GUEST COLUMN • Local Expert Weighs In On ‘Better Way’

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Clarifying Jim Nowlan’s statements regarding a “Better Way to Farm” in the Monday, June 1, edition it is always enjoyable for me to read a Nowlan column.  However, sometimes it is necessary to read between the lines or look up the lines he has written to give one’s self clearer meaning to his editorial comments.

I have personally spent many hours with Dr. Donald Hey discussing nutrient loss from farm fields, the loss of wetlands along our major rivers and their tributaries and how effective constructed agriculture wetlands would be to alleviate the down river flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico.  Thus a hypoxic (oxygen free) zone is created for fish and other ocean creatures in need of oxygen to live.

First Mr. Nowlan mentions nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), the three main fertilizer nutrients and pesticides applied to farmland as the major contributors of Gulf hypoxia.  Gulf hypoxia only deals with N and P, which spurs the growth of plants in the water.  The north ends of Lake Lou Yeager and Glenn Shoals Lake are close-by examples of plant growth in smaller bodies of water with N and P flowing into them.  N is water soluble and it moves down through the soil profile during the growing season and leaves a field as surface (runoff) and subsurface water (tile water).  P is trapped within the clay mineral lattice work and primarily leaves the field with soil erosion.  Excess P can leave the field in the tile water as dissolved reactive P.  K is a cation and binds to the negative charged clay particle and very little leaves the field. 

Mr. Nowlan also speaks to possible lawsuits by Gulf of Mexico states against Midwestern agriculture states for polluting the Gulf.  In 1997 the US EPA formed a Gulf Hypoxia Task Force to monitor the hypoxic area of the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2008, environmental groups as well as the Louisiana Shrimp Association sued the US EPA demanding that regulations be formed within the Mississippi River Basin for reducing the amounts of N and P flowing down the Mississippi River into the Gulf.  In 2015, the State of IL through the IL Department of Agriculture and the IL EPA published the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) for agriculture, municipal sanitary districts/ facilities and storm water release from towns and cities.  I am a member of the Working Policy Group of the NLRS committee representing the IL Association of Drainage Districts.  You may obtain more information regarding the Hypoxia Task Force on the US EPA website and Illinois’ NLRS info can be found on the Illinois EPA website.

The success of “nutrient farming” will depend on the trading of credits between farmers, who can prove that they are cleaning up water of N and P from the farms, and municipalities who need the credits to meet permitting guidelines for clean water from their sanitary sewer systems.  Dr. Hey proposes creating constructed agriculture wetlands on the backside of the levees along our major rivers and their tributaries which flow to the gulf.  These constructed wetlands would be filled with river overflow during floods or pumped in water during periods when there was not flooding.   These wetlands would serve to clean the waters before it is pumped back into the rivers downstream.   Anywhere we now have leveed rivers, nutrient trading is possible.  I have proposed to Dr. Hey that the drainage districts of Illinois, where the surface and drainage tile water from a drainage district, could also be funneled into a constructed agriculture wetland.  Ultimately all of the farmland drainage water, with the exception of a few streams going into Lake Michigan, flows down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the present time, there is not any mechanism available to farmers for nutrient trading.  Carbon credits and carbon trading for no-till practices fell by the wayside when President Clinton failed to sign the Kyoto Treaty for climate mitigation over 20 years ago.  Thus, a whole new platform and paradigm must be established for nutrient trading.  California has begun to work on carbon trading again, but it has not caught on across the nation.

Mr. Nowlan is correct when he speaks of finding a national champion for nutrient trading.  However, if we cannot get a national champion for a changing climate, who has the power and political influence to push that legislation, how can we get someone to lead the charge for nutrient trading for farmers?  Nutrient trading’s constructed wetlands is an expensive proposition and would require large amounts of public and private dollars.

If anyone reading these comments wishes to learn more or have more clarity about nutrient loss, nutrient trading and constructed agriculture wetlands, please feel free to contact me at rlyons@speednet.com.

Richard Lyons has been farming for more than 45 years in Harvel, and also serves as a cover crop specialist for the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices. He taught agriculture and agronomy classes for more than 30 years and led the Lincoln Land Community College Agriculture program.

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