Sunday, May 27, 2007

Northey sees dynamic times ahead for agriculture (Part 2 of 2)

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey sat down for an interview on Thursday with the Iowa Independent. Click here for Part 1 of this article.

Water quality in Iowa

Water quality problems have been a serious concern in recent years in Iowa, and farmers are often blamed for the problems. Northey discussed some of the work his department is doing to improve water quality in Iowa.

"At this department, about half of the 400 people that work here work at improving soil conservation and water quality," said Northey. "We've got projects where we're looking at trying to take nitrogen out of the water that's coming down to our streams. We've got tons of soil conservation efforts, both traditional efforts from terraces and grass waterways and filter strips, to newer kinds of no-till and other kinds of things that are done through the department."

Successful efforts to improve soil conservation practices on Iowa farms involves a collaborative effort between different local, state and federal agencies as well as private individuals. "There's a real partnership between the state and the local folks, as well as those federal folks that are out there in the (USDA) offices," said Northey.

He meets at least every two weeks with Rich Leopold, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "We had a meeting this morning, and we talked about several different projects that are going on. We talked about livestock siting regulations. There are some regulations on feedyards that we talked about, and we talked about a federal grant that we would be asking for together. So it's the combination of trying to make sure government does the best job it can with the programs we have, and looking ahead and trying to develop some of that new technology," said Northey.

Challenges of cellulosic ethanol production

Northey said that there is significant research occurring right now in the state on cellulosic ethanol production and the impact it may have on the environment. "One of the things that folks talk about is turning cellulose into ethanol. If we're going to use corn stalks, corn cobs, it makes great sense. We can use them, but how do we take them off of the ground without causing erosion? So, part of the effort has to be in figuring out how much we can take off the ground."

A lot of that depends on soil types and slope in the field, he said. "Maybe we can go out there and harvest various amounts over various parts of that field. What those numbers are, we are still learning how to do that. Soil conservation started 80 years ago after the dust bowl times of the '30s; we're still learning a lot about it and how we can do a better job."

Livestock confinements

One of the most-contentious issues around livestock production in Iowa involves large livestock-confinement operations. Northey said that a lot of improvements have been made in recent years to reduce the amount of environmental impact created by such operations.

"I think we need to kind of split it up into the separate issues," he said. "Different species out there cause different concerns. Certainly some of the attention right now is around hog facilities, and it's really more around air quality concerns. It's about odor rather than water quality concerns. If you talk to the DNR folks, they've mapped out how many areas cause real water quality concerns. Not very frequently is it a hog confinement, in fact. Not very frequently is it a large cattle or large dairy facility causing these problems. But often it may be one of the older cattle facilities, maybe built on the side of a hill, which is very traditional--the way 90 percent of the cattle were raised 40 years ago. We're trying to figure out how those facilities can continue to run but not cause water quality problems. But with these new facilities, we're not seeing much risk to water quality."

Still, air quality is a different matter. "We need to be able to do a better job on the odor research that's out there. That's not generally as big of a problem with dairy and cattle feeding. That's more of a hog issue, and sometimes poultry as well, but we need to be able to find out if we're doing everything we can, if we have the latest technology here in Iowa. It's never going to be easy. You know, we have industrial processes in some of our cities that smell also. We can't snap our fingers and solve these problems. But we sure shouldn't hide our head under a bushel basket. We should go after some of these new technologies and make sure we're doing all we can."

Many environmental activist groups have pushed for years for local zoning control of agricultural land. Northey is not in favor of such a change to Iowa law.

"I think we really need statewide regulations. If they're right to have, then we need to have those regulations all around the state," said Northey. "If (regulations) are health-based, then there's no reason one area should have them and another area shouldn't. Certainly, there are some areas where we've got folks raising livestock that aren't doing the best that they can. But most of the folks are doing a really good job, and when you take the big hammer of local control, you end up hitting an awful lot of people that are doing a good job and driving an industry away. What we need to do is we need to fine-tune it and find some way of getting that little handful of folks that aren't doing a good job without destroying the industry in the process. It's not easy, it's not quick. It's not as quick as just running everybody out."

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