Five years of not good enough
Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Iowa State University in concert recently celebrated the five-year anniversary of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. They talked of the hundreds of thousands of acres signed up for some sort of conservation treatment (600,000 on 12 million state acres). Which suggests, of course, that it is a pittance.
They say we are now through the demonstration phase and into the execution phase — scale up, ramp up, spread out, and scale up again.
Bill Stowe of the Des Moines Water Works was not looped in on the press release cycle, so we asked him what he thought.
“Five years of the status quo ... no wonder it takes time,” Stowe replied.
Five years. Actually, more like 30 years of the status quo, since the Farm Crisis and Terry Branstad’s first inauguration.
Thirty years of consolidation, accelerated rural depopulation, school closings, increasing nutrient loadings to surface waters, accelerating soil erosion, fewer and larger farms, leaner prospects for someone with an education, and a steady trendline toward lower farm income (with occasional price bubbles that delude us into affirming what we have been doing).
Housing stock is actually disappearing from most rural counties. Low-income housing tax credits are directed by the Iowa Finance Authority away from Storm Lake and toward Ankeny. Population fell in Pocahontas County to our east six percent in the last census estimate. Our schools are getting less an increase annually than the rate of inflation. Some Iowa private colleges teeter on insolvency — not Buena Vista, thank goodness and the Siebens family.
The Iowa Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a perfect illustration of our state’s defining A force — inertia — in the face of change.
We put manure on top of anhydrous on ground that was planted in soybeans last fall to get 220 bushel corn this fall at about 50 cents per bushel less than the average cost of production. The Raccoon River is running about 50 percent above the federal guideline for nitrate.
Stowe sued over that in federal court, recall, and the world chemical lobby came crashing down on his head along with an adverse summary judgment from federal district court. It is for the Legislature to decide, the judge opined. The Legislature responded by calling for bioswales along the North Raccoon downstream from where that corn is planted in the sandy bank. And by eliminating the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
Albert City is not better off today than it was 30 years ago. Neither is Fort Dodge. Storm Lake probably is better off, thanks to young immigrants, but our entire state political structure is dedicated to shackling them down in Storm Lake and chasing them off.
We are trying to kill rural Iowa. We have way more hogs and way fewer people. We have record profits for Smithfield, owned by the Chinese, and elderly poverty in lonely pockets of Sac County.
It doesn’t appear that our residential property taxes are going down as community college tuition goes up. Our prospects are sliding sideways, at best. And if we aren’t careful, they could slip right past us. As we dither and wring our hands over how to serve the Koch Brothers, Monsanto, Dow DuPont and the insurance company we call Farm Bureau, our soil is eroding at faster rates because of climate change. It is making our soil wetter, which demands increased drainage and it would seem necessarily increased pollution of the Raccoon that slakes Des Moines.
Climate change is the most crucial issue for Iowa, its natural resource base and economic infrastructure illustrated in the challenges of the corn/hog complex that go largely unanswered. Yet it gets lip service from most of our political candidates.
It has the feeling of being one of those Y choices on the road, a defining period. Everybody knows down deep that Iowa has not been heading in the right direction for some time, even when controlled briefly by the Democrats during our time of observation. You just know it isn’t right that Pickerel Lake is disappearing. You know that most working folks in Storm Lake just barely get by, and the prospects are worse 30 miles in any direction. Storm Lake has had enough residual wealth, cultural infrastructure (BVU) and natural amenities to make something of it, and can hope that what our little critical mass here can mean something going forward.
But if you have been in Emmetsburg the past 30 years, the highlight was building a casino.
Ames and Des Moines would be doing fine if you could drink the water. Same with Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, if they can stand the next flood.
Waterloo and Dubuque will find their way. Sioux City is not the same place it once was; it stood pat while Sioux Falls eclipsed it.
The past five years are emblematic of the past 30. That’s what elections are for. We need a course correction. The status quo has left us poorer, polluted, divided and uncertain of our prospects.
That is not good enough for Iowa.
Fortunately, there is a general election in November.
Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times.