ISA EPS Shows a Legacy of Leadership
As words like “sustainability” have become vogue in recent years, it might seem to some that the Iowa Soybean Association’s Environmental Programs and Services (ISA EPS) is part of the environmental trend. In fact, as ISA EPS is being called upon ever more frequently to offer environmental expertise, it is worth noting that what seems like “overnight success” has been 20 years in the making, thanks to the visionary investment of Iowa’s soybean farmers.
“In the 1990s, water utilities identified excess nutrients in Iowa’s waters as a growing concern, and environmental groups were beginning to call for farmers to do better,” recalls ISA director Ron Heck of Perry.
Diverse groups—businesses, academia, private foundations, local government agencies, state associations of corn and soybean growers and cattle, pork and poultry producers—teamed with the Iowa Agribusiness Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau to form the Iowa Nutrient Management Task Force, which identified issues and produced recommendations to improve Iowa’s water quality. The Task Force report recognized the complexity of water quality issues in agricultural watersheds and the need to advance solutions that would help agriculture address nonpoint source pollution. Starting where the highest nitrate loading had been identified, the Raccoon River Watershed Project (RRWP) emerged as a vehicle for education and improvement.
The RRWP created a climate of private-public collaboration and action, becoming a model for future watershed efforts. Farmers liked the idea of taking leadership and applying their resources, entrepreneurial skills and inventiveness to discovering and applying solutions that would work on their farms and in their watersheds.
ISA built on its involvement with RRWP by establishing its own Environmental Program in 2000 to help achieve ISA’s goal to “stabilize and increase yield while improving production efficiency and the environment” and hired RRWP Director Roger Wolf to develop and direct this effort.
“We had found that the environmental debate was seldom fact-based,” Heck says. “Neither farmers nor their critics had the facts needed to understand and solve the problems. If harmful levels of nitrogen were being lost from our farms, we didn’t want those nutrients to go into the water either, and we didn’t want to lose nitrogen from its intended use on our farms.
“As farmers we wanted to do better, but we needed better information. We found credible sources were lacking, regarding how to do better environmentally and economically on our farms. So, we decided to work on finding the information and solutions ourselves. ISA committed checkoff funds to find answers, starting with the hiring of Roger Wolf.”
Wolf was recruited to develop tools, systems and approaches to help farmers gain a science-based understanding of agriculture’s impact on water and other natural resources and to implement practical, action-oriented programs to maintain yields and profitability while reducing negative environmental impacts.
Experience and research had shown that, although improvements made on individual farms were important, a watershed approach was needed to solve water quality problems. This included organizing farmers and other leaders throughout the watershed, conducting assessments of watershed resources and conditions, developing watershed plans, implementing plans and measuring the outcomes, and revising the plans to improve their effectiveness. Leadership and technical capacity in watersheds had to be expanded; ISA’s directors and Wolf agreed that ISA EPS should help.
As ISA EPS grew, the Environmental Advisory Council was formed. Comprised of ISA Board representatives, other Iowa farmers committed to advancing agriculture’s environmental performance and representatives of partner organizations, it offers feedback and guidance regarding ISA EPS initiatives.
Wolf now oversees a staff of eight specialists in environmental planning, agronomics and natural resource management, water monitoring and analysis, farming, communications, outreach and resource development. From demonstrating and evaluating promising new conservation practices to developing and piloting performance-based watershed initiatives that can be replicated elsewhere, the ISA EPS staff collaborates with farmers to find solutions to the complex environmental challenges they face, while maintaining profitability.
Examples include a multi-state agricultural sustainability initiative supported with checkoff funding from six state organizations, as well as the United Soybean Board; demonstration and diffusion of effective new practices, like denitrifying bioreactors; expansion and refinement of water monitoring and analysis services, including ISA’s own water laboratory, designed and operated by a former Des Moines Water Works lab supervisor; watershed planning services offered by a staff environmental planner; and farm-scale planning services, as well as training, development and communication assistance to help replicate this work.
ISA’s board of farmer directors have invested more than $3 million in Iowa soybean checkoff funds, leveraging three times that amount in public and private grants and contracts to support its performance-based approach for identifying, implementing, evaluating and disseminating sustainable solutions for growing yields while protecting natural resources.
Due to the association’s pioneering, on-the-ground programs and unique partnerships, ISA’s staff experts are frequently invited to bring their experience and perspective to local, state, regional and national forums addressing environmental issues. Examples include: providing agricultural expertise for the Johnson Foundation’s Freshwater Forum and “Charting New Waters: A Call to Action” in Washington, D.C., and for National Research Council Study Committees on Mississippi River water quality; serving on the
National Biodiesel Board’s Sustainability Task Force; co-chairing the steering committee of the Upper Mississippi Basin’s Fishers and Farmers, a nationally recognized partnership of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan; and chairing a subcommittee of the Iowa Legislature’s Water Quality Planning Task Force.
James O. Andrew of Jefferson, current chair of the Environmental Advisory Council, says, “The staff at ISA has developed relationships that allow government, urban environmentalists and soybean farmers to partner, using science-based research to tackle real and perceived problems confronting our environment. These relationships help soybean farmers contribute a common sense, logical approach to environmental stewardship and can give a more accurate understanding of agriculture to those in other sectors.”
Andrew adds, “By collaborating with state and federal agencies for nearly a decade, we’ve developed a working model of successful public-private partnership to solve problems efficiently and creatively without growing government—something everyone is now looking to do.”
Heck says, “It turns out ISA has been doing the right thing for a long time. The number of partners we have and our sources of funding, even at the national level, are indicative of how successful and respected our efforts are.”