Almost two centuries ago, our ancestors settled on some of the most fertile and productive topsoil in the world. They believed this soil would provide a quality of life for future generations and were right to say the least. Iowa’s topsoil has provided a good life for millions, helped us become the most productive farmers in the world, and made us an agricultural powerhouse.
Unfortunately, this precious resource is eroding away at alarming rates. When my ancestors first arrived in Iowa, seeking a new life in America, they found 14 to 16 inches of topsoil. As of 2000, the average across the state is down to 6 to 8 inches. Given the current rates of erosion, scientists at Iowa State University estimate some parts of Iowa will be without its precious topsoil in as little as 40–50 years. That is far enough down the line that we can still do something to prevent it, but it should scare us into taking action now. Forty to fifty years is, God willing, within my lifetime, and most definitely within my daughter Lucy’s. If we don’t act soon, this is a problem that the next generation of Iowa’s farmers and producers will face.
To address this growing challenge, we need to do a better job caring for our soil, not only preventing erosion, but improving soil health and structure. In doing so, we will improve water quality for all people from those dependent on surface water for consumption to those around the Gulf of Mexico where the hypoxic zone has grown to record levels in recent years.
In the face of this growing challenge, Iowa farmers have stepped up and led conservation breakthroughs in no-till, multi-species cover crops, and managed grazing. We need to unleash their creativity to help us increase the use of conservation practices known to improve soil health, while researching new, effective strategies with more downstream benefits.
If we really care about our soil health and water quality, then we need to fund our efforts appropriately. In recent months, Governor Reynolds and Republicans in the Legislature touted the passage of Senate File 512 which dedicates $282 million to water quality initiatives over the next 12 years. While this is a great first step, so much more needs to be done.
Researchers and scientists estimate the price tag for healthier soil and cleaner water to be in the billions of dollars. Under Senate File 512, at most $23.5 million would be spent on conservation a year. Additionally, there is no guarantee that this money remains solely dedicated to conservation efforts, as we know tough budget years and shifting priorities have altered funding in the past.
This is not a challenge we can approach piecemeal, but rather, one we must tackle head on. Iowans across the state know this, as 62% of the electorate approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 to establish the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Funded through the three-eighths of a cent sales tax, this constitutionally protected resource would be dedicated to conservation practices that have shown results in improving soil health and water quality.
If the Legislature and Governor raise the sales tax by a penny, 60% of nearly $200 million of funding would go toward conservation efforts in agriculture. This would likely leverage a similar amount of money from Federal conservation programs. In talking with USDA officials, I am told that a significant investment in conservation by the state, would leverage roughly the same amount of dollars from the Federal government.
Our farmers are already investing in conservation on their land, but knowing that the state of Iowa and Federal government are investing at greater levels, helps farmers understand that they will have a partner in these efforts. Add to that the investment that private industry is putting into sustainability efforts, and these four funding streams might end up somewhere north of $400 million of new dollars each year going into conservation efforts. At nearly 17 times the amount of funding Senate Bill 512 dedicates to this problem annually, we could create a much larger impact in the near term than what the Legislature and Governor have approved to this point in time. Iowans know this is what needs to be done, as recent polling shows 7 out of 10 Iowans support funding the trust.
That is why I am calling on the next Governor and Legislature to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust through the three-eighths cent sales tax. We will only remain an agricultural power as long as we care for our soil and improve our water quality. It is imperative that all Iowans, rural and urban, work together to protect our most precious resources. The benefits of investing in soil health, will not only be seen in higher yields for our farmers and land that is increasingly resilient to the more frequent precipitation events, but it will provide for cleaner water downstream and a smaller hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
For the sake of our future farmers and producers, like my 9-month old daughter Lucy, from river to river: fund the trust.