Sunday, March 7, 2021

It’s always been in the best interests of the ag industry to make nutrient pollution seem mysteriously complex. After all, complex problems rarely lend themselves well to simple solutions. Complex problems require lots and lots of time and money to solve, and the bigger the problem, the more likely the taxpayer is going to be asked to solve it with contributions from the public coffers. And the folks that own all this expensive farmland (worth well more than $200 billion in Iowa) surely can’t be expected to own the pollution too!  And remember, lest you get impatient, your tax dollar contributions are not so you can enjoy clean water, but so maybe your children and hopefully their children might someday look at the Floyd, Iowa, or Raccoon River and think, boy, I wish Granddad was still alive so he could see those old tires beneath this clear water he paid for.

The folks at the NGOs and foundations also don’t mind themselves a little complexity, thank you, because big donors like to think big and the public dollars can and do find their way into the cash-strapped budgets of Nonprofitlandia. If you want to work on solving nutrient pollution, you’ll probably meet this country’s leaders at their capital, Starbucks City, to talk about grand visions and shared values over a cup of their national drink, French press coffee.

And you may or may not know that the universities have always wanted nutrient pollution to be seen as a labyrinth of weather, climate, soil, microbiology, hydrology, chemistry, agronomy, economics and sociology, a labyrinth that so completely confounds the scientists that they might have to (gulp) call in the engineers to help disentangle the mess. And let me tell you, them boys is nothin’ if not expensive. No engineer would even so much as pick up a pencil for a “simple” problem. Complexity makes for some good grant proposals that include hip words like nexus and interdisciplinary and benchmark and resilience. And, perhaps stating the obvious, people don’t spend years getting  PhDs to work on simple problems.

So you’ve probably heard of Big Oil, Big Ag (and its subsidiaries, Big Meat, Big Dairy and Big Organic), Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and some other Bigs. Now I’m going to tell you I think we have another one here in Iowa: Big Pollution. We have a whole bunch of people whose livelihoods and relevance link back to water pollution, and especially nutrient pollution. If you are a regular reader here, you know that I admit to being a card-carrying member.

But I am not one of the Brotherhood (or Sisterhood) of Big Pollution currently clamoring to monetize the latest craze: soil health practices. Like the poor water quality it purportedly will help improve, people want to tell you how complex this topic is and how it requires experts from all three branches of Big Pollution to help spend the taxpayer money currently on a barge traveling up the Mississippi River, destination Iowa and other cornbelt states.

The absurdity of this was recently featured in a Des Moines Register editorial written by an Iowa farmer. He described how reduced tillage and continuous cover (i.e. using cover crops) improved his bottom line $138 per acre while reducing nitrate loss from the farm. He goes on to speculate why more farmers don’t do this: IT’S SCARY. Bear in mind this is a group that seemingly will buy skunk piss from a certified crop advisor if that person promises the infamous “two-to-five bushel yield bump.”  (OK, I’m kidding on the skunk piss, but listen closely to the radio or tv when a commercial comes on for any ag product; it’s ALWAYS 2-5 bushels. But I digress.)

Back to the Register editorial. The farmer writes that “it’s time for our elected leaders in Des Moines and Washington D.C. to help us with research, technical support and incentives.” If you haven’t noticed, Big Pollution just loves MOAR research (unis), MOAR technical support (NGOs, and the agencies, to be fair), and MOAR incentives (Ag industry). He goes on to say that “State legislators can take a step in the right direction by supporting House File 646 this session, a bill that would lay the groundwork for helping farmers adopt the practices.”

definition of MOAR

Well, it goes without saying that the Nonprofitlandians are gleeful about HF 646, hoping, as they are, that the Road to Ag Damascus will be an 8-lane highway that takes decades to pave, and that will run right through the middle of their country. Hopefully no coffee shops will be in the path. Several politicians on the left are equally giddy, cosplaying environmentalism and celebrating the bill as a potential milestone, with Big Ag finally coming around to the century-old idea that slash and burn farming maybe is sub-optimal in the long haul.

If at this point you think I’m just an angry old cynic, shaking his fist at the sky, well, so be it.  But this writing comes on the heels of yet another person “on the inside” telling me late last week about the copious amounts of nitrogen fertilizer used by the typical Iowa farmer. And phosphorus is an even worse horror story. Piling manure phosphorus onto soils categorized as already “very high” for this nutrient is de rigueur and always will be until a majority in the legislature can summon the courage to protect your water and say enough is enough. So, if you ask why, oh why do we continue to concoct schemes to pay farmers to try to restrain the excess nutrients we allow them to buy and apply? Two words: Big Pollution.

finally realizing Vichy water is for Nazis

I will finish this with a story from about two years ago. I’d be hesitant to recount this here were it not for the fact that there were a couple of hundred witnesses to the event. At the SOIL 2019 meeting in Des Moines, a “conservation” farmer and one-time candidate for secretary of agriculture said if the public wanted the nitrogen problem solved, they needed to “show me the money!” My opinion: paying farmers for soil health without first addressing the nutrient imbalance on our landscape is the biggest can kick in conservation history, at least in the context of water quality.

But, as always, Big Pollution thanks you for your contribution.