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Can sustainable farming save Iowa’s precious soil and water?


>>Thompson: THE STATE OF IOWA IS AN AGRICULTURAL POWERHOUSE, AMERICA’S LEADING CORN PRODUCER, AND SECOND-LARGEST PRODUCER OF SOYBEANS. BUT FEARS THAT ITS PRACTICES ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE HAVE LEAD TO A SMALL BUT GROWING MOVEMENT TOWARD BOTH TRADITIONAL AND NEW TECHNIQUES TO ENSURE ITS FARMS ARE PRODUCTIVE FAR INTO THE FUTURE. NEWSHOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT MARK BITTMAN HAS OUR STORY, WHICH IS PART OF OUR “FUTURE OF FOOD” SERIES WITH SUPPORT FROM THE PULITZER CENTER.>>Reporter: IT’S 90 DEGREES, A TYPICAL JULY DAY IN IOWA.>>ALFALFA WAS PLANTED THIS SPRING, THE SAME TIME I WAS PLANTING OATS.>>Reporter: SAM BENNETT IS A SIXTH-GENERATION FARMER. HIS FAMILY’S BEEN ON THIS LAND IN NORTHWEST IOWA SINCE 1883. LIKE MOST FARMERS HERE, HE GROWS MAINLY CORN AND SOYBEANS. BUT TODAY, BENNETT IS SHOWING CLOSE TO 100 FELLOW FARMERS SOME BIG CHANGES HE’S MAKING ON HIS LAND.>>WE’RE GOING TO HARVEST PROBABLY MIDDLE OF JULY. LOOKS LIKE THE RYE WILL BE READY BEFORE THE OATS. WE HAVE ABOUT 2,000 ACRES ALTOGETHER ON OUR FARM. WE’VE STARTED INTEGRATING SMALL GRAINS LIKE OATS AND RYE INTO OUR ROTATION, TOO, AND THOSE REALLY AREN’T CROPS THAT ARE FOUND REALLY ANYWHERE IN IOWA. THERE’S NOT A LOT OF ACRES OF THOSE.>>Reporter: THIS PRACTICE OF GROWING A VARIETY OF CROPS– TAKING A BREAK FROM THE CORN AND SOY BEANS– IS CALLED “DIVERSIFIED CROP ROTATIONS.” BENNETT SAYS HE PLANTS THESE CROPS CLOSER TOGETHER SO THERE ARE MORE OF THEM. THAT MEANS MORE ROOTS IN THE SOIL, WHICH IMPROVES SOIL AND WATER QUALITY.>>I THINK MY DAD COMES FROM A GENERATION THAT IF YOU WORK HARDER, YOU’LL BE MORE SUCCESSFUL. AND I THINK WHAT I’D LIKE TO SAY IN MY GENERATION IS THAT IF YOU WORK SMARTER, YOU’LL BE MORE SUCCESSFUL. AND TAKING ON SOME OF THESE NEWER PRACTICES, SOME OF THESE SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES,ISWORKING SMARTER.>>Reporter: ON MOST FARMS, YOU’LL SEE SOY GROWING IN NEAT, CLEAN ROWS. BUT IN ONE OF SAM’S FIELDS, SOY IS GROWING ALONGSIDE CEREAL RYE. THE RYE FILLS IN PLACES WHERE WEEDS WOULD OTHERWISE GROW, REDUCING THE NEED FOR HERBICIDES. THIS RYE IS A “COVER CROP,” PLANTED IN THE FALL TO PROTECT THE FIELDS OVER THE WINTER WHEN THEY’D OTHERWISE BE BARE. KEEPING ROOTS IN THE GROUND LIMITS SOIL EROSION, AND THOSE ROOTS ATTRACT EARTHWORM ACTIVITY, IMPROVING THE HEALTH OF THE SOIL.>>THIS COVER CROP IS BUILDING SOILS. OUR EARTH WORMS ARE HAPPY. THERE’S AN EARTHWORM HOLE.>>Reporter: THIS EVENT IS CALLED A “FIELD DAY.” IT’S A CHANCE FOR FARMERS TO LEARN ABOUT BENNETT’S SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES.>>I THINK EVERYBODY IS ALWAYS WATCHING ME ACROSS THE FENCE. I ALWAYS SEEM TO GET A PHONE CALL EVERY SPRING. ONE GUY CALLS ME UP AND SAYS, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”>>Reporter: IS HE CHALLENGING YOU, OR IS HE DIGGING FOR INFO TO FIGURE OUT WHAT HE SHOULD BE DOING?>>OH, SOME OF BOTH. I’VE HEARD GUYS SAY, “WHY IS YOUR FIELD SO WEEDY?,” AND EVERYBODY ELSE’S ISN’T. MAYBE SOME OF THESE GUYS, THEY’VE NEVER SEEN A COVER CROP FIELD LIKE THAT BEFORE. SO, I DON’T KNOW, I HANG THOSE AS BADGES ON MY CHEST, I GUESS, THAT PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED IN WHAT I’M DOING.>>Reporter: IT’S A PRETTY SIGNIFICANT SHIFT FROM THE STATUS QUO. 23 MILLION ACRES– SOME 75% OF IOWA’S FARMLAND– IS USED TO GROW CORN AND SOYBEANS, MOST ALL OF IT THROUGH WHAT’S KNOWN AS INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE USING EXPENSIVE EQUIPMENT AND A MASSIVE AMOUNT OF CHEMICAL FERTILIZERS AND PESTICIDES. THOSE TWO CROPS ARE HIGHLY SUBSIDIZED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO THE TUNE OF HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS A YEAR. AND CORN AND SOY ARE MOSTLY GROWN TO PRODUCE ETHANOL AND ANIMAL FEED. THE REMAINDER THAT’S EATEN BY HUMANS IS MOSTLY IN THE FORM OF JUNK FOOD. SARAH CARLSON IS THE STRATEGIC INITIATIVES DIRECTOR AT PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA, OR P.F.I.>>NATURE DOESN’T LIKE ALL THAT SPECIALIZATION, RIGHT. NATURE WANTS CHAOS. NATURE WANTS DIVERSITY.>>Reporter: P.F.I. IS A FARMER- LED NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT RESEARCHES CONSERVATION PRACTICES, SHARES THE FINDINGS WITH ITS MEMBERS LIKE SAM BENNETT, AND THEN GETS THEM TO SPREAD THE WORD TO OTHER FARMERS.>>AND WE’RE JUST BUILDING TO MAKE THESE CHANGES. JUST THINK WITH AN OPEN MIND AND ADD SOME OF THESE THINGS AND WHAT THINGS CAN WE LEARN TODAY THAT WE CAN USE TO INVEST IN THE FUTURE.>>Reporter: WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF IOWA, THE REALITY IS, IT’S NOT MUCH MORE THAN CORN AND SOYBEANS. IS THAT A PROBLEM? OR, IF IT IS, WHY IS THAT A PROBLEM?>>SO, BECAUSE OF THE CROPPING SYSTEM THAT WE HAVE TODAY WHERE WE JUST PLANT TWO CROPS FOR ABOUT SIX MONTHS OUT OF THE YEAR, WE HAVE NO ROOTS IN THE GROUND IN THE WINTERTIME. AND SO, WE HAVE A LOT OF CHANCE FOR WATER TO TAKE POLLUTANTS INTO NEARBY WATER BODIES.>>Reporter: POLLUTANTS CALLED NITRATES, FOUND NATURALLY IN SOIL AND ALSO CONTAINED IN FERTILIZERS, HAVE CONTAMINATED IOWA’S DRINKING WATER SUPPLY. IT’S COSTING HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO CLEAN IT UP.>>ALSO, WE HAVE INCREASED FLASH FLOODING BECAUSE WE AREN’T HOLDING WATER ON THE LANDSCAPE LIKE WE USED TO.>>Reporter: RECORD FLOODING EARLIER THIS YEAR LEFT SWATHS OF FARMLAND THROUGHOUT THE MIDWEST TOO WET TO PLANT, THREATENING MANY FARMERS’ LIVELIHOODS.>>SO, THERE’S JUST A WHOLE HOST OF EXTERNALITIES BECAUSE OF THE TWO-CROP SYSTEM.>>Reporter: MEANWHILE, FARMERS’ PRACTICES ARE SLOWLY STARTING TO CHANGE THANKS TO MORE AWARENESS, GOVERNMENT INCENTIVES, AND TRAINING BY GROUPS LIKE THE PRACTICAL FARMERS. ITS MEMBERSHIP HAS MORE THAN DOUBLED IN THE LAST SEVEN YEARS. AND THE USE OF COVER CROPS HAS SURGED IN THIS STATE, TRIPLING OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS TO AROUND 900,000 ACRES TODAY. CARLSON POINTS OUT THAT, IRONICALLY, MANY OF THESE PRACTICES USED TO BE COMMON. INDUSTRIAL FARMING OF CORN AND SOYBEANS IS ACTUALLY A RELATIVELY NEW PHENOMENON.>>WE HAVEN’T ALWAYS LOOKED LIKE THIS. EVEN THREE DECADES AGO, FARMERS IN THIS AREA WOULD HAVE BEEN GROWING SMALL GRAINS IN ROTATION WITH A LEGUME COVER CROP AND CORN AND SOME SOYBEANS.>>IOWA USED TO PRODUCE A HUGE AMOUNT OF HORTICULTURAL CROPS. SO, IT PRODUCED APPLES AND GRAPES AND TOMATOES.>>Reporter: MATT LIEBMAN IS A PROFESSOR OF AGRONOMY AND RESEARCHER AT IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY.>>MANY SPECIES HAVE DECLINED PRECIPITOUSLY. SO, THE IOWA LANDSCAPE BEGAN TO TRANSFORM DRAMATICALLY IN THE 20th CENTURY. AND WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF FARM CHEMICALS AND MACHINERY, CROP ROTATIONS GOT MUCH LESS DIVERSE, AND ENORMOUS INCREASES IN PRODUCTIVITY TOOK PLACE. AND THAT’S WHAT WE’RE LIVING WITH TODAY– A HIGHLY MECHANIZED, EXTREMELY SPECIALIZED, HIGHLY PRODUCTIVE, NARROW DIVERSITY SYSTEM.>>Reporter: THIS HIGHLY MECHANIZED SYSTEM IS DEPLETING IOWA’S NUTRIENT-RICH TOPSOIL. ABOUT HALF OF IT HAS ALREADY DISAPPEARED. LIEBMAN IS RESEARCHING WAYS TO COMBAT THE DESTRUCTION BY GROWING SOMETHING CALLED “PRAIRIE STRIPS,” PLOTS OF NATIVE GRASSES AND WILDFLOWERS PLANTED ALONGSIDE TRADITIONAL CROPS.>>THIS ONE IS CALLED THE ILLINOIS BUNDLEFLOWER. IT’S A LEGUME. THERE’S SOMETHING COVERING THE GROUND YEAR ROUND. AND THESE PLANTS HAVE STIFF, UPRIGHT STEMS THAT SERVE AS WAYS TO FILTERING WATER FLOWING ACROSS THE LAND, SLOW IT DOWN. THERE’S A LOT OF VEGETATION HERE, SO THERE’S ESSENTIALLY NO RUN-OFF, OFF THE PRAIRIE.>>I HAVE BEEN CALLED AN OUTLIER. I WOULD SAY I’M DOING THINGS THAT ALMOST NO ONE ELSE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WOULD DO.>>Reporter: LEE TESDELL IS ONE OF ABOUT 70 PEOPLE WORKING WITH IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY TO GROW PRAIRIE STRIPS.>>WE SEEDED THIS DOWN A YEAR AND A HALF AGO TO A 60-70 VARIETY PRARIE MIX.>>Reporter: TESDELL OWNS 80 ACRES IN CENTRAL IOWA AND USES 20 FOR VARIOUS CONSERVATION PRACTICES, INCLUDING A “SATURATED BUFFER,” A FILTER THAT KEEPS NITRATES FROM RUNNING INTO A NEARBY STREAM.>>THIS IS A RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE WAY TO DENITRIFY WATER.>>Reporter: THE STREAM IS WHAT YOU’RE PROTECTING.>>RIGHT. WE’RE TRYING TO PROTECT THE WATER QUALITY FOR PEOPLE DOWNSTREAM.>>Reporter: RIGHT. TESDELL SAYS THE BUFFER HAS DECREASED NITRATE RUNOFF BY 91%. MANY OF HIS SUSTAINABILITY PRACTICES WERE PAID FOR BY A COMBINATION OF PRIVATE, STATE AND FEDERAL PROGRAMS, BUT TESDELL DID HAVE TO PAY FOR SOME OF IT OUT OF POCKET. I’M MAKING SOME ASSUMPTIONS HERE, BUT YOU’RE NOT A FLAMING RADICAL FARMER. THESE AREN’T ESPECIALLY RADICAL NOTIONS, BUT THEY’RE NOT SUPER COMMON, EITHER.>>RIGHT. PART OF IT’S THE COST. HOWEVER, IT’S IMPORTANT TO KNOW THAT IN IOWA, 60% OF THE FARMLAND IS NOT FARMED BY THE OWNER.>>Reporter: TESDELL HIMSELF DOESN’T FARM HIS LAND. THAT JOB FALLS TO MIKE HELLAND.>>IF THE LANDOWNER ISN’T WORKING TOGETHER WITH THE TENANT ON CONSERVATION, IT’S PROBABLY NOT GOING TO GET DONE.>>Reporter: BECAUSE THE TENANT HAS LESS INTEREST IN STEWARDING THE LAND THAN THE OWNER WOULD.>>EXACTLY.>>Reporter: AND THIS CREATES A HUGE BARRIER TO CHANGE. SINCE MANY FARMERS DON’T OWN THE LAND, THEY DON’T FEEL INVESTED ENOUGH TO MAKE LONG-TERM CHANGES, ESPECIALLY ONES THAT MIGHT IMPACT THEIR BOTTOM LINE. AND EVEN IF THEY WANTED TO FARM MORE SUSTAINABLY, SOME LANDLORDS MIGHT NOT ALLOW IT.>>MIKE AND I ALWAYS SAY THAT WE’RE TRYING TO BE AN EXAMPLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, AND THAT OUR NEIGHBORS ARE WATCHING US.>>Reporter: MIKE HELLAND FARMS ABOUT 3,000 ACRES, RENTING 2,400 OF THEM FROM VARIOUS LANDLORDS. HELLAND IS OPEN TO TRYING MORE CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES, BUT HE ALREADY TRIED A DIVERSIFIED CROP ROTATION OF OATS IN THE ’80s.>>THERE’S AN OLD SAYING IN OATS: “IT’S ONE OF THE MOST CONSISTENT CROPS IN IOWA; IT’LL LOSE MONEY EVERY YEAR.”>>Reporter: HE SAYS IT DIDN’T WORK THEN AND WONT WORK FOR HIM NOW BECAUSE BIG FOOD COMPANIES HAVE SET UP THEIR SYSTEMS TO SOURCE SPECIFIC CROPS FROM A FEW SPECIFIC LOCATIONS, LIKE BUYING OATS FROM CANADA OR WHEAT FROM KANSAS.>>IT ALL KIND OF GOES BACK TO ECONOMICS, YOU KNOW. WE DON’T EVEN HAVE A MARKET AROUND HERE FOR WHEAT. I MEAN, I COULDN’T CALL UP MY LOCAL ELEVATOR AND SAY, “I WANT TO BRING IN WHEAT.” THEY DON’T HAVE ANY PLACE TO PUT IT.>>Reporter: HELLAND ALSO SAYS MAKING A LIVING AS A FARMER IS GETTING HARDER. HE’S ALREADY INVESTED OVER $1 MILLION IN MACHINERY AND EQUIPMENT WHILE CORN AND SOY PRICES HAVE DROPPED IN RECENT YEARS.>>ALL OF OUR COSTS KEEP GOING UP. AS A FARMER, YOU NEVER GET A COST-OF-LIVING INCREASE. YOU JUST HAVE TO BE MORE EFFICIENT AND, YOU KNOW, FARM MORE GROUND, RAISE MORE… WHATEVER YOU RAISE, WITH THE SAME MACHINERY OR SAME MANPOWER, SAME HOURS.>>Reporter: SO, FARMERS FEEL TRAPPED IN THIS SYSTEM. BUT, DESPITE ALL THE HURDLES, PEOPLE LIKE JOHN IKERD SAY WE DON’T HAVE A CHOICE BUT TO CHANGE. IKERD IS AN AGRICULTURAL ECONOMIST WHO SPENT 30 YEARS WORKING WITH FARMERS ACROSS THE U.S.>>I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW LONG WE CAN CONTINUE TO PROP UP THIS UNSUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE, BUT WE CAN’T DO IT INDEFINITELY.>>Reporter: WHAT DOES A SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEM LOOK LIKE?>>IT’S ABOUT LOOKING AT AGRICULTURE AS A PART OF A LIVING SYSTEM BECAUSE IT’S ALL INTERCONNECTED. AND SO, YOU HAVE TO HAVE FARMING SYSTEMS THAT FUNCTION IN HARMONY WITH NATURE, WITH NATURAL PRINCIPLES. THE REGENERATIVE, RESILIENT, DIVERSE, NATURAL ECOSYSTEMS HAVE TO BE REFLECTED IN THE FARMS.>>Reporter: SO, WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE THE LARGE-SCALE CHANGES EXPERTS BELIEVE NEED TO HAPPEN? P.F.I.’S SARAH CARLSON SAYS FOOD COMPANIES CAN CREATE MARKETS FOR ALTERNATIVE CROPS, AND STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS MUST INCREASE SUSTAINABILITY REQUIREMENTS IN FARMING PROGRAMS.>>IT MIGHT BE THROUGH FINANCE. IT MIGHT BE THROUGH MORTGAGE RATES, YOU KNOW. MIGHT BE THROUGH THE MARKET. IT MIGHT BE THROUGH CROP INSURANCE. SO, WE’VE GOT TO TRY ALL OF THOSE THINGS AND SEE WHAT GETS THE… GETS THE SHIFT THE FASTEST. IF WE CARE ABOUT FARMERS ON THE LANDSCAPE, AND WE CARE ABOUT RURAL COMMUNITIES, THEN WE NEED TO KIND OF MAKE A WHOLESALE CHANGE IN THE WAY WE DO BUSINESS AND THE WAY WE SUPPORT AGRICULTURE IN GENERAL.>>Reporter: BUT ALL OF THAT IS A LONG WAY OFF. FOR NOW, FARMERS LIKE SAM BENNETT ARE IMPLEMENTING SOLUTIONS CROP BY CROP, ACRE BY ACRE. WITH ANY LUCK, YOU’RE GOING TO BE FARMING FOR 50 YEARS. DO YOU THINK IT WILL LOOK DIFFERENT IN 20, 30, 40 YEARS FROM NOW? AND WHAT DO YOU ENVISION?>>I SURE HOPE IT LOOKS DIFFERENT. I’D LIKE TO SEE MORE DIVERSITY ON THE LANDSCAPE, DIVERSITY THAT WE HAD 50 YEARS AGO. WHAT USED TO BE NORMAL I’D LIKE TO MAKE NORMAL AGAIN. IT’S LIKE I TOLD 100 PEOPLE WHAT I’M DOING TODAY. IF THOSE 100 PEOPLE TELL 100 PEOPLE, WE’D SOLVE THIS PROBLEM REAL QUICK. I’M NOT BORROWING THIS LAND FROM MY DAD OR MY GRANDPA; I’M BORROWING IT FROM MY KIDS AND MY GRANDKIDS. IT’S MY RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAVE THIS LAND IN BETTER SHAPE THAN I FOUND IT.

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