Conversation on conservation

Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms program director, sat down last week with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig discussing conservation in our state and answering questions during a live webinar hosted by ILF.

Naig discussed his recent involvement at the public meeting of the Hypoxia Task Force.

The Hypoxia Task Force is a group of 12 states, a tribal representative and five federal agencies that work collaboratively to combat the nation’s largest hypoxic (low-oxygen) aquatic zone, which is located in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Reducing excess nutrients across a sub-continental watershed where millions of people live and the land supports a prospering nation is an enormous job that will take years to accomplish. At this meeting, states and federal agencies highlighted successes and remaining challenges in managing excess nutrients in surface waters throughout the Mississippi River basin.

Following the Hypoxia Task Force meeting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will make $17.5 million available in 2020 to support conservation investments by agriculture producers through its Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, and more than $38 million to support producers in 300 small watersheds across the nation, including many watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin.

EPA welcomes USDA’s commitment to helping producers improve water quality, restore wetlands and enhance wildlife habitat, while ensuring the economic viability and productivity of agricultural lands.

Naig said the state of Iowa has held the co-chair position in the Hypoxia Task Force for several years now.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to get in a room with folks thinking about these things in similar ways that we are,” said Naig. “We have nutrient reduction strategies. We have goals that are tied together. You always learn something. For me, I spent two and a half days thinking and visiting with partners in USDA, EPA. There are so many good ideas that kicked around.”

Some of the ideas that have eventually been implemented in some of those states have paved the path for another state to try.

“We like to share what we are doing and there’s been some states that have taken some of our ideas. Illinois is pursuing a cover crop crop insurance pilot program just like we have,” he said. “We’re more than happy to share everything we have on that. We want them to be successful.”

Naig said one of his biggest takeaways from the Hypoxia Task Force meeting is although there is tremendous activity across the Mississippi basin there needs to be more communication.

“We need to do a better job of talking about that and helping folks understand what’s happening throughout the whole region,” he said. “There is a real communication challenge for folks. A lot of energy, effort and resources are going into this issue.”

Another issue, Naig said, is there are a lot of things we don’t know about on how to be successful with conservation.

“We need to know more. Do more work. Have more opportunity. More incentives. More benefits. More from the public sector and more from private sector, more leveraging and more partners,” he said. “I literally ended my comments at the Hypoxia Task Force saying that we need more.”

Naig said we know what we need to do. The practices that need to be implemented are already a part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

As far as the current pace of implementing more conservation, Naig said we are not operating at the level he believes that we can be, but realizes, this builds over time.

So, how are we going to scale up?

Naig said it means getting out and visiting with those people within the targeted watersheds.

“We know it takes contact. It’s not good enough to sit in our offices and across the state and say ‘come in if you’re interested in doing something in conservation,'” he said.

Being able to scale up conservation efforts got a little bit easier a few years ago with the result of legislation that allowed for the long term, dedicated funding for water quality.

“Even though we have been growing funding year over year, that was only done yearly on an appropriation basis,” he said. “When you have 11 years worth of funding that is laid out, then you can start to plan for those out years. It has taken us 15 years to build 90 nitrate reducing, constructed wetlands in the state. Because of the certainty of knowing that funding is coming, we have changed the trajectory of that. We now have 30 under development that will come in the next couple of years. It just shows when you have that certainty you can start to build that out.”

In addition to the hire of several project coordinators, Naig said they have added even more boots on the ground hiring those within the private sector.

“We know we can’t do everything,” he said. “We have engineers on staff, but we don’t have enough engineers on staff to design all of the practices we need, so we need to outsource some of those things. Not every person that intersects with a landowner, or someone interested in conservation is going to be a state employee. We also have to work with our federal partners. We are going to have to work with the private sector as well and we need to figure out how we can talk to more landowners and how we can just get more folks fed into the system to get practices on the ground.”

Comito said in order to encourage landowners and producers to adopt more conservation practices, it is going to have to be made profitable. And Naig agreed, adding that organizations need to learn how to make conservation appealing.

“When you think about going to market or selling conservation to folks, it’s like anything we are in the market for,” he said. “For some, it could be show me the dollars. Other people are going to do it because they believe in soil health and they know it’s the right thing to do in the long run. There are a lot of different ways to connect with folks on this. We can’t be painting with too broad of a brush, so we need to work on a lot of different benefits, messages, return on investment messages for folks so we can get to as many places as we can.”

To help figure out just how to appeal to landowners and boost their interest in conservation, Comito suggested a different type of research.

“Perhaps what we really need right now is more, really good, social science research to tell us what we are some of those ways to motivate them? Cover crops are kind of plateauing a bit and we have to figure out how to get to the next group,” she said.