This is one of my favorite family photos. I have entitled this picture, “What the hell am I doing here.”
Take another good look at this picture. Look at the closed eyes, the pursed lips, the locked knees, and the hands behind the back. At the tender age of 3, my daughter Jessica spoke volumes in this picture. She made no bones about it. She was somewhere where she didn’t want to be, doing something she didn’t want to do, and she wasn’t going to hide her feelings. I often wonder what would happen if adults openly shared this same level of body language.
Last week I attended the first meeting of the newly formed group called “Iowa’s Water Future Advisory Committee.” This committee was spawned by the Greater Des Moines Partnership in an effort to find common ground and solve the water quality issues in Iowa; indeed a noble idea. But really…
You see, I have been through similar exercises many times. Not only have I been the participant, but several times I have been the facilitator. You all know the exercise — poster papers, sticky notes, round table discussion, group reports, initial excitement, recommendations, and promises of change. And in the end, nothing… nothing changes. It is business as usual. What a waste of time. Uggg!!
To be truthful, I was NOT forced to attend the meeting last week. My boss did not require me to go. No one twisted my arm. Actually, I volunteered. But to be candid, at times during the meeting, I felt a little like Jessica. If I had the honesty of my 3-year-old, I probably would have projected my “Jessica feelings.”
That being said, I am optimistic this committee will be different. Sure, there were a whole bunch of the same old faces. And from those same old faces, I noticed the predictable posturing, predictable comments, and predictable story lines. Yes, me included.
But more importantly, there were people at this meeting that I didn’t know. There were new faces. New surprises. For instance, after moving to my assigned table (Round Table #9), a business person from Des Moines, Ben Bruns, sat down next to me. Never having met Ben, I asked him why he was at the meeting. (He didn’t represent agri-business. He didn’t represent an NGO. He wasn’t a farmer. He wasn’t from the government.) Ben replied, “It’s Iowa’s farmland that makes Iowa great. Sure it’s the people. Sure it’s the businesses. But, no doubt, it’s the farmland and the water. We need to take care of it, and I want to help.”
In my past experience, the only “business people” in Iowa that seemed to recognize the importance of Iowa’s farmland were those from the agri-business community. But, it is these new faces that give me hope. They seem to understand the importance of Iowa’s resources. I guess it is my optimism in the new faces that allows me to give this stuff another try. Yes, I do believe in business, and I have confidence in the Greater Des Moines Partnership. I believe they possess the collective tenacity of Iowa’s business community that can deliver and implement meaningful solutions.
I also recognize this committee has a long, long way to go to effect change. Many groups have tried and many groups have failed. New ideas create resistance — especially resistance from the entrenched groups. I guess what I am saying is — it is easier said than done. I guess we will see.
I will keep you updated on our progress…
I ,too, have been to many similar meetings, with the same o,same o results. Nothing changes, but participants go away thinking that they have “protected their turf” so to speak. Perhaps we see that we need participants with little previous bias to get involved. Ben may be a good example. He is willing to listen to the facts and form a decision based on those facts. The standard audiences we get in these types of meetings have already come to a decision to protect their own interests. I think that the old conservation audience is very reluctant to change, as you probably know better than anyone else.
Keep up your good work. Really enjoy your thought provoking blog.
I agree with Stu in that most people in attendance at these meetings are prepared to protect their own interests. As with many controversial issues, there is a lot of finger pointing and strong opinions, but solutions rarely get implemented. The information I have received from others and the news on this topic is so biased, I don’t know who to believe. I think there are a lot of us, myself included, that want to help implement a solution, but are not sure where or how to start. It seems hopeless for any real and sustainable solutions to come about from these meetings because no one really wants to budge from their personal interests. This is very similar to the upcoming election. Candidates putting down other candidates and pointing fingers, but never admitting to their own faults. No one in this law suit wants to admit that they are at fault in any way. Everyone can do better, regardless of which side of the argument they are on.
Speaking of pointing fingers…I’m not sure what you and mom were thinking putting poor Jess in those swooshy hot pink track pants. Not to mention the polo shirt under the dinosaur crew neck to “dress it up” for pictures. No wonder she looks so upset!
Tom, I cling to the hope that, one day, such dialogues and plans will really lead to clean water plus soil that stays put for the next generations. We all want it. We all need it. I thank you, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the other participants for broadening the people involved. I hope for innovation toward solutions everyone can embrace.
Anita, I am with you. I have confidence this group can implement meaningful solutions rather than allowing sides to fall back on the Four D’s: Deny, Delay, Deflect, Defend. I appreciate the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s leadership.
Being a member of the committee, I was curious to hear what outcomes people expected. Like you, after 20-30 years of these types of meetings, I am wondering when we will have a sea change in attitude about our soil, and the water that runs through/over it.
I am encouraged that many people who have not had this in the front of their mind are starting to understand the immediacy and importance of the issue. Action will happen. Projects (hopefully permanent) will be put on the ground. The Governor will offer something. Landowners will continue to be on a faster moving wait list for cost share. The public will be more aware and ask for more to be done. The Feds will match, if we are serious, many of our efforts. So, I continue to be optimistic that the answer to “What the Hell am I doing here?” for both you and me will be “You are being a catalyst for change.”
Process engineers recognize that avoiding excess inputs eliminates the potential for creating a pollution problem; and that a well-engineered production process makes the company money. Crop production is no different.
Solving the nitrate problem is actually pretty simple. You figure out what “government” is going to require when they get tired of Iowa’s inaction; and then figure out how to turn that base requirement to farmer’s advantages.
The conceptual solution was defined and validated in over 300 sites across 12 Cornbelt states 25 years ago. If you update that approach, farmers can actually make money from the process by reducing their nitrogen costs, increasing yields in the 2 years out of 5 when their crop actually runs out of nitrogen; increasing average yields across their fields; and by capturing existing government incentives.
Farmers who chose not to participate in a voluntary program should be held accountable by their peers and the public, because lack of cooperation in a voluntary program will result in a mandated program (either by a government or by a judge).
So the questions are: 1) Does this group have the willingness to push a comprehensive and integrated solution? And 2) Does this group have the where-with-all to push through the implementation?
Done right, one can reasonably expect to have the nitrate problem resolved in three counties within 5 years.
In general I agree farmers can do more to improve their nitrogen application practices. This certainly will help contribute to the overall reduction in nitrogen levels in our drinking water. But it is far too simplistic to think this will solve the problem.
Nitrogen management is extremely complex. Yes, I know, there are some people that want to make nitrogen management seem so complicated that nothing can be done. I am NOT one of those people. However, I strongly disagree that applying the “right rate, time, form, place” will easily solve our nitrate problem.
I do not know of a single study that indicates that we can get to our water quality targets by simply improving nitrogen application to some ideal. Based on modeling done in the Raccoon River Watershed, if 100% of farmers fully adopt and implement the “right” nutrient strategy, we will only achieve about 15-20% of the watershed’s total nitrogen reduction goals. (And even with regulations, it is impossible to get 100% compliance with anything.)
An effective nutrient strategy is doable, but will not be simple, It will take a combination of improved application practices, cover crops, wetlands, no-till, grassed waterways, filter strips, ponds, pasture management, etc.
Show me the data to back up your beliefs. If you reference some commonly available analyses, please include your evaluation of the quality (i.e.., biases) of the analysis. You are repeating the mantra of process chemists the world over until they tested their assumptions that one must always add an excess of chemicals to drive a reaction to completion. If you are applying nitrogen in the fall to cover the coming crop year, managing nitrogen is incredibly complex, indeed impossible. If you are spoon feeding, based upon actual soil nitrite measurements, nitrogen management is quite simple – easily within the capability of any farmer with a smartphone app. I agree, 100% compliance is an unattainable number which is why a transparent accountability component is important.
My bad. Should spend more time proof-reading before hitting send – nitrate not nitrite. Two more questions as I lay in bed ruminating. 1) I wonder how many members of the “advisory committee” have any experience (either professional or personal on their own farming operation) in monitoring root zone nitrate levels during the growing and off seasons; and preferably followed up by stalk nitrate testing at harvest? PSNT (Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test) would count here, as a start. And how many have ever “played” with monitoring nitrate levels in tile lines? With the high prevalence of open intakes in Iowa’s tile lines, there are some interesting opportunities. The data is more than interesting. 2) I can’t find minutes, recordings, etc. of meetings. Where should I look?
I originally saw info on this committee in an article I read in the BizRecord. I have no formal training in conservation or the sciences to help from that perspective. But I have a passion for the outdoors and preserving it for the future so I promptly emailed in my interest to be apart of the committee. From my experience with groups and other boards, its the broad range of backgrounds coming together to help thrust change into the laps of others, and for that reason I really enjoy the make up of this new committee. It isn’t pure ag leaders, or just those opposing the nitrates, but instead it’s a strong mix of ag, non-profit, business, and conservation leaders who understand that alone none of the segments can get something done, but if we can find a common ground and advocate together then we can in fact make changes and improve the issues we’re having in Iowa.