If you had any reason to doubt that agriculture will be fingered for the environmental problems affecting major U.S. waterways, those doubts should have been removed last month.

Two significant developments occurred in September in high-profile watersheds: 

  • A federal judge ordered the EPA to, within 6 months, decide whether to set Clean Water Act standards for nitrogen and phosphorus in all U.S. waterways, or explain why these standards aren’t needed.
  • Earlier last month, a federal judge in Virginia upheld federal and state pollution limits worked out by the EPA, six states and Washington, D.C. to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay by more tightly regulating wastewater treatment, construction along waterways and agricultural runoff.

Buried in wire-service articles about this was the fact that planting cover crops can absorb nitrogen and reduce nitrate pollution. An EPA official has acknowledged this but noted that participation is voluntary — and the EPA doesn’t have the authority to make it mandatory.

But some well-placed incentives this year didn’t stop Iowa farmers from gobbling up $2.8 million in state cost-share funds to seed cover crops on 109,415 acres in 85 counties. The state had an estimated 100,000 acres of cover crops already, so this doubles the total, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says. 

So does this mean the EPA doesn’t believe anything can be accomplished unless there is regulation? If that’s the case, how did no-till acres in the U.S. grow from 3.2 million acres in 1972 to nearly 90 million acres today?

In our upcoming edition of Conservation Tillage Guide, which mails out Oct. 21, one article will illustrate why the practices no-tillers believe in are an important hedge against the regulatory risks that may be coming in the future.

Robert Barr, a researcher from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, will discuss the results of research he’s conducted on some no-till farms near Indianapolis that show how no-till and cover crops can be part of the solution to the nutrient-loading conundrum.

John Dobberstein,
Managing Editor
No-Till Farmer