“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

Farmers are “stewards of the land”. Most Iowans have heard this expression growing up—the notion that farmers responsibly care for the land in order to leave it better than they found it for future generations. These are the true environmentalists, and there are still Iowa farmers who fit the stewardship image.

Many Iowa farmers have been practicing good stewardship on their land for decades—sometimes with, sometimes without government incentives. They use their own money to build wetlands and ponds in order to create habitat and keep rain water—and the soil and nutrients it carries with it—from washing onto their neighbor’s fields. They ensure there are buffers alongside streams, and they plant crops a reasonable distance from waterways. They see the land as more than just a commodity.

Yet Iowa still has a serious, vexing issue with polluted runoff from our agricultural land threatening the safety of our drinking water and recreational waters.

Trends in agriculture policy, the post-WWII push to produce more, and the “get big or get out” mentality that came after it, led to a shift in farmer attitudes from steward toward producer. The resulting loss of wetlands, reduced perennial cover, and increased row-cropping have created changes in the landscape . . . and in our water quality. Intensification of agriculture demands intensification of stewardship.

There has been a lot of talk lately about stewardship and conservation—enough talk. Now we need large-scale action.

It is said that a “one-size fits all” approach to agriculture won’t work, however the laws of nature do apply to every farm. Minimum tillage, buffers along streams, and grassy waterways should be minimum measures on every farm.

The good news is that these and similar practices not only improve water quality and reduce flooding downstream, they also protect the soil and increase resilience to weather extremes that benefit the farm’s productivity. Practices such as no-till and planting cover crops increase soil organic matter. According to Michigan State University Extension, increasing organic matter by 1% allows an acre of land to hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water. Retaining this water makes it available for use on the farm during rain-free times, reduces peak flows in rivers during major rain events, and reduces the amount of fertilizers, pesticides and top soil that are carried with it which pollute Iowa’s rivers and lakes downstream.

Iowa’s water quality problems are not just a farm problem; they are landscape problems. To solve these problems, the scale of the solution needs to match the scale of the problem.

Iowa policy must support stewardship on the farm and the landscape level. Such support will require significant public investments that are sustained over the long term and not subject to one time funding or a governor’s veto. Policy must also support partnerships, including leveraging both public and private sector funds to support good stewardship practices. Farmers who are good stewards of the land must also be able to maintain profitability in a competitive economic environment.

The old saying was “good fences make good neighbors.” People understood that keeping their livestock on their own land, so as not to eat the neighbors’ crops, was inherently part of being a good neighbor. There may be many fewer fences today, but the point remains: being a good neighbor requires being conscious of the people around us. Abuse of land hurts people in both time and space; people to come in the future, as well as people downstream today.

Good agricultural stewardship is not only a good investment in our streams, lakes, and wildlife. Good stewardship is a good investment in our economy, in our families, and in sustainable food production. Being good stewards, on a large scale across Iowa's landscape in our watershed communities, is the right thing to do.

 Tony Thompson is a farmer near Elkhart in Polk County and is a board member of the Iowa Farmers Union. Contact him at tony@newfamilyfarm.com. Jennifer Terry is an Agriculture Policy Specialist with the Iowa Environmental Council. Contact her at terry@iaenvironment.org