Iowa Ag Secretary Northey Defends Voluntary Nutrient Reduction

July 24, 2013 09:20 AM

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey affirmed his Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continued to encourage a voluntary approach to reducing the flow of nitrogen and phosphate through the watershed and into the Gulf of Mexico. Northey's comments were delivered to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation's Economic Summit in Ames on Tuesday.

Northey wondered out loud, "What if somebody in authority decides we are going to regulate things? What a mess it would be. First of all, it wouldn't fix the problem, and it would make our lives very miserable."

The EPA has asked the states that border the Mississippi river to reduce farm runoff by 45%. So far, no regulatory action has been taken, but the issue is cause for concern. Legislation related to the Iowa Designated Water Trails has already put farmers in a position of heightened liability. That legislation was designed to allow recreation on farm land and the surrounding water bodies. It states that if a citizen is injured on a grower's property, the grower can only be sued if he/she is involved in the activity.

As an example, a kindergarten teacher sued a farmer who had hosted her class on a school trip at his farm. The teacher fell out of the haymow and broke her arm. Had the grower not been leading a formal tour, he would have been free from liability in that instance. However, since the grower was part of the activity, he was subject to prosecution.

Many fear that, while water quality and nutrient reduction are necessary for the sustainability of the nation's watersheds, regulations and legislation will get it all wrong, and farmers will ultimately pay the price.

The problem with a 45% reduction in nutrient runoff is that EPA has yet to set a baseline figure leaving savvy growers to ask, "45% of what?" Without a baseline set from the beginning, accurate measurements are impossible and showing real change on paper with X's and O's would amount to a floating figure in the hands of officials like California Senator Barbara Boxer.

I have yet to meet the farmer who would take fertilizer advice from Senator Boxer, and some of the ideas floated out there include outlawing fall nitrogen and phosphate applications, required cover crops, and compliance tied directly to crop insurance payments.

Secretary Northey has high hopes that if EPA notices growers in the Corn Belt making voluntary efforts to reduce nutrient runoff, regulation will not have to be put in place. But do not discount the influence of the environmental community who do not understand modern row crop production as we do. If it were up to Yoko and the enviros, we would all be fertilizing our crops with pure unicorn manure. But in the real world, crops need nutrient, and, since there really are not enough unicorns around to fertilize much more than a field of dreams, farmers will continue to rely on commercial fertilizers along with traditional methods.

This storm has been brewing since the mid-1990's, and environmentalist lobbyists are sure to lose their patience before a 45% reduction in farm runoff is achieved. In our favor, the EPA, like the rest of the government is short on cash and regulations would mean a new ag-enforcement bureau, complete with boots on the ground and a pad of tickets, in triplicate. Fortunately, there is no startup money available to fund those boots -- not yet. This, as much as anything is holding regulation at bay.

That being the case, farmers have a window in which EPA's hands are tied by financial woes. In this window, Northey believes growers have a chance to demonstrate their compliance.

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