Rural Rockstars: Washington County farmers are stewards of the land

In 2013, Iowa launched the Water Quality Initiative, an action plan to meet the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to cut pollution and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The initiative urges farmers, landowners and city residents to voluntarily adopt conservation practices that fit their unique needs and landscapes. Five years after Iowa started the Water Quality Initiative, I traveled to the county with the most acres in cover crops to see what makes them different.

Compared to other counties in Iowa, Washington County has a wide lead in cover crop acres enrolled in cost-share, with 21,353 acres planted in fall 2016. Settled in southeast Iowa, between Iowa City and Fairfield, and south of Amana, Washington County is also a top county in the state for hog, poultry, and organic dairy production. Farmers balance high volume livestock production with conservation and high rates of on-farm solar energy.

At first glance, Washington County resembles much of rural Iowa. Rolling hills flatten out and are dotted with farms and small towns active with local businesses, schools, and a historic town square. Politically conservative, the county seat is led by a young mayor who runs a local restaurant that showcases live music on the weekends. But something else is growing here. Retail sales are up, unemployment is down, and the population is growing.

Residents describe their current economy as one largely driven by choice. During the last few decades, farmers in the area have chosen to specialize in raising livestock due to their close proximity to a number of meat buyers and processing facilities. Within an hour’s drive is a hog processing facility in Columbus Junction, a poultry facility in West Liberty, and an organic dairy and meat processor in Kalona, plus butchers who do kills in four towns in the county. These sites provide market access to support different types of livestock production and agriculture in the county.

Livestock production thrives, however, farmers voice a desire to have a similar range of market access for crops, too. A local cover crop seed business acts as a resource while more farms work to keep roots in the ground year round. Large grain elevators exist within an hour’s drive, but a lot of the local crop, whether conventional or organic, feeds local livestock. When it comes to trying new crops, farmers held an “if you build it, [we] will come” attitude. They could fit a third crop into their corn-soy rotation, however, they have nowhere to sell it or buy seed. Existing small grains markets are small and do not attract large buyers looking to contract with growers. Some wonder if fruits and vegetables would sell better than small grains.

They take their role as stewards of the land seriously, and are well aware that neighboring communities see them differently. The growing political divide leaves Washington County more likely to try to feed the world than try to feed their neighbors. Sandwiched between Iowa City and Fairfield, Washington County farmers most often export their products rather than sell to neighboring communities. The perception is that such communities would rather see them regulated out of business. The result is a lost opportunity for everyone. Farmers could easily sell to both local and international markets.

What stands out is a community of farmers who are willing to share best practices and learn from, rather than compete, with each other. When they learn better, they do better. The high rates of on-farm solar reflect this. Farm by farm, people have learned that it’s a worthwhile investment that cuts costs. Following a manure spill that damaged waterways and led to penalties, a small group of farmers banded together to form a volunteer watershed group and the West Fork Crooked Creek watershed group was born. The watershed is located just south of the more formal English River watershed management authority.

While some farmers see the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as an opportunity, most farmers in the area don’t dwell too much on the issue of water quality. Farmers focus on making a living and doing what works best. They see themselves as building on their heritage and creating opportunities for others in their local communities.

Feature photo: Vintage gas station signs are featured on a farm in Washington County, Iowa. In the county, retail sales are up, unemployment is down, and the population is growing. | Photo by Katie Rock