roelyn. Farmers and nutrient experts talked about agronomy and fertilizer management, the nitrogen cycle and how precision agriculture helps farmers raise more crops with less nutrients. Soil sampling, variable rate technology, field maps used for prescriptive nutrient application and the latest application equipment were on display.

Dubbed “Current Conversations on Water Quality,” the tour — coordinated in part by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) — was designed to help urban neighbors better understand farming and the decisions producers make, according to ACWA Chairman Harry Ahrenholtz.

“One of the most important things we want to accomplish is provide awareness,” he said. “Visiting an actual fertilizer facility, listening to the folks making nutrient recommendations and handling products — it’s something none (of the participants) had ever had before.”

The urban and rural relationship was strained after the Des Moines Water Works sued three northwest Iowa counties for allegedly allowing nitrates to pollute the Raccoon River, a primary source water. Water works officials and other groups blame farmers.

The ACWA is a consortium of 11 ag retailers and five associate members. Its mission is to help agriculture identify and implement solutions that reduce nutrient loss to Iowa’s water and is organized within the watersheds of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

“I hope people go back and share with their groups what they saw and heard,” Ahrenholtz said. “Hopefully it will spark interest and conversations. The hope is to form a relationship where we can understand and communicate better.”

Tractors and equipment maneuvering on their own using GPS signals, soil sampling to prevent over application of fertilizer and variable rate application to ensure it happens isn’t anything new to farmers and ag retailers. But to those who don’t earn a living off the land, the technology used to raise crops today is amazing.

Greg Wandrey, The Nature Conservancy Iowa agriculture program director, works with farmers on the 4Rs of nutrient management — right time, right rate, right source and right place. He attended to learn about the latest farming techniques and equipment.

“Seeing this facility, equipment and technology is fascinating,” Wandrey said. “From my standpoint in the ag sector, we’re trying to identify opportunities and barriers farmers face with implementing new practices like nutrient management. There’s a lot of information about fertilizer people don’t know.”

Here’s a few facts shared by nutrient experts:

  • ACWA members don’t allow fall anhydrous ammonia application without an inhibitor on soil that’s warmer than 50 degrees to reduce denitrification.
  • Nitrogen sales in Iowa were the same in 2015 as in 2007, yet corn yields have substantially increased.
  • Split shot nitrogen application is on the rise.
  • An average, farmers make about 200 management decisions a year.
  • Roughly the same amount of nitrogen is used to fertilize a lawn and one acre of corn yielding 200 bushels.
  • An acre of ground with 3 percent organic matter has 3,000 pounds of naturally occurring nitrogen per foot, but only a fraction is plant available.
  • 75 percent of farmers use GPS technology and autosteer.

“The tools our industry uses to improve water quality have greatly improved,” said Dan Dix, NEW Cooperative general manager. “We’re able to reduce nutrient usage where possible and make sound agronomic decisions.”

Ann Robinson, Iowa Environmental Council agricultural policy specialist, liked what she heard. Especially when it came to nitrogen inhibitor use.

“We appreciate the leadership ISA and groups like ACWA have shown in water quality,” she said. “This was a good opportunity to hear about positive, proactive efforts by farmers, co-ops and ag product dealers. They have such an important role working with a lot of entities, including environmental groups, to take care of our land and water.”

ACWA Executive Director Roger Wolf said both urban and rural residents want cleaner water.

“We know how to do this. We need to be walking together to realize the potential,” said Wolf, who also serves as ISA director of Environmental Programs and Services. “We look forward to working with Capital Crossroads and re-engaging with partners in Des Moines.”

Organizers say the event wasn’t necessarily meant to change people’s minds but open them. Bethany Wilcoxon, director of Capital Crossroads, believes it did just that.

The Des Moines-based nonprofit organization aims to provide positive opportunities in central Iowa in multiple areas, including the environment and agriculture. The group provided 10 recommendations to the Iowa Legislature last year on how to improve water quality.

“Capital Crossroads is all about community partnerships,” said Wilcoxon. “We know we’re better when we work together.

“We hope this is the first of a series of events between upstream and downstream partners,” she added. “We may not agree 100 percent across the board on (water quality) solutions, but if we can find commonalities to work on together, we’ll be in a better situation in the long run.”