I recently shared an hour with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig for a live Iowa Learning Farms webinar about conservation in Iowa.
Naig was elected to office in November 2018 but has been in the role since spring 2018, when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
Naig joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago, at the invitation of then Sec. Northey. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in important programs such as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.
Naig grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm, so they wouldn’t have to experience the same challenges later in life. Naig took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.
When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.
Nutrient Reduction Strategy
“We are five years into implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” Naig said. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. But if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches, so we can protect, preserve and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource. Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”
We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction,” he said. “Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter-acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”
With new funding in the current budget year, IDALS has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. ILF and the Water Rocks! program are two examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages.
“We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere,” Naig said. “They allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”
Cover crops and edge-of-field practices
“The science has proven that cover crops and edge-of-field structures reduce nutrient loads in the waterways,” Naig said. We spent a lot of time on this subject. He related that there is a continuing argument to be pressed with farmers to look at conservation practices with a broad lens.
“You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge-of-field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality,” he said.
Federal, state and local incentive programs have enabled more cover crop acres each year, and ILF research has shown that acres beyond those attached to cost share continue to expand. Naig spent some time speaking about how to scale beyond the “seeding” done with cost share.
“The state cannot cost share the total number of cover crop acres necessary to meet the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. However, helping farmers establish the practice is where we do need to walk with them, provide support and education, and deliver the proof of successful outcomes.”
He noted that cost-share incentives are higher for new adopters, and there is an acreage limit. Looking to the future, his hope is that cover crops will become an established way of doing business that farmers will incorporate into the normal operating process.
Water quality, regulation
Asked about water quality regulations and concerns from smaller communities, Mike almost winced. “We do hear from small communities facing significant costs to upgrade their water treatment processes and facilities. However, we also see an opportunity for these communities to partner and engage with others throughout the watershed to holistically approach improving water quality.”
For example, reducing point source nutrient runoff takes a load off the water treatment facility’s requirements. “No one entity can solve water quality. It requires partnering and commitment to conservation practices.”
Building a Culture of Conservation
I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.”
Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations.
“You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”
More conservation chats
To view our visit with Naig, go to iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and select “Jan. 16: Mike Naig.” Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes.
Future podcasts planned for the Conservation Chat series include conversations with Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager.
Join us for the next ILF Webinar noon Feb. 20 with Amy Kaleita, ISU professor of ag and biosystems engineering. The topic: Farmed Prairie Potholes — Consequences and Management Options.
Comito is director of the Iowa Learning Farms Program at Iowa State University.