Monday, December 2, 2019

Note: the title was not my idea, but I have permission to use it. 

I suppose we all experience certain days when events crystallize our ideas in ways such that the day and the ideas will both go unforgotten. November 14 was one of those days for me. That day I conducted a presentation at the “Future of Agriculture” meeting at the Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids. My slides included a variation of this graph:

Graph showing annual precipitation in the Raccoon River Watershed
Raccoon River Watershed precipitation, 1920-2019, divided into two 50-year halves.

These data show annual precipitation for the Raccoon River Watershed over the past century. When I divide the record into two 50-year halves (1920-1969 and 1970-2019), you can see some striking differences. Prior to 1970, annual precipitation exceeded 1 meter (1000 mm or 39.4 inches) in only one year-1951. Since 1970, precipitation tops 1 meter in 15 years (even though there is a month left this year, I am including it here because 2019 precipitation is already over 1 meter through November 30). The year of 1990 was also very close to the 1 meter threshold (996 mm). Incredibly, 1 meter of precipitation has been exceeded in seven of the last 13 years (2007-2019).

Map of the Raccoon River Watershed
Raccoon River Watershed showing the location of the precipitation stations where data was gathered.


Conversely, annual precipitation was below 600 mm (23.6 inches) nine times from 1920-1969 but only twice since 1970 and not a single time since 1980. The drought year of 2012 is etched in the memory of many Iowans as the worst of their lifetime; it doesn’t even make it into the last century’s top 10 driest years in the Raccoon watershed.

If you follow the discussion surrounding climate change in Iowa and its potential consequences for agriculture, perhaps these data don’t surprise you. My observation is that the industry has been reluctant to come around to the idea that this is a human-caused phenomenon, and this includes its practitioners. There’s already been quite a lot of social science that examines this, but overall farmers seem to be about ½ to 2/3 as likely as the general population to agree that human beings are a driver of climate change.

This is not to say that farmers aren’t adapting to changing weather. The same day as the Whiterock meeting, I happened upon this recently published paper: Farmers’ Perceptions of Climate Change in Social Context:Toward a Political Economy of Relevance (1). Farmers from Iowa (53) and Indiana (51) were interviewed to explore how the political-economic structural context of climate change influenced their perception of and response to heavy rain events.

The adaptive step farmers were most likely to embrace was modifying their nitrogen application. Below are some farmer quotes from the paper regarding changing rainfall patterns and nitrogen fertilizer:

  • “With the amount of rain that we had following our sidedress application [of nitrogen], experience told us we were going to run out [of nitrogen]. At the most critical time that that corn plant needed nitrogen, we were going to start running out. We knew that it would have a drastic effect on yield” (IN).
  • “Yeah I think we’ve gone to more extremes…when you get these heavy rains its harmful. We lose our nitrogen that we all spend money to put out there, it’s not cheap” (IA).
  • “Boy you can really lose a lot of yield fast if that corn goes short on nitrogen” (IA).
  • “I never want to be short on nitrogen, let’s put it that way. You don’t want nitrogen to be your limiting factor” (IA).
  • “Somebody was saying the day after this five-inch rain, ‘Is there any nitrogen left?’” (IA).
  • “We’ve had a couple of situations where we had yield loss just out of…You know, we applied the nitrogen and we came in and we planted and it rained and it rained and then it rained some more” (IN).
  • “If it keeps raining and it’s warm, we’re going to lose nitrogen, big time lose nitrogen, and that’s when you’ve got to come back in and put some more [nitrogen] on or you’re going to lose the crop, and there’s ‘why did you lose the crop?’ when with another 10 to 15 gallon of [liquid nitrogen fertilizer] you can fix it” (IN).
  • “We usually put [a little extra nitrogen on] just to make sure if we have a really wet year, like we had last year and how this year is turning out, that we still have some nitrogen left over [to ensure sufficient yields]” (IA).
  • “If it rains a whole lot, that nitrogen, some of that, will wash away and go down in the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico” (IA, same farmer as previous comment).

I should point out that the paper’s authors were sympathetic to the farmers. As such, they make this comment in the paper: “Our work is meant to shed light on how structural forces are shaping actors’ actions and modes of thinking and in this way to reveal how individual farmers are not at fault for the ills of modern agriculture”  (my emphasis with the underline). Nonetheless the researchers arrived at this cold conclusion: “However, even among farmers who saw agricultural N loss as the key contributing source to water pollution issues, they generally argued that this was an inevitable consequence of heavy rain events and the system of agriculture and thus not something they were significantly concerned about.”

If I had been a co-author on this paper, I would have suggested this subtitle: “Adaptation Made Easy.”

During my Whiterock presentation, there was one audience member insistent that because climate change is caused by all of us, we should all shoulder the burden for farmer adaptation, and that these adaptive changes should focus primarily on the dynamics of climate change-driven hydrology happening in real time all around us. I am not, nor have I ever been, against public money (cost share) for farm conservation if it is spent to produce environmental outcomes beneficial to the public. That being said, I think our state desperately needs a discussion about cost share that also includes a dialog about the ills of modern agriculture. Does anybody reading this think the industry is ready to have that discussion, at least when it comes to nutrient pollution?

Finally, something else happened on November 14 that I think helps illustrate my point. On the way to Coon Rapids, I took the photo below about 5 miles west of the North Raccoon River. If you don’t know, those round objects are spools of drainage tile. Note also the mountain of harvested corn in the background.

To cope with increased rainfall, farmers are not only using more nitrogen; they’re also installing more drainage tile to better dry out the soil. Tile is the getaway car for excess nitrogen wanting to bolt the scene.

The Raccoon River serves as the municipal water supply for the Des Moines metropolitan area. Des Moines is very likely the country’s (if the not the world’s) largest city removing nitrate (since 1992) from its source water to comply with safe drinking water regulations.

Spools of tile in an Iowa farm field in winter
Tile spools in the North Raccoon River Watershed.

I posted the photo on my Twitter feed with the only comment being that this was west of the town of Perry, in the Raccoon River watershed. A staff member of one of our state agencies responded with the challenge “…and your point is?”, this in the form of a GIF, which I guess is how you communicate these days when you lack the ability to construct meaningful sentences.

Or if you’re unserious about water quality.

My point is this: if we want clean water (and I’m not sure that we do), let’s have the honest dialog we desperately need.



  1. Houser, M., Gunderson, R. and Stuart, D., 2019. Farmers’ Perceptions of Climate Change in Context: Toward a Political Economy of Relevance. Sociologia Ruralis59(4), pp.789-809.