Believe the hype
By ANDREW MCGINN
Iowa farmers know how to grow corn and soybeans, there’s no question, but they’ve also proven themselves quite good at growing a plant they’ll never see more than 1,000 miles away.
Algae in the Gulf of Mexico is lapping up fertilizer that washes into the Mississippi River watershed, starving the Gulf of oxygen and creating a “dead zone” incapable of supporting marine life.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been mapping the dead zone in the Gulf since 1985, and last summer’s dead zone was the largest on record — a floating, lifeless mass about the size of New Jersey, according to NOAA.
The remedy may very well be as simple as rye, oats or even turnips, and farmers upriver in Iowa for a change wouldn’t even have to be good at growing them.
All they have to do is disperse the seeds into their standing corn or soybeans each fall before harvest.
That’s why Greene County farmers James Holz and Bill Frederick settled on the motto “Conservation with Convenience” when they founded Iowa Cover Crop in 2014 to seed fields in the off-season with all manner of plant life.
“It might not be the most efficient fix, but it’s the fastest,” Holz said.
Of all the conservation practices being pitched to Iowa farmers these days to improve water quality, cover crops that hold nutrients in place are “the easiest one you can do tomorrow,” he said.
What’s amazing is how quickly farmers are catching on, turning Iowa Cover Crop from a quirky side business into one that may very well become their primary endeavor before long.
Even just several years ago, the idea of letting a field in the off-season sprout with triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, only appealed to a certain kind of farmer.
“When we started this business three to four years ago, Bill was selling to hippies,” Holz, 32, joked. “Let’s just call a spade a spade.”
Flash forward to Jan. 31.
Frederick and Holz were asked by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to be at her side at the Iowa Capitol as she signed her first bill — committing $282 million over 12 years to address water quality issues — into law.
Frankly, only one other person has so effectively bridged the gap between hippies and Republicans, and his name is Willie Nelson.
“We don’t know how they found us,” Holz confessed.
“People know us,” Frederick, 31, added, “but we have no idea how many or how far our reach is.”
What they do know is that business has doubled every year since they started. Last year, Iowa Cover Crop custom-applied cover crops to 15,000 acres of farmland — 2.4 percent of all cover crop acres in Iowa.
Frederick and Holz raise a little of the seed themselves, but mostly purchase it from Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada.
Even though the business is still just two guys with iPhones and a website, it’s clear the governor recognizes the role they could potentially play in slowing runoff.
“The governor made it feel like we were supposed to be there,” Frederick said.
“It gives us a little more street cred,” he added.
If cover crops are truly going to fulfill their promise, Iowa Cover Crop is going to need all the street cred it can find.
The 623,000 acres of cover crops planted across Iowa in 2016 seems like a remarkable figure when you consider that in 2011, only 15,000 acres of cover crops were planted.
The thing is, Iowa has 30.5 million acres of total farmland.
That means cover crops are only reaching 2 percent of Iowa farmland.
“For every farm that’s doing everything right,” Holz explained, “then there’s 98 not doing anything at all.”
In other words, there’s tremendous growth potential for Iowa Cover Crop.
In 2013, the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University unveiled the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a road map for farmers to voluntarily reduce runoff.
The 12 states along the Mississippi River hope to collectively reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus load to the Gulf by 45 percent within the next 17 years.
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in its annual report in December showed that 525,654 tons of nitrates flowed from Iowa farm fields into the state’s streams and rivers in 2016.
That’s the most to date.
Of the 302,136 acres of cover crops enrolled in government cost-share programs in 2016, the state estimates they prevented more than 1,375 tons of nitrates from washing away.
Research conducted by Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa between 2008 and 2015 found that cover crops can indeed prevent nutrients from leaching into surface water and reduce soil erosion.
Research is mixed on whether the use of cover crops leads to higher soybean and corn yields.
At the ISU Boyd Research Farm near Boone, Iowa Learning Farms has found that with cereal rye, there’s as much as 68 percent less sediment in runoff water.
Rye is considered the most bulletproof of cover crops, Holz said.
It grows rapidly in the fall, can endure frost and resumes growth in the spring.
Cover crops are planted in September and October prior to harvest.
Iowa Cover Crop receives aerial seeding help from local pilot Ryan Stott, and relies on Peter Bardole to seed fields closer to the ground with a Hagie.
A farmer who will be planting corn in the spring typically will seed spring oats or spring wheat into standing soybeans as soon as the leaves begin yellowing.
A farmer who will be planting soybeans in the spring typically will seed cereal rye, winter wheat or winter triticale into standing corn, or else drill the seed into fields following harvest.
If Holz and Frederick have their way, Iowa will remain green all fall.
“There’s just something about it that makes you feel good,” Frederick said.
Prior to spring planting, cover crops are generally terminated with herbicides or by chopping.
For livestock producers, the wintertime forage makes cover crops a “no brainer,” Frederick said.
The Holz family’s 1,000-head cattle feedlot south of Grand Junction has taken full advantage of cover crops’ grazing potential.
Before going into business with Frederick, Holz was even working for a cover crop seed supplier.
As for Frederick and his dad, Al, they came to cover crops in a slightly earthier way.
The family has always grown small grains, and the Fredericks were raising and selling cover crop seed of their own.
Frederick boasts of nurturing kale-raised beef north of Bagley.
“I’m going to capture the hipster market,” he joked.
The two were classmates in the Jefferson-Scranton High School Class of 2004, but were mere acquaintances in school.
They later reconnected, simply because rural Iowa quite often chooses your friends for you.
“You come back from college and it’s slim pickings for 22- to 25-year-olds,” Frederick said.
Admittedly, they’re often on opposite sides of the political fence.
But the fact that they agree on the benefits of cover crops is a rare sign of promise in Iowa’s uphill plight to curb runoff pollution.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” Holz said, “that we couldn’t have the same practices we’d always had.”