Influx of New Data Defining Farmer Contributions to Water Quality

A coordinated effort to assess and improve farmers contributions to better water quality across the nation is now expanding into an information gathering juggernaut. Professional staff members representing 11 Corn Grower Associations met in St. Louis this week to discuss ongoing efforts in their states to improve water quality through changes in farming practices.


“One of the more interesting developments from this process is our contention that farmers were already doing a lot to farm smarter — this is turning into real-world data,” said Rachel Orf, National Corn Growers Association director of stewardship and sustainability. “We are gaining a better understanding of all of the work that is continuing independently in the states, and the resulting collaboration is speeding improvements as well as documenting the significant contributions farmers have already made with the environment in mind.”
The series of water quality meetings, dating back to 2015, has been very focused on sharing and education related to what is going on at the state level, according to Travis Deppe, Illinois Corn Growers Association’s nutrient loss manager, because so much work is being done locally. But the sharing of projects and programs, successes and failures, with other states is eliminating redundancy and accelerating progress.  Participating states include Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia.
“There is so much going on in these states that have real value. We have a long list of partners we collaborate with on a day-to-day basis and a project-by-project basis. But we need to understand what is going on in other states, especially in instances where they are seeing significant successes, to see what might work in our backyard,” Deppe said.
Orf notes some of the information and programming is state and site-specific, but the sharing process and resulting problem solving are proving fruitful. Efforts by state corn groups to engage has provided the impetus in many instances for the broader collaborations now underway.
“Our main concern is that our members stay profitable and stay on the farm,” Deppe said. “But we also want to make growers more aware of these issues and some of the farming practices they might want to consider adopting.”
An effort operating under the name Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in Illinois is a good example of progress on measurement. The group produced a biennial report in 2017 and it suggests real success with a 10 percent reduction in nitrates in surface water in the state of Illinois as well as an upswing in the adoption of new and better farming practices.


One of the early lessons for the 11 State Water Quality Group, Orf noted, was the realization some key audiences thought little was being done related to water quality at the farm level. So, awareness as well as providing current, accurate data to combat misinformation have become additional goals for the group.
“Tracking land use trends and farming practices has proven tough in the past because of the sheer geography and data quantity involved,” Deppe said. “However, the growing use of satellite technology to collect real-world data is making things easier. One outcome is the realization that many acres previously thought to be crop acres are actually in conservation practices which can make significant contributions to improving water quality.”
The satellite data gathered, when combined with ground truthing, means the computer modeling used by scientists, governmental agencies, NGOs and elected officials suddenly becomes more useful and meaningful.