Oxbow restoration improves water quality, habitat


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An aerial view of existing oxbows along a waterway in Northern Iowa. (G. Witteveen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2017

Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.

Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”

Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”

Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.

Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”

To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.

2017 locavore index released, Iowa slips in ranking


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(Strolling of the Heifers)
Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2017

For the sixth year in a row, Iowa’s position on the state locavore ranking has continued to slide downward.

Strolling of the Heifers, a farm and food advocacy organization out of Vermont, ranks the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) by their dedication to local food each year. This year the group used seven metrics to rank states: farmers markets per capita, community-supported agriculture per capita, farm-to-school food programs, food hub programs, direct farmer-to-consumer sales, USDA local food grants per capita, and hospitals sourcing local foods.

The state of Iowa was ranked 18th in 2017, a far cry from its second place ranking in 2012. Iowa has slid down the list each year, ranking 10th in 2014, 13th in 2015, and 14th last year. According to this year’s report, Iowa ranked in the top ten for farmers markets per capita and community-supported agriculture per capita. However, the state ranks 50th for local food-to-school programs. Iowa performs in the middle of the pack when it comes to direct farm-to-consumer sales and USDA local food grants per capita.

The 2017 index features a new metric: hospitals sourcing local foods relative to the state’s population. Hospitals and local food organizers in Vermont have led the way, but the report notes that healthcare centers across the country have been pushing for 10 to 20 percent locally-sourced food in recent years.

Steven R. Gordon is President and CEO of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. He said,

“Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is proud to be a leader in supporting local farms and producers of fresh and healthy food. Sourcing local produce not only supports our local economy but also helps our patients heal faster. Often times, when a person is ill or on various medications, their appetite diminishes and their tastes are altered. Providing our patients with in-season and locally-produced food allows us to provide meals with high flavor and nutrition.”

The state of Iowa ranked just inside the top 20 for local foods served in hospitals. The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems explains their journey to a more sustainable food system for hospitals and the benefits they’ve reaped thus far in the video posted below.

Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms


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Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll released


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Jenna Ladd | May 4, 2017

Results from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll were released last month, providing insight into rural public opinion on a variety of topics.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, managed by the Iowa State University Extension Sociology, was established in 1982 and is the longest running survey of its kind. This year’s survey was completed by 1,039 farmers, who were 65-years-old on average. The poll is sent to the same 2,000 farmers every year so that researchers can track changes over time. This year, it asked respondents about conservation techniques, farming practices, monarch butterfly population restoration and trustworthy information sources.

According to the poll, 42 percent of farmers surveyed practice no-till farming, which can be effective in reducing topsoil erosion. On average, farmers lose 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre per year which can lead to a loss of 15 bushels of yield per acre each year, according to the Corn and Soybean Digest. Buffer strips along water ways and field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff was the most common conservation practice among respondents. Forty-six percent of farmers reported using buffer strips in 2015, while fewer than 40 percent reported implementing extended crop rotations, terraces, or ponds.

The survey also asked about participation in The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. NRCS is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with the protection of natural resources on agricultural lands. It provides technical and financial support to farmers looking to conserve soil and water. More than 60 percent of farmers said that they were currently participating in an NRCS program, just about 34 percent said that they were not. For those not enrolled in NRCS programs, their primary reason was that they did not believe they had enough natural resources on their land to warrant participation.

The farm poll also analyzed which sources of agricultural advice respondents were most likely to trust. More than any other source, farmers said they would be most likely to trust another farmer that grows nearby.

The survey is collaborative project of Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Information from the Farm Poll is used to guide policy decisions and actions and as the basis for public policy seminars, Extension reports, radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper and journal articles,” reads the Iowa State University Extension site.

Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”

March 2017 breaks temperature records, even without El Niño


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(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Jenna Ladd | April 20, 2017

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which is among the scientific organizations on the Trump Administration’s budget chopping block, has reported yet another global warming record.

March 2017 was the first time ever that a monthly average temperature was more than 1°C above average in the absence of an El Niño event. During El Niño episodes the ocean-atmosphere system in the Tropical Pacific moves in different ways that result in warmer than usual temperatures worldwide. Record warmth in the absence of El Niño suggests that human-induced climate change is to blame.

NOAA’s March 2017 report revealed that warmer and much-warmer-than-average temperatures were measured for much of Earth’s land and oceanic surfaces. The U.S. mainland, Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and Australia saw the hottest month, where departures from average temperatures were +3.0°C (+5.4°F) or more. Some regions such as western Canada and Alaska did experience a colder than usual year but no cool weather records were set.

According to a continental analysis by NOAA, four of the six continents experienced a top seven warm March since records began in 1910. Europe and Oceania had their second hottest March on record, despite the absence of an El Niño even this year.

 

The first three months of 2017, January through March, have already proven to be the second warmest on record. Only 2016 had higher average temperatures, but that was an El Niño year. Even more notably, the first three months of 2017 have been significantly warmer than January through March of 2015, which was also an El Niño year.

Zeke Hausfather is a climate scientist at University of California, Berkeley and commented on the report in an interview with the Associated Press. He said, “If El Niño were the main driver of record warmth, there is no way the last three months would have been as warm as they have been.”

Climate change decreases number of working days for Illinois farmers


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Extreme heat and drought are becoming more common thanks to climate change, both lead to “kernel abortion” in corn plants. (Erick Larson/Mississippi State Extension)
Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2017

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a study that predicts the impact climate change will have on agriculture in the state.

The research article, published in PLOS One, centers around one variable called “field working days.” This term refers to the days during which the weather is suitable for farmers to plant, till, monitor, or harvest crops. Adam Davis is a University of Illinois USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist. Davis said, “Everything else flows from field working days. If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?”

Utilizing previously developed climate models, the researchers predicted the number of field working days for farmers in Illinois from 2046 to 2065 and from 2080 to 2099. The study modeled three possible trajectories ranging from mild to severe climate change.

Notably, the study predicts that the usual planting window for corn, April and May, will be too wet for planting in the future. Too much rain can be harmful for seedlings because it can wash them away or lead to harmful fungal and bacterial growth.

Davis said, “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

While the spring months grow wetter, summer months are predicted to become drier and hotter, especially in the southern parts of Illinois. “Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion,” Davis explained.

The article offers two possible adaptations for farmers. They could opt for earlier planting of long-season varieties that should have enough time to pollinate before summer droughts, but they’d risk getting hit by a late winter storm. Or, the researchers suggest, farmers could plant short-season cultivars that are harvested prior to summer droughts. In this case, growers could be sacrificing yield due to the shorter growing season.

Either way, Davis said, farmers should begin considering how they can best adapt to the changing climate. He said, “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”