Reporting the Truth – the Whole Truth – about Farming and Conservation

News / FBNews July 3, 2018

By Laurie Johns

It was the dreaded “annual physical” time and I kept glancing at the phone, wondering if I missed the call about my results. Checked email. Nothing. After a couple days, I called my doctor, which apparently made him laugh. “No news is good news,” he said.

How funny. That old salve sure doesn’t apply to media these days, especially if they’re writing about conservation: it seems they’ve adopted the “no good news makes the news” approach, especially when it comes to conservation progress in Iowa. 

It’s nothing new. Before the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit was dismissed by a federal court, media wrote about the need to perpetually run the nitrate removal plant at Des Moines Water Works. Even though that’s not the case now, they aren’t reporting it, or even asking why. Instead, they give ink to the same old opponents of Iowa agriculture who keep pivoting, pointing their fingers at new targets: Is it corn farming? Is it livestock farming?  

One thing they haven’t hit on, is that it’s quite possible the conservation progress made by Iowa farmers in the last five years is helping to manage nutrients during times of significant weather swings. Recent monitoring shows that nitrate levels remain low, despite rain deluges all over the state, which delayed planting and continue to occur, bringing floods in some parts of the state. Des Moines Water Works apparently hasn’t had to turn on its nitrate removal system yet this year. That runs contrary to the dire consequences predicted by their executive director, just last year.

To back up a bit, the Des Moines Water Works, which gets our drinking water out of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, has always needed to treat the water. That’s because even without agriculture, no one should drink raw water straight from any river, whether they’re in Iowa or winding through the Rocky Mountains! Here in Iowa, which has some of the most fertile soils in the world, nitrate naturally exists in the land and varies from year to year, depending on several factors, including rainfall, time of year, and rural and urban infrastructure.  

However, the existence of nitrates in the river is not proof of cropland or livestock mismanagement by farmers. Soil scientists at Iowa State University say over 10,000 pounds of nitrogen (per acre) naturally exists in Iowa’s soil. Farmers apply only 150 - 200 pounds of nitrogen (per acre) per year in fertilizer to grow a corn crop. Nitrate levels in rivers can change month-to-month or year-to-year, but with a record number of farmers installing new conservation structures in Iowa last year, could this be a part of why the state’s largest nitrate removal system hasn’t had to be turned on? Severe rain storms that dumped 4, 5 and 6 inches of rain upstream caused disastrous flooding and led to occasional spikes of 11ppm of nitrate downstream, which subsided again in a matter of hours. Is it possible that points to conservation progress? Why aren’t reporters asking about that?

Fear is a common weapon, deftly wielded by wordsmiths who’ve been “knighted” for their zeal in verbally slaying conventional farmers they deem unworthy because of size alone. They won’t acknowledge the care today’s farmers provide their livestock and the land. If farmers have more than 60 acres or raise pigs in a modern barn, they are labeled as environmental polluters. Those mandating one-size-fits-all agriculture shun the need for farming diversity in Iowa, even though it brings more safe and affordable choices for Iowans who don’t have access to local farmers’ markets or can’t afford Whole Foods.   

It goes both ways. We all need to do more than just rant online about a story that doesn’t have our perspective—we need to show up and share our side, too, and hopefully, media will listen. Conservation is a work in progress and farmers are committed to taking on that challenge.

Today’s hard-working journalists can rise above the lure of “click bait” and fake news allegations if they take their personal agendas out of their stories and start putting critical thinking back in to them. Iowans deserve to hear about progress when it’s happening and if journalists start reporting it, they’ll also incentivize conservation that needs to continue. Let’s face it: No news about good news, is no longer good enough for anyone. 

Laurie Johns is public relations manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau. This column was originally published as an IFB Between the Lines column.  

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