Well, zis, boom, bah. Two of the uncertainties hanging over the heads of Iowa ag producers are on a bit more solid footing this week. Not only did the United State Mexico Canada Agreement get signed by President Trump as a replacement for the former North American Free Trade Agreement, but the Environmental Protective Agency announced this coming year's renewable fuel volumes obligations. Now, this renewable fuel issue has been something of a crusade for the Hawkeye State's Sen. Chuck Grassley – particularly hardship waivers used to skirt the previous obligations.
"Specifically, I'm glad levels for biodiesel are maintained and slightly increase," Grassley said in a Friday statement. "And although the levels for advanced biofuels and cellulosic biofuels don't represent the full potential of the industry, they are very promising and will help significantly. These represent the future of biofuels and domestic renewable energy production. Altogether, levels for 2019 total nearly 20 billion gallons. That's a significant bright spot in the agricultural economy and for farmers who haven’t had a whole lot of good news the past few years."
Likewise, Iowa’s other U.S. Senator Joni Ernst was glad to see the new biofuel obligations come through.
"Now that this rule is finalized, the EPA needs to move forward in fulfilling President Trump’s promise of E-15 year-round," Ernst said, also in a Friday statement.
The same day, Ernst praised the completion of the USMCA in yet another statement (that PR staff can sure turn 'em out).
"President Trump has fulfilled another of his promises in renegotiating our trade relationship with Canada and Mexico — two of Iowa's major trade partners," her office said. "The USMCA is a good step for Iowa farmers and manufacturers, and I look forward to working with my colleagues as we consider this important agreement."
So, I'm going to go ahead and admit, this wasn't an easy thing for the administration to accomplish. Through the drama of Grassley's calls against former EPA Director Scott Pruitt to the tension between Canada's Justin Trudeau and President Trump, the whole situation was up in the air for a while, and not every farmer was thrilled about it. And I'm sure producers would like to think they're on more solid ground these days (well, the ground's frozen at this point, but you get what I mean).
Unfortunately, there's more just around the river bend – spoiler alert: it's nitrates.
The Univesrity of Iowa's Dr. Larry Weber delivered a presentation Wednesday on flooding in the local watershed. (Photo by Seth Boyes)
Dr. Larry Weber of the University of Iowa’s Hydroscience and Engineering Department spoke with a group here in the Lakes Area about the local watershed this past week. Of course, the issue of tiling and the issue of nitrates came up, and he had some interesting information to share. You see, the drainage tiles used in that ag industry we're hoping just got a foothold, the one that largely keeps our state GDP going, the one that very likely could be putting a greater emphasis on corn for renewable biofuel production soon, is contributing to what’s become known as the Gulf Dead Zone. It's an area about the size of New Jersey with oxygen levels so low it’s killing aquatic life. And, of course, it’s not just the ag industry. There's sources like waste water treatment plants (which Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District Superintendent Steve Anderson said are one of the few industries being specifically directed to reduce their nitrate output), but Weber said waste water treatment accounts for only about 15 percent of the state's total outgoing load.
Weber said the group tasked with addressing the dead zone started sampling data in 1999 and wanted to see a 45 percent reduction by 2015, using a five-year moving average. He said that deadline got bumped to 2035 after we failed to even move in the right direction. In fact, he said the 2016 numbers showed a 48 percent increase in nitrogen and phosphorus leaving Iowa since the first five-year average was calculated in 2004.
"When you add the 2017 data, it's up over 70 percent," Weber said. "In 2018, we have a month left, and 2018 will be either the highest or the second highest nitrate load leaving Iowa."
The dead zone's task force expects us to hit a mile marker in 2025 – just barely more than 6 years from now — and reduce that nitrate load by 20 percent.
"Our general projection is that, if things don't change drastically by 2025, the nitrate load leaving Iowa — five year moving average — will be double 2014," Weber said. "So, in the year of our target of a 20 percent reduction, we'll probably have double."
My worry is this. We Iowans have been hoping our farm economy wouldn't tank like it did in the 1980s. Now that we can see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, it would be easy to rush full speed ahead and pile on the nitrates to get the corn to blend the fuel to make a profit (to kill the cat, that ate the rat, that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built). It would be easy to do things as we've always done. But that New Jersey-sized dead zone is growing, and we evidently aren't going to stop it. And it's easy to think that the gulf is so far away that it's none of our concern up here, but deep down we all know that's not true.
"For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man," a quote from American Indian Chief Seattle goes. "All things are connected."
If Indian chiefs aren’t your thing, Ecclesiastes 3:19 says something similar. My point is, while deals have been struck to get our farmers the markets, we can't stop there. And it's not something to be left up to the farmers alone. It's all of us –the researchers, the voters and the legislators. The farmers have been doing what they can with buffers, wetland reserves and whatever other methods they're told will help, but somehow we're still on course to double our nitrate output. So, if we take these latest agreements as a victory in and of themselves, we pass over a larger issue. There is a clear and present need to develop practices that not only meet demand but also keep chemicals out of the world's water – you know, the stuff every form of carbon-based life is dependent upon. In short, my fellow Iowans, selling our corn now does us no good if we do so by snapping off the lowest links in the food chain. It may take a while, but we'll end up starving ourselves if we're not careful.