Chris Jones's blog

Pass the gravy, pretty please

It’s that time of year again. Another twelve months have gone by, and Crazy Uncle Frank once again brought his friend Captain Morgan with him to Christmas dinner, hidden in his jacket pocket.

After a few surreptitiously spiked egg nogs, Frank gets a little mean and starts talking smack about his favorite whipping boy, conservation compliance.

First, a little primer on conservation compliance.

According to USDA (1), The 1985 Farm Bill “requires producers participating in most programs administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to abide by certain conditions on any land owned or farmed that is highly erodible or that is considered a wetland.”

Of course, one of those programs is taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance.

On average, federal taxpayers pay 62 percent of the cost of farmers’ crop insurance premiums. Again, on average, for every $1 a farmer spends on crop insurance, he/she gets back $2.23 (2).

'Wishin' Accomplished' in Iowa DNR removing impairment designation of Cedar River

The Clean Water Act defines an impaired water body as one that is not meeting a designated use because of degraded water quality.

In this circumstance, the state (in our case, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, DNR) is required to complete a restoration plan that includes a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The TMDL determines the load (amount) of pollutant entering the waterway and where it is coming from, and how much that load needs to be reduced for the water body to meet the water quality standard associated with the designated use.

Because Iowa DNR has refused to support rule-making to establish nutrient standards, Iowa does not have many streams that are impaired for two of the worst pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, although almost all streams have been degraded by these contaminants.

Until recently, the Cedar River was an exception – it was impaired because of its role as a drinking water source.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be farmers – myths and truths about Iowa farm operators

Texan John Graves (1920-2013) might be the best writer you’ve never heard of (unless you have) and I can tell you in his hands the English language was like a basketball in Michael Jordan’s.

Not only did he make it do stuff that you didn’t know was possible, his words make you feel things you didn’t know you could feel. If "Goodbye to a River" isn’t the best book of its kind ever written, I’ll drink a straight up gallon of any Iowa river after a springtime gully washer.

It wasn’t "Goodbye" that inspired this essay, but rather his essay "Cowboys: A Few Thoughts from the Sidelines."

Graves grew up when the legendary Texas cowboy of old was still a thing, riding the range, ropin’, fencin’ and castratin’ for months at a time without a day off, sleeping under the stars and wolfing down food as it became available, earning meager wages that were squandered getting drunk on whisky and a hooker really frisky.

A myth developed around these hard fellows that the country and even the world fondly embraced, a myth that still persists today, even though the real McCoy cowboys haven’t existed since the years immediately after World War II, when barbed wire and the economic realities of feedlot beef conspired to cancel the occupation.

Certainly many of the real cowboys were an embodiment of courage and hard work, virtues this country, rightly or wrongly, considers supremely American. And as such, many in the public emulate the cowboy wardrobe and other aspects of their appearance and demeanor, something Graves tells us was uncommon during the real cowboy era.

But Graves also tells us that myth and truth entangle in ways that confound our thinking and cause us to misjudge the cowboys’ motives and conduct, despite the lofty ideals that many of them had toward hard work, determination and loyalty. And as the title here gives away, this got me to thinking about the myth of the Iowa farmer and how it affects our thinking about the occupation today.

Environmentaling

We often hear from agvocacy and the various agribigness players (oftentimes one in the same) that farmers are/were the first environmentalists.

Although reasonable people can disagree on what exactly an environmentalist is, I certainly accept the idea that a farmer can be an environmentalist.

But to say the profession and the industry in general is committed to environmental outcomes is about like saying the mafia is committed to customer service.

The new normal obviously is to imagine what you want the truth to be, then just say it, no matter how outrageous the lie or the exaggeration. And this goes double for agriculture.

The right to bear (f)arms

It seems to me that if you’re a crop geneticist or an agronomist, you cannot drive across the Iowa countryside this time of year without being in awe of what you and your comrades in arms have done to the landscape.

A bizarrely uniform 8-foot-thick mat of black-green biomass layers the flats and the rolling hills alike, interrupted only by roads and water, some of the latter of which might generously be called rivers. The ancients could not possibly recognize this as Iowa or even planet earth, for that matter.

Rearranged DNA, steel, pvc tubing and huge amounts of fossil fuel dropped into this already-fertile corner of the earth produced a photosynthesis mine of unimaginable potential that generates the mother lode of organic carbon in the leaves, roots, stalks and most importantly, the seeds of Zea mays.

But there’s no free lunch in nature and I sometimes wonder if these same geneticists and agronomists are ever in an Oppenheimer-like awe of the environmental wreckage wrought by their single-minded selfish and hubristic fetish with the bushel. I know I’m in awe of it. Eradicating three ecosystems, man, it’s not just any scientist that can claim an accomplishment like that.

Odor in the court

You’ve probably heard that once again, establishment power has sided with the folks that own and raise hogs over the other 99.7 percent of the people that reside in Iowa.

I know, I know, knock me over with a feather.

In a 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with New Fashion Pork and BWT Holdings in a lawsuit (1) filed against them by some guy named Gordon Garrison who had the wild idea that water on his property, which bordered that of the defendants, should be unpolluted by the defendants’ hog waste.

No bushel left behind

Friday, June 17, 2022

The ag propagandists lack of creativity is more than balanced by their relentlessness and the fact that they are unburdened by shame.

Imagine if the Energizer bunny copulates (he is a rabbit, after all) with all the killer rabbits from the '72 horror movie "The Night of the Lepus" (mutant rabbits terrorize Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelly) and their horde of offspring stampede the countryside devouring the truth. Or something like that.

Take phosphorus, for example.

Our secretary of agriculture was recently quoted saying: "We've come a long way on our phosphorus reduction goals in the state of Iowa due to a lot of management practices that have been put in place, cover crops, no-till, conservation tillage in the state of Iowa" (1).

And, not to be outdone, one-time secretary of agriculture hopeful and Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser was quoted saying in an EPA roundtable meeting that “Iowa has reduced phosphorus losses by 27 percent" (2).

Reminds me of an old joke about Minnesota and Iowa and manure and the punch line is: "Mr. RabBIT will soon be here with the shit."

These statements are detached from reality.

Here's an example of the hare-brained "conservation" the ag spokespeople say has reduced Iowa phosphorus levels 27 percent.

There is not a shred of water quality data that shows phosphorus levels in our streams to be declining over the long haul, and in fact, the opposite is probably occurring (graphs at the bottom).

'Jumping the Shark' – Growing corn and soybeans in Des Moines Water Works Park


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

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.

Look at the price they make you pay

Secchi depth is a water quality measurement of clarity.

An 8”-diameter black and white disk is lowered into the water (flat side parallel to the water’s surface) and the first depth at which it can’t be seen is recorded.

It’s one of the oldest of all quantitative water quality measurements. Catholic priest Pietro Angelo Secchi demonstrated the technique to Pope Pius IX while onboard the pope’s yacht in 1865.


Measurement of Secchi depth. From: Carruthers, T.J., Longstaff, B.J., Dennison, W.C., Abal, E.G. and Aioi, K., 2001. Measurement of light penetration in relation to seagrass. Global seagrass research methods, pp.370-392.

We still use this simple but elegant method today and Iowa Department of Natural Resource's (DNR) ambient water monitoring program assesses lakes for clarity in this manner.

Research shows that the public’s perception of “good” water quality corresponds to a Secchi depth of about 3 feet; in other words, a depth where you can see your toes when standing in waist deep water (1).

Iowa has a little over 100 lakes, and their degraded condition keeps DNR busy restoring them.

You can easily make the case that lake restoration is the best thing Iowa DNR does.

Magic carpet ride

You may have heard that some insanely rich and politically connected guys want to burrow like a badger beneath an Iowa cornfield so they can lay some pipe that will ultimately carry carbon dioxide (CO2) to the hinterlands.

I wrote about this before with my essay "C is for Carbonalism," but, and this probably comes as no surprise, that first essay didn’t discourage those badgers one darn bit.

So, I brought in a big gun, Professor Emeritus Matt Liebman, recently retired from Iowa State University where he was Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture, to beef up my storytelling with some juicy T-bone cred.

Actually, he wrote about all of this; I just sexed it up a little bit.

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