Dana Norby

Dana Norby is involved in the Rock Creek watershed project in North Central Iowa. 

OSAGE | As Iowa and other Midwestern states look to improve water quality they will likely do it one watershed at a time.

For Dana Norby and Dean Sponheim, home is the Rock Creek watershed, a 45,000-acre swath of land that feeds into the Cedar River. Rock Creek is one of the watersheds in the state that has organized, seeking grants and is working to help farmers in the area.

“The Iowa Soybean Association spearheaded it, but I’m all for it,” Norby says of the watershed organizing effort. “If we don’t police ourselves (on water quality issues) we’re going to get regulated.”

And while regulation wouldn't be the end of the world, Norby says, it is something he would rather avoid.

Sponheim, who farms with his son, Josh, agrees. But he says the steps toward being a steward of the land really didn't start with a speech or a political push for him. It started with a look at the bottom line.

“I’m an accidental conservationist,” he says with a smile. “I didn't start doing strip-till for conservation reasons . . . I did it to make money.”

But he discovered that, for his farm, the two goals worked together. He could make more money and be more environmentally conscious.

“The hope is that we can do things that are good for the environment and are economically feasible for farmers,” Josh says.

On their farm, that means strip tillage and some no-till acreage. It also means cover crops. For Norby, the ideas are similar. He strip-tills and uses cover crops. Both men also believe in items such as waterways, buffer strips alongside streams, and stream stabilization efforts. They are optimistic the watershed project will lead to the installation of items such as biofilters.

Kari Gardner, Rock Creek watershed project coordinator with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mitchell County, says the project is an exciting one. The Rock Creek watershed covers almost 45,000 acres, most of it in Mitchell County, although some is in Worth and Floyd Counties. Other than 177 acres owned by the Mitchell County Conservation Board, the area is entirely private land.

The ISA got the ball rolling on the project and has provided some expertise, but it sought guidance from farmers, landowners and many other people, as well as the Mitchell County Soil and Water Conservation District.

In 2012, the SWCD was awarded a watershed planning and development grant by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. That grant provides a total of about $1 million over five years to be used to develop and encourage conservation practices and to help inform farmers and landowners about things that could be done in the watershed.

Organizers developed a set of project goals. Those include: reducing in-stream nitrogen levels by 41 percent from 2009-2011 levels, reducing in-stream phosphorus levels by 29 percent from the 2009-2011 levels, increasing soil organic matter by 1 percent, maintaining or increasing agricultural productivity and revenues, reducing flood risk, maintaining wildlife habitat and maintaining or improving aquatic life.

“It’s not about taking big swaths of land out of production,” says Adam Kiel, state water resources manager with the ISA. “This is a long-term vision.”

That’s one thing that makes it exciting for Norby. Like many farmers in the state, he has watched with interest the lawsuit filed by officials at Des Moines Waterworks against water districts in Northwest Iowa. Officials in Cedar Rapids have been more cooperative in their approach, he says, talking to farmers and trying to come up with solutions for both farmers and the city.

Norby works with two brothers, Randy and Steve. They farm separately but share equipment and labor. Norby says cover crops have been part of his cropping plan since about 2002. Strip tillage is also an important practice.

“We don’t do full-width tillage anymore,” he says.

Those items are ones that make a difference in this part of northern Iowa where the land is relatively flat and wind erosion is often a bigger concern than water erosion. He also applies all nitrogen through side-dress applications and uses relatively low rates. He says the use of cover crops can be important in keeping nitrogen in the field.

Sponheim and his son have a relatively small farm operation, but they do custom strip tillage and fertilizer applications for other farmers. As long-time strip-tillage users they are firm believers in the practice.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to see how all this works,” Josh says. “But we've got to try different things. There’s no cookie-cutter approach that works.”

Each farm and each watershed will require different approaches, Norby and the Sponheim’s argue. But they think farmers can learn from each other. And they hope the work being done here will help ease the way for improvements in other watersheds.

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