Wednesday, June 1, 2022

I’m sometimes asked how the ideas keep coming for this blog. Believe me when I tell you this: writing this stuff is as easy as falling off a log backwards. As we say in the biz when we see some really interesting data: this excrement just writes itself.

Last week Ag retailer Landus announced (1, 2) that an area of land in Des Moines’ Water Works (DMWW) Park will be used as a demonstration plot that will be planted with corn, soybeans and cover crops. No word yet on whether the Agribusiness Association of Iowa will include this plot in an effort to pad the state total of cover cropped land. This comes on the heels of DMWW announcing they helped buy a cover crop seed planter that farmers can use (3). Both projects purport to inspire more farmer adoption of conservation practices, in particular the use of cover crops, to reduce nutrient pollution. And if by some infinitesimally-remote chance you have been unable to see corn and soybean while living in or visiting Iowa, Landus states that “Members of the public will be able to see corn, soybean and cover crops planted and grown in Des Moines Water Works Park, a 1,500-acre urban green space near downtown known for its wooded and open areas for bicycling, jogging, picnicking, fishing, hiking and participating in various group sports (1). [I told you it writes itself!] So yeah, after you get bored with all that other outdoorsy stuff, you can go observe Zea mays and Glycine max in their (un)natural habitat. News is expected soon that grazing cattle will replace the DMWW grass mowing crew. Stay tuned. Some people are saying that negotiations with the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association are imminent.

I suppose a little background here would be prudent if you are new to this:

  • Iowa streams are polluted with nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from two out of these three things: row crops, animal agriculture and golf courses.
  • Cover crops are unharvested plants seeded in the fall that reduce loss of nutrients 32% on average from corn and soybean fields.
  • DMWW uses the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers as the drinking source supply for 1/5 of Iowa’s population.
  • DMWW operates the world’s largest nitrate removal facility to keep the drinking water in compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act Regulations.

Now I wish to say I don’t object to the idea of demonstration plots. Or cover crops. Or even corn and soybeans on some level. But putting them in Water Works Park? Seriously? It’s not like we have an abundance of parks or public land. In fact, Iowa is one of the worst in the U.S. when it comes to that. I’ve made jokes about Iowa agriculture forcing us to grow corn in cemeteries and school yards if they could, but this is no joke. This is a level of shark jumping not seen since Fonzie donned water skis on Happy Days.

Image credit: ABC.

It's beyond revealing that Landus couldn’t find some of their own property, or some other ag land somewhere, to locate these demonstration plots. They claim to have 7000 farmer members all presumably with access to land, and their headquarters are centrally-located in Ames. And ‘Land’ is part of their name, for crying out loud. But sure, let’s put this in..….A PARK. So convenient for farmers. In the middle of the city that tried to sue upstream polluters for nitrate pollution. On the grounds of the water utility. Talk about planting a flag, holy moly.


But I suppose to the victor go the spoils, and this is Harold the Red claiming the late king’s young maiden daughter for his own. Landus was so giddy with their conquest that their agronomist Dan Bjorklund (a fine Viking name, by the way) offered up his own version (1) of Weallwantcleanwater: “EVERYBODY wants clean water,” he bellowed from atop the dragon on the longship bow as it sailed down the Raccoon River, a phrase sure to please Harold.

But seriously. Never mind that Landus stands to benefit from the use of public property in this way by promotion of products and services featured in the plots, although there is plenty to object to there. The larger story here is this apparently is an unconditional surrender by the city and its drinking water utility and a nod to the Iowa power brokers that they’re sorry about that little lawsuit thingy (4) of a few years ago. “Did you think I said lawsuit? Oh, I’m sure you misunderstood, what I really said was ‘partnerships’! So come right into the people’s park and demonstrate your good intentions.” Because the road to polluted water is paved with them, I guess.

And after all, Cedar Rapids has gone all-in with the partnership approach, and look at the success they’ve had. The nitrate in the Cedar River is only 12 mg/L (!) as I write this, just 2 mg/L ABOVE the safe drinking water standard. (The Raccoon River is at 11.8 mg/L). Those eastern Iowans shouldn’t have all the fun. The pork loin, green bean casserole and apple crisp served at those meetings in the Ag Co-op board rooms are tip top, let me tell you. Tip. Top.

Landus is predictably using the project to generate some top shelf cropaganda. From their website (5): “Demonstrating the many sustainability practices Iowa farmers are implementing, Landus farmers seek to showcase modern, safe and stewardship-minded agricultural practices in the public setting.” Well howdy-do. I guess there’s so much conservation going on in the countryside, they need to bring some to the big city so those folks can see why their water is so doggone good.

Landus staff re-enacting Des Moines' 'We surrender' moment in demonstration plot negotiations. Image from DMWW twitter account. 

Although there indeed may be a few farmers that will visit this plot, don’t think for a second that farmers are the intended audience. Des Moinesians (or whatever you call yourselves), when you take a break from your run or bike ride to hydrate and find yourself alongside the demonstration plots, you’ll know that high nitrate water cooling your innards was brought to you by those conservation-minded heroes at Landus Cooperative. Bottoms up!

  1. Terrell, L. Des Moines Water Works teams up with cooperative to clean drinking water. KCCI News. May 31, 2022.
  2. Crumb, M. Landus, Des Moines Water Works collaborate on agricultural, clean water project. Business Record, May 20, 2022.
  3. Strong, J. Polk County buys newfangled cover crop tractor for upstream farmers. Iowa Capital Dispatch, January 27, 2022. 
  4. Eller, D. With Water Works' lawsuit dismissed, water quality is the legislature's problem. Des Moines Register, March 17, 2017.