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New approaches to water quality and conservation funding

Article cover photo
Adam Kiel, ISA director of conservation and external programs, says relaying the economic benefits of environmental programs is key in adding more practices to the state's landscape. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

As farmers and landowners continue to work toward the goals outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, they are interested not only in the environmental return on their investment, but also the economic benefits.

Funding for water quality efforts related to point-sources has evolved from grants and financing tools loans and other advanced programs. That same maturation process needs to be explored for funding non-point source projects, according to Adam Kiel, director of conservation and external programs for the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA).

“If we rely on grants and cost-share to solve our water quality problems in Iowa, we’ll be in this same room many years from now working on the same issues,” Kiel told a large group gathered for the Cedar River Watershed Coalition’s meeting in Cedar Falls last week.

Kiel’s work includes oversight and management of watershed planning, assessment and monitoring activities for ISA’s Environmental Programs and Services. He provides technical assistance to farmers seeking to meet watershed improvement goals.

Farmers are interested in scaling up their conversation efforts, noted Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Julie Kenney. Census data shows the use of cover crops increased 250% between 2012 and 2017 in Iowa. Data from the 2017 growing season shows 1.6 million acres of cover crops were grown in Iowa last year. 

“We know there’s much more work to do; we need to get more cover crops on acres across the state, but we continue to grow those acres year after year,” she said.

Before committing to something new , farmers want to see how they might benefit financially from putting a practice in place.

“Oftentimes, we talk in a warm and fuzzy sense about the benefits to the environment from conservation,” Kiel said. “That’s great, but when we’re dealing with private landscapes managed by farm businesses, families and partnerships we need to think in terms of dollars and cents.”

A recent ISA study with 20 conservation-minded farmers looked at the value proposition conservation provides to them. One of the key findings was the implementation of no-till on all of Iowa’s agricultural landscape would result in a $265 million savings to farmers.

“There’s a lot of value for farmers that’s left on the table through conservation that’s not currently happening,” Kiel said. A report will be released soon to highlight additional findings from the study.

Transitioning farmers from conventional farming practices to no-till and cover crops can make farmers feel a bit uneasy, especially given the financial obligation to make those changes. New efforts from the Delta Institute of Chicago and Growers Edge Financial of Johnston are offering short-term loans for farmers to help make the transition less risky. The loans require no payback until year 5, with a small revenue-sharing payback between years 5 and 10. If a farmer isn’t able to pay back the loan after year 10, the loan is forgiven.

A new effort at ISA will create a fund to work with farmers and pay for outcomes generated from the implementation of conservation programs and practices.

“We’re trying to bring together the nexus of water quality and environment,” Kiel said.

More details about this program will be announced as it’s rolled out, Kiel said.

Bundling these additional programs with cost-share and grant opportunities will help push progress on water quality and soil health, Kiel said. Additionally, advocating for funding for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Act through the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL) coalition will help move the needle on water quality in the state.

ISA will continue to work with farmers and landowners to examine the benefits the legislation could present the state. In the meantime, everyone in the state can work toward the goals set in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Kenney said.

“Whether you have a quarter acre in town or a quarter section in the country, we know that there is something you can do to improve water quality.”

Contact Bethany Baratta at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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