Water warriors: Thicke plants perennial crops to reduce runoff

In this water quality blog series, we highlight Iowa farmers and water quality stakeholders to offer a variety of viewpoints and potential solutions. The first blog can be found here.

Not only is Francis Thicke’s organic farm nestled in an idyllic valley, he also describes it as an ecologically-sound cropping system. In his view, this system prioritizes regenerating soil over caring for the crop.

His system can be contrasted to an industrial approach, which can be considered doing what you need to do to get the crop, without thinking about how it will affect water and soil.

These beliefs come from 26 years of farming experience and a Ph.D. in soil science from Belmont University. As part of Francis’ ecologically-sound system, he has elected to adopt an assortment of conservation-friendly farming practices.

Francis thinks one of the best things farmers can do to improve water quality is plant perennial crops, of which he has many acres. Research suggests this practice can reduce nitrate runoff by about 72 percent and phosphorus loss by 34 percent.

Along with cereal rye, clover, and Austrian field pea cover crops, Francis has managed to implement a comprehensive collection of practices to reduce his downstream impact.

“My philosophy is if we use practices that actually help the soil, they will, by default, prevent water quality problems,” he said.

Francis believes the main culprit behind Iowa’s water quality is the state’s industrial and monocultural cropping system that favors mass production corn and soybeans, making the system fundamentally flawed.

“This system is leaky because corn and soybeans are annual crops that only have live roots in the soil for about five months out of the year,” Francis said. “During most of the year, there are no live roots in the soil to remove or utilize the soluble nitrate that travels with rainfall down field tile drainage systems and into our rivers. Since two-thirds of Iowa’s total land surface is covered with corn and soybeans, it should be no surprise that our rivers are polluted with nitrates."

Francis is right – there are more than 33 million tillable acres in Iowa planted with corn and soybeans. He said conservation practices such as bioreactors and buffer strips are important to implement, but he grows frustrated. He views them more as conservation “diapers,” rather than conservation “practices.”

“You didn’t do the right things in the field, so it’s leaking and now you need a diaper,” he chuckled.

He offers a straightforward solution to curbing farm nutrient runoff – Francis wants to demand every farm in Iowa to develop a water quality plan that addresses specific water quality concerns at each operation. This isn’t far off from what some others states have required.  

There is now water quality research that estimates the expected loss of nitrate and phosphorus from fields, and the data can be used to create a water quality computer model. The model predicts loss based on cropping and conservation practices, and then is used to create farm water quality plans. Similar research exists through Iowa State University’s Daily Erosion Project which estimates soil erosion based on daily weather conditions.

Farm water quality plans would allow every farmer the flexibility to choose farming and conservation practices that fit his or her farming operation, as long as each field meets the tolerance levels for nutrient loss to our water resources. Tolerance levels should be based on the statewide goals of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls to reduce agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45 percent.

Francis believes the current voluntary water quality approach is working, and sees a flexible, science-based regulatory approach – such as mandatory water quality plans for each farm – as the answer.

One thing is certain, something must be done to fix the problem before it gets worse. A comprehensive and effective solution that brings together farmers, state officials, rural communities, and other stakeholders is sorely overdue.

Feature photo: Francis Thicke walks among his organic dairy cattle at his farm in Fairfield, Iowa. | Photo by Lacie Dotterweich