The Cart Before the Horse: Part III -- The Right Kind of Place
Mar 22, 2013
Part III of this series finds us in the office of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey who had answered some tough questions from growers at a meeting in Grundy Center, Iowa two weeks earlier. Farmers at the meeting cited recent proposed legislation that ended up harming growers on its way to improved water quality. (Read Iowa State's 'Iowa's Recreational Use Immunity -- Now You See it, Now You Don't' for more detail.)
As the Secretary discussed Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, growers were concerned that this water quality related effort would get it all wrong like water quality legislation that has come before.
Three Iowa legislators were on hand at the meeting and while the other two put in their own two cents, it was Secretary Northey who took a bold stance against government regulations on the farm saying, "If the Nutrient Reduction Strategy comes out and regulation is part of it, then it is just a legal war and we are going to fight it. We're going to fight it politically, we're going to fight it legally, and forget any voluntary effort because we're not going to end up going there if that's the way it goes."
Northey's message makes sense for all of the states working on a Nutrient Reduction Strategy -- get growers involved and making efforts. A demonstrated voluntary effort will help keep government regulation of NPK and livestock production at bay.
We join Secretary Northey in his office in Des Moines...
MONITOR: You've been traveling around Iowa talking about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and I saw you up in Grundy - kinda laying it out for farmers, opening yourself up to that and they seemed very engaged, very interested and willing to talk about it…has that been your experience across the state?
NORTHEY: It has. People come at it from very different viewpoints. Some have kept up on this, and others are busy with their own life and this is the first discussion for them as far as 'do we have a responsibility here with this'.
We remind them there is not a legal requirement, no legal framework by the federal government that can come after farmers, but there are good reasons for us to engage before that gets established.
MONITOR: Iowa is second after Mississippi to start chiseling away at nutrient reduction. Do you foresee a future where one state could have the best ideas and the EPA says, 'now we've got the Mississippi Nutrient Reduction Plan and here's how every state has to do it'…
NORTHEY: We will all borrow from each other and learn from each other, but I think state specific plans driven by the state is valuable for two reasons. One is we are all different. An Iowa nonpoint plan is not going to work in Louisiana. We have different landscapes, different tillage, different drainage tile, different slope so we are all different.
Secondly, to get adoption, it really has to be invented here and it has to engage people. I know how much our folks would not want to be told by another state what we are going to do in Iowa just because somebody from Washington D.C. thought they had a particularly good plan somewhere else. We should be reaching out and learning from each other, but we shouldn't have one plan that is forced on everybody else because it happens to be really working in a particular state.
MONITOR: Would the EPA one day march in and say, 'Alright, now every body's got to report their nitrogen, everybody's got to cover crop and everybody's got to do X,Y and Z according to our EPA plan or else,'?
NORTHEY: Right now, no. It would take a lawsuit or a consent decree or a change in what the clean water act says. My understanding is that the Clean Water Act does not allow for regulation of nonpoint sources. But just because it is not there, doesn't mean we sit on our hands. It means we still figure out ways to take control of this and learn the technologies. Done right, these technologies actually help us. If they allow us to use less nitrogen and build organic matter through cover crops, those are all good things.
Some would argue we are just one lawsuit away from EPA regulations, but I don't think so. There actually is a lawsuit out there right now where some of the environmental groups are suing EPA in the Mississippi River Basin and saying that because of Gulf Hypoxia that EPA should come up with a nutrient standard and require the states to perform according to that nutrient standard.
In this case, EPA is saying, 'No, we are letting the states take the lead…they are the ones that can make this happen.' The farm groups in some of those states are on EPA's side - which has rarely been the case - saying 'We are in agreement with EPA that this should be state-driven.'
We argue we have a common interest in keeping this state-driven because it would create a huge economic burden if the suit caused agriculture to be required to meet some kind of nutrient standard that they couldn't meet.
MONITOR: With the Federal Government having the kind of financial and economic trouble it is right now, I have a hard time seeing them being able to afford switching over from enforcement by the state level DNR to a full-on federal enforcement effort…
NORTHEY: They want a state agency. Not because they let farmers off the hook…its because the local people understand it better. Rather than somebody coming in from another state to look at an Iowa cattle feeding operation, get an Iowan who's been on other Iowa cattle operations that can understand what it looks like just after a rain -- the fact that the cattle are a little sloppy today, they'll be dry by this afternoon, doesn't bother me at all.
But the guy coming from halfway across the country may or may not get the same feel. They may say, 'there's a bunch of mud out there.' But we have beautiful black soils not sand - which is a good thing, and yet that's the place we have our feedyards.
MONITOR: So are you pleased with the progress on this so far?
NORTHEY: It sure feels like things are going well with the reduction strategy and we are hearing good things. The attitude is good both in the countryside and in the capital. Governor Branstad has been very supportive of a voluntary program and he included budget items and we really appreciate that too.
I think for the middle of March, we are in the right kind of place.