While driving from Pella up to north-central Iowa, I heard a news report on the car radio: both Democrats and Republicans at the state capitol have identified water quality improvement as a priority for the next legislative session. Yes, please. That would be most appreciated. Iowa has challenges with both the waters within our borders, and with our contribution of nutrients (especially nitrogen) that enrich the Gulf of Mexico and contribute to the famous hypoxic “Dead Zone.” So, yes, let’s get to work. If our political leaders are looking for ideas, they might check out what’s happening at a family farm outside Charles City in Floyd County.
Dean Tjaden showed me around. He and his wife Linda farm these 450 acres, as well as doing off-farm work: he retired recently from DeKalb Feeds, she is on the Floyd County Board of Supervisors. (Click that link for her Facebook page–she has lots of interesting links about local agriculture, the wetland I discuss here, and more).
Their operation is perhaps an example of traditional agriculture, a “Century Farm” that’s been in his family for over a hundred years. Being a city guy, I was glad to learn a bit about the reality of what this business entails. And make no mistake, a farm is a business: Dean was forthcoming about the substantial outlay for land or needed equipment, and how that impacts subsequent finances; about how margins are tight and commodity prices so variable; about working with the land and weather. Oh, and you know the challenge you face finding someone to care for your pet, when you want to take a vacation? Imagine being responsible for 400 head of cattle!
Despite the very real challenges, the Tjadens clearly love the farm, and take pride in doing the important work of feeding the rest of us. Moreover, these folks act as stewards of this land, and have for decades. Dean showed terracing and other infrastructure installed since the 1970s as part of the Washington School Watershed Program to prevent flooding of Charles City by Hires Creek. So maybe it’s unsurprising that they are now participating in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement (CREP) program, an initiative to reduce nutrient (especially nitrogen) in Iowa’s streams and rivers. The idea is to put proven science to work: build the right-size wetland, in the right location, to remove nutrients from subsurface drainage pipe (tiles). Microbes in the wetland convert the dissolved nitrogen (NO3, nitrate) into nitrogen gas (N2), releasing it to the air (which is already 78% N2).
As we sat at his kitchen table, Dean showed me the wetland plans and an “owner’s manual” of sorts. This wetland is engineered to remove 11,700 pounds (5300 kilos) of nitrogen every year, and 878 US tons (800 metric tons) over its lifetime. He told me that the Iowa Dept of Agriculture & Land Stewardship (IDALS) approaches owners of land sitting at key spots (hydrologic crossroads, if you will) where water collects before heading downstream. These are the best spots to intercept that water, slow it down, and let wetlands remove excess nutrients. 99wetlands readers might recall other posts about nutrient removal in wetlands, and how wetlands can also help reduce flood risk. These are the natural activities of wetlands, and also important services for our well-being.
Shouldn’t all those “ecosystem services” be worth something? And indeed, CREP includes payment to the farmer/landowner. But unlike some other conservation programs, this is playing for keeps: the wetland has a permanent easement. So, the Tjadens and any future landowners must keep those 20 acres in wetland and surrounding conservation planting. Access to the control structure and maintenance must be accommodated. These acres cannot be used for commercial production. The property still belongs to the family (e.g., they needn’t allow just anybody to wander around out there), but the easement permanently assures this spot is a working wetland.
The Tjadens have had a very positive experience: the government folks have been good to work with, Dean had praise for the contractor doing the construction, and the wetland has already had plenty of waterfowl visitors to enjoy. This wetland was only just built, but next year those cover plantings should take off, water should fill the basin, and this wetland should get to work.
Dean had been a friendly host, and generous with his time, yet I still asked for a couple more favors. First, I got permission to come again in the future and check out how the wetland develops. He graciously agreed, so look for updates in future blog entries. Second, I asked him for a parting thought. What would he want others (especially fellow landowners) to know about all this? I’m delighted to report that he was really encouraging. The family plans to enjoy the wetland for years to come. He suggests that others look beyond every last little bit of revenue from every acre, and consider building their own wetlands.
I’m hopeful that we can get busy, and finally address our water quality challenges. It will take a lot of work, with many Iowans involved, and we’ll need to be agile, using a variety remedies…but I know we can do it. I’ve got 99 good reasons for optimism.