By Mollie Aronowitz, Jennifer Terry, Ruth McCabe, and Mary Beth Stevenson
We are four women who have joined our voices together to tell a rich and complicated story about protecting Iowa’s soil and water resources. Our state is well known for being the top producer of corn in the nation; our landscape is peppered with animal confinements that have contributed to Iowa being the nation’s top producer of eggs, chicken, and pork. However, these agricultural achievements have come with significant environmental costs. The erosion of valuable topsoil leads to turbid rivers and lakes and threatens the long-term viability of our farms. Nutrient loss from farm fields leads to algae blooms and threatens the safety of our drinking water supplies. Iowans are increasingly clamoring for more aquatic recreational opportunities, but the water is often unsafe due to high levels of bacteria and suffers from poor aesthetic quality.
Divergent opinions have arisen about how best to restore and protect Iowa’s critical freshwater resources while also maintaining high agricultural productivity. Balancing these interests has created divisiveness. Professionals who work in the fields of conservation, water, and land frequently find themselves at odds, facing obstacles and setbacks that hinder our work. Yet in the midst of these challenges, many of us find ourselves asking a common question: if not now, then when?
We seek to tell a story that demonstrates how combining a common goal with compromise and deliberate action leads to creative solutions and meaningful progress. Our professional backgrounds and experiences are diverse—our group includes a professional land manager, a clean water policy attorney, a conservation agronomist, and a municipal watershed manager. Through each of our personal stories, we will share examples of action-oriented strategies for improving the quality of Iowa’s land and water. These stories, different in their origins but similar in their outcomes, will focus on the impactful change that comes from setting aside ego and agenda in favor of intentional action with a shared goal: sustaining Iowa’s agricultural legacy while improving Iowa’s water quality one field and stream at a time.
Mollie Aronowitz, Accredited Farm Manager (AFM)
In my line of business, it always starts with the land, and more specifically, the decision makers on the land. Farmland ownership is a privilege held by many in Iowa, with many still working the land, but more and more landowners identifying as non-farming. Those of us working at the intersection of agriculture and conservation spend significant time thinking about the roles and responsibility of the farmer, but what about the non-farming landowner?
Farmland ownership is a part of my family legacy. For 100 years, there has been a first-born son who has worked our family land. As the fifth generation, I will be the first female to take over management and the first generation to not personally operate the farm on a day-to-day basis. My family has been fortunate enough to find a young couple to live on our farm and enter a business partnership with us. Understanding our role as stewards of our farming legacy is the driving force behind a collaborative partnership with this young couple.
My family defines landownership as a responsibility to protect and improve the land we farm with a deep respect for the generations before us that laid the groundwork. Developing this identity did not happen overnight. A catalyst for this work was when my dad began managing farmland for non-farming landowners over twenty years ago. I followed him into the business ten years ago when I saw it as the clearest path to combine my commitment to the Iowa landscape and family connection. Facilitating landowner-tenant relationships across the state has provided a valuable opportunity to test ideas and practice processes. Finding the right combination of edge-of-field and in-field conservation practices for each farm is a continuous honing of best management practices with each new landowner and farmer I interact with.
Examples of Conservation Practices
Coming to the table with a farmer and landowner background has helped me tremendously as a land manager. I appreciate that each operation’s balance sheet is unique, and I understand how the fickleness of Mother Nature can wreak havoc on a season. My request to each tenant is, “Help me understand.” I want to hear the thought process behind the farming operation and the steps that tenant is taking to maximize production.
When we work with transparency, we begin to build the road map for future improvements. This starts with an annual reporting requirement of the tenant where they share inputs applied and bushels harvested. This information, layered with soil characteristics and fertility testing, can show us where we are maximizing productivity. It is often the case that we back into conservation work when the lower producing areas of a farm are often also where we have soil erosion and nutrient runoff.
When the landowner and tenant both focus on maximizing the most productive acres and protecting the environmentally sensitive acres of each farm, we change the relationship dynamic. Our ability to write an equitable lease and prioritize projects is enhanced; the tenant and landowner are both willing to invest in the farm because each see the value of the partnership.
Sometimes the opposite of an equitable relationship happens. There are non-farming landowners who squeeze every last dollar out of a tenant to claim top rent bragging status on an annual lease. This can make it challenging for a tenant to justify investing in long term soil health benefits when margins are tight, and her/his tenure as a renter is in question.
There are also tenants who take advantage of landlords by misrepresenting market land values with unknowing landowners. In still other cases, the landlord might think their tenant is maintaining the ground when they are in fact depleting nutrients and overworking the ground.
Defining my role in our family operation, as well as working in a male-dominated industry, has inspired me to hold space for others who may feel separate from those at the table. I find I am better able to help landowners build out their own set of tools to address the specific concerns and opportunities on their farm. By working with landowners to execute farm contracts, implement farm repairs, and do the other necessary boots-on-the-ground work, I am helping them define their own landowner identity.
In this article, you will hear from my colleagues who think daily on how to clean the water we use in Iowa. I have to admit that water quality rarely enters my mind when I turn on the tap. But I do think about how to build environmentally resilient and financially sustainable farms every day—and that includes consistent attention to our goals of keeping irreplaceable Iowa topsoil and expensive farm inputs out of our local streams.
I spend my days drilling down to what I can do out in the field with the farmer or at the kitchen table with a landowner. And by collaborating with Jennifer, Ruth, and Mary Beth, I have learned the critical aspect of our collective success in protecting Iowa’s natural resources is maintaining a broader picture and seeking out peers in the industry who are moving other levers with the talents at their disposal. Sitting through a policy working group session may not be my ideal way to spend an afternoon, but it does push my comfort boundaries and reignites a sense of urgency in the work we are collectively doing.
Where success is measured by practices implemented and true minds changed, we must embrace the web of interconnectedness of our work. We must embrace the synergies and hold space for those who are completing critical work versus committee efforts that have more marketing polish than actual results.
Research demonstrates three main categories of barriers to conservation adoption: technical, financial, and social. I do not have the mathematical mind to engineer edge-of-field practices, nor do I have the patience for lobbying work for finance policy. What I have is the passion for relationships found on the gravel roads of Iowa; the fear that our land and downstream natural resources are the first to suffer when landowner and tenant relationships are neglected is what drives me.
I help landowners and farmers work toward the shared goal of addressing soil health that improves productivity, protects long term value, and benefits our shared landscape. And my hope is that if I can help build the conservation ethic “muscle,” then future heavy lifting brought by funding opportunities or policy changes will be easier and come more quickly.
Jennifer Terry, External Affairs Manager for Des Moines Water Works
Water is everything in my world, while the focus of my three colleagues is quite different than mine. Mollie thinks about how conservation practices increase ROI on agricultural land. Mary Beth thinks about the communities—urban, suburban and rural—who use water flowing from upstream ag operations. Ruth thinks about growing plants and managing nutrients for maximum benefit to the landowners. My world is different: I think about water all the time, from the surface water in our source rivers, to the treated water that flows through 1,000 miles of underground water mains and pipes, to the lifesaving water that we pump to 10,000 fire hydrants across the Des Moines metro region. My world is drinking water and the public health of 600,000 central Iowans.
In the summer, I wonder if our drinking water utility customers will water their lawns all at once, and we’ll need to issue a water shortage alert. I wonder if our customers will call and ask us why their water tastes like algae or ammonia on a particular day. I prepare for a flurry of media inquiries on the days when spring rains wash record-setting amounts of nitrate through agricultural field tile lines upstream, triggering operation of nitrate removal vessels at a cost of U.S. $10,000 per day.
The river flowing through our park that we use for source water here in central Iowa is brown and thick like chocolate milk from carrying soil, leaves, nitrate, and the remnants of upstream hog confinements. In spring, the river may be so low that you can walk across it, and when it does begin to rise, it will likely carry nitrate concentrations that far exceed the safe drinking water standards. Dirty river water polluted with farm chemicals, topsoil, and manure threaten the economic, recreational, public health, and social fabric of our state—my home state.
Our issues with polluted surface water are urgent, yet that sense of urgency is absent from most water quality conversations here in Iowa. It’s typical to hear: “We just need more time;” “These problems didn’t happen overnight, and they’re not going to be fixed overnight;” or “There’s no silver bullet.”
Our utility constructed a nitrate removal facility 30 years ago; these problems are not new to anyone. Meanwhile, as a public water supply, our regulatory requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act will not wait. Our engineering team plans, builds, maintains, and spends millions of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to stay ahead of agricultural pollution. We worry we won’t be able to do that with increasing pressure from climate change and nutrient overload in our rivers.
So why do I continue to do this work of trying to clean up Iowa waterways when the “wins” are so small, and the work can be contentious?
I am the daughter of progressive Iowa dairy farmers. I learned early on some very basic tenets of life: contented cows give the best milk; fight to preserve our farm ground; stand up for those who have less privilege; argue against the status quo—it isn’t popular, but that’s okay. Those lessons drive my passion for cleaning up our rivers and providing access to affordable and safe drinking water for all.
Dirty water takes away the opportunity for kids to swim at public beaches and creates more expense to make river water safe to drink. Those kids’ moms and dads and other adults are the customers who must foot the bill for that treatment. That’s why I am driven to make Iowa water cleaner. It’s a matter of justice, and that’s something for which I’m willing to fight.
I love the excitement of new collaborations on a source water protection project, crafting legislative language, and telling our unique story about providing “water you can trust for life” to church groups, legislators, federal agencies, neighborhood organizations, and business lunch crowds. People love to hear about how their drinking water arrives at their tap.
I have led tours of college students on cold snowy days through our treatment campus, petitioned the state’s natural resource regulatory agency to strengthen oversight of agricultural contaminants, argued with water quality deniers on panels at conferences, and presented facts about our lawsuit against agricultural drainage districts upstream to both friendly and hostile audiences.
Past collaborative attempts have sometimes been frustrating and failed. I have been personally attacked with email campaigns. Complaints about me have been lodged with my boss and even the chairman of our board. I have been accused of being “too direct,” of being “anti-agriculture,” of not being anti-agriculture enough.
I have come to realize that an effective way to make change in the world of water is by thinking about this work in terms of a community—and I am one part of that community. My laser focus on drinking water is just one facet of the water quality work. I will use my finite amount of time and energy to seek partnerships with people whose focus is different from, but as important as, mine. I will work with people whom I trust, people who share my values. I choose to work with three unlikely but amazing allies—women who come to the table with an openness and authenticity that is driving real change.
I have partnered Mollie, Ruth, and Mary Beth on innovative pilot projects such as nonoperator landowner “boot camp” with Mollie that unites drinking water education with conservation and tenant-farmer relationship strategies. I recently rode in a U.S. $600,000 cover crop seeder just north of the city with Ruth. Our utility contributed with other municipalities to purchase the machine, and now Ruth and her team will go about “selling” cover crop adoption to landowners. Mary Beth is on the ground floor of a newly formed “Nutrient Collaborative for Public Water Supplies” group we founded in 2021 to build a community of water utilities that struggle with nutrient pollution.
We’re not afraid to think big or come up with new ideas to advance healthy land, clean water, and a strong social fabric in urban and rural Iowa. The creativity and tenacity required for projects like these is great, and our team is up for the challenge.
Ruth McCabe, Conservation Agronomist
They say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. On a hot, sultry Iowa summer day in August 2021, as I scratched yet another mosquito bite, I ruminated on that thought while stumbling through a field of waist-high soybeans behind two cousins who farm together in southeast Iowa. I woke early that day to drive two hours to meet them at their first field by eight o’clock in the morning. I was sweaty, hungry, and tired, and we had several hours to go before we were done visiting all their fields.
Despite my physical discomfort, I was in a great mood that morning. It had taken me three months of friendly persistence to finally convince them to meet with me for a conservation assessment. Together, they manage nearly two thousand acres of grain crops, and they use cover crops on roughly half those acres. They wanted to adopt more conservation practices and didn’t know where to start. However, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t trust “traditional” conservation professionals to help them. From their perspective, I had finally proven my worth because, so far, I’d offered them helpful advice without judgment. I’d even clued them into a private cost-share program to supplement their state cost-share dollars, finally getting them in the black for half the acres on which they used cover crops.
The conversations we had that day were very different from the ones we’d had in more public spaces. They talked excitedly about the species of birds they’d seen in their native grass filter strips. They marveled at the fact that during the spring drought their soil had moisture when their neighbors’ soil was as hard as cement. They asked me questions that they weren’t comfortable asking their sales agronomist, such as “does fungicide have a bad effect on soil microbes?” Perhaps most importantly, they showed me every acre and trusted that I would offer them unbiased conservation guidance based on their business needs without opining on how they had managed their land up to that point.
What does my experience that day have to do with flies, honey, and vinegar? In my role as a conservation agronomist for a large agricultural cooperative in the Upper Midwest, I work in two industries: conventional agriculture and conservation. Professionals in both worlds view me with suspicion or as a tool to further their own narrative. Farmers fare no better than I do in that respect. No, this isn’t another story using the “farmers as victims” trope—far from it. But farmers have definitely learned to keep their cards close to their chest and their willingness to consider management changes limited to the people and conversations they can trust. In other words: the interactions that bring them honey.
Every day, my goal is: another grower, another conservation practice, another acre. It’s a brutal fact that conservation farming doesn’t “yield” as much as conventional farming. Given the nature of what I “sell,” I am not going to convince growers to change their current management practices by using data to shame them or using phrases like, “It’s the right thing to do.” I serve as a catalyst for change when I meet a farmer at their workbench, and we talk about their farm as it is right now. I don’t drag the past into the conversation, and I don’t wax fearful about the future. I focus on bringing them value, either through my willingness to solve problems or my ability to find another dollar for them to adopt change.
Thus far, my work has resulted in over 60 hours of educational outreach, 16,000 acres of cover crops, 1,000 acres of improved nutrient management practices, 60 tile outlets treated with saturated buffers or bioreactors, 200 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and funding the landowner match on a small wetland constructed the summer of 2021 that drains 138 upland agricultural acres. Using reduction estimates outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, these practices “removed” roughly 112,000 pounds of nitrogen and 3,500 pounds of phosphorus from downstream water in the last year and a half. Many of these practices will continue to remove nutrients into the future. By any standards, these outcomes are an impressive feat. Did I work alone? No, I did not, and I’ll tell you the truth: a good partner is the difference between success and failure.
So, what defines a good partner? From my perspective, good partners work toward physical conservation deliverables without undue emphasis placed on having their logo front and center. A “good partner” isn’t another talking head, and they leave egos and battle axes at the door in favor of achieving change. In practice, this manifests as effective partnerships. Jennifer Terry and I recently partnered on a cover cropping machinery program that has two primary goals: targeting their priority watersheds with cover crop application and building a sustainable business model within my ag retail cooperative. Our project is the first of its kind in Iowa. While it is only in its infancy, we can already lay claim to 3,000 acres of cover crops planted after a mere ten days of having the machine. When the project is done, we will have planted a minimum of 31,000 acres and very likely more.
Our work doesn’t stop at actual practice change either. Jennifer and I partnered with Mollie Aronowitz in the summer of 2021 to create four educational workshops aimed at nonoperating landowners who want to adopt on-farm conservation. The series continues to be available online for free and our primary goal in that partnership was creating access to free conservation education for landowners. Finally, with a focus on source water protection and improvement, I’m working with Mary Beth on a large regional conservation partnership program called the Cedar River Source Water Partnership. This large-scale project links cities in the Cedar River watershed that have vulnerable drinking water supplies to their agricultural neighbors through on-the-ground conservation implementation and agronomic support from multiple conservation agronomists, ag retail partners, and watershed management authorities.
Why is my work with Jennifer, Mollie, and Mary Beth so important to me? In one way or another, each of these projects prioritizes on-the-ground conservation deliverables with far less emphasis placed on promoting the partnership organizations themselves. I’m grateful because I’ve been able to build professional partnerships where increased conservation is our guiding light. I’ve chosen partners who will sweat alongside me in this work, as we prioritize results over notoriety, collaboration over credit. I can focus on my true value knowing that my partners will be doing the heavy lifting with me. How do I see the value of our work? We are the EMTs for farm health, soil health, source water quality, and sustainable land use. Other folks can do the talking; we are focused on stopping the bleeding. And although we might never see the benefit of the work that we do in our lifetimes, my hope is that our success will change the conservation paradigm going forward.
Mary Beth Stevenson, Watersheds & Source Water Coordinator for the City of Cedar Rapids
As an advocate for farming practices that protect water quality, my work is in close alignment with Ruth, Mollie, and Jennifer. A key undercurrent of our collective work is to demonstrate how intelligently caring for the land is the most basic and effective way to improve and sustain healthy water resources. When citizens understand their place in a watershed, they recognize the fragile connection between land and water.
I moved to Iowa soon after the catastrophic Flood of 2008 drowned 1,126 city blocks in Cedar Rapids and forever changed the way Iowans relate to their rivers. The flood brought a new awareness of the importance of working across city and county jurisdictions to effectively manage our water resources. Within several years of the flood, the Iowa legislature passed new laws to pave the way for collaborative water resource management. Joining together for a collective effort to fight floods and improve water quality became a statewide priority.
I now work for the City of Cedar Rapids managing partnerships and programs to improve the Cedar River watershed. The city faces the same critical watershed issues as much of Iowa: chronic flooding and threats to drinking water quality from agricultural chemicals. The city is located near the bottom of the Cedar River watershed, and nearly 7,000 square miles of prime agricultural land drains toward Cedar Rapids through the Cedar River. The river influences the water quality of the alluvial aquifer that supplies our drinking water and unfortunately carries a heavy load of synthetic agricultural fertilizers and manure, as well as pesticides such as atrazine and metolachlor.
Addressing our challenges with water quality and flooding requires action on every acre of farmland. The participation of farmers is essential for success. However, farmers are not required through regulation to prevent fertilizer runoff from polluting the Cedar River. Due to various economic and social barriers combined with the lack of a regulatory mandate, farmers are not implementing nearly enough conservation measures to adequately safeguard water quality for rural residents and Cedar Rapidians alike.
Agriculture is an essential component of the Cedar Rapids economy. We process more corn and soybeans on a daily basis than any other city in the world and provide a significant portion of our treated drinking water to major food processing industries. Agriculture is important to us because of the economic opportunities, and in turn, we provide a market to farmers for their crops. We rely on farmers, and farmers rely on us.
So in a Midwestern city that highly values its relationship with agriculture, what happens when it becomes painfully obvious that the lack of conservation practices on upstream agricultural areas is leading to potentially significant issues for our community?
There is no how-to guide available on how cities can successfully work with their agricultural watershed neighbors. We all have to chart our own course and test out new strategies and partnerships. Not all partnerships and strategies have led to on-the-ground conservation success. In some ways, we have had to recalibrate our notion of what success looks like. Success can’t always be measured based on water quality improvements alone (though that is certainly the end goal), and it definitely isn’t measured by the amount of money we are throwing at the problem.
I have observed that the City’s willingness to unfailingly show up and be a part of every watershed conversation has paid dividends. Our good faith effort has led to meaningful partnership opportunities—public and private—such as the Cedar River Source Water Partnership effort that Ruth described above.
In my watershed world, success usually takes the form of the small daily steps we take to reach our ultimate goal: clean water and healthy lands. This could be securing a new grant to hire a watershed coordinator to help farmers adopt conservation practices. Or the City’s budding partnership with ag retail to support them in proving out a business model that doesn’t just sell agricultural chemicals, but also leads to greater conservation activities on the ground. Sometimes success takes the form of setting aside our political differences and sitting around a table to build a partnership that may take years to bear fruit, like the local governments that form the Lower Cedar Watershed Management Authority have recently done.
The City’s willingness to establish my position in the utilities department has enabled us to engage in watershed efforts and has created new ways for us to plug in and connect with our watershed neighbors. Grant writing, project administration, and watershed and source water protection planning are ways that I can contribute to the broader effort.
Our most important strategy to protect the City’s drinking water supply is to meet frequently with farmers and other engaged stakeholders in the Cedar River watershed. Our investments of human capital and face-to-face contacts have helped us to build trust and credibility. We have gained a platform with new audiences where we say in a direct and honest manner: “Yes, the activities on your farm are polluting the shallow aquifer that supplies our drinking water. But we want to support you in efforts to adopt nutrient reduction conservation practices. How can we work together?” Through strategic partnerships with conservation agronomists like Ruth, land managers like Mollie, and progressive water utilities such as Jennifer’s, we will continue to make progress toward our drinking water protection goals.
In some ways, the four of us—Mollie, Jennifer, Ruth, and Mary Beth—couldn’t be more different. But three passions unite our work: protect the land, protect the water, and protect our fellow Iowans. It seems so simple. It doesn’t matter to this group who gets credit for the wins or whose picture is on the news. Our egos are not attached to our work—and that is refreshing.
In the current state of political affairs in Iowa and the nation, “partnership” has almost become a dirty word. But never has the need been greater for us to set aside our differences and identify a path forward to achieve our goals. Now is not the time to sit on our hands. Partnership matters. Collaboration matters. Joining our voices together matters. And through these partnerships, we are effecting change.
Aronowitz, Mollie , Jennifer Terry, Ruth McCabe, and Mary Beth Stevenson. 2022. “Collaboration for a Common Goal.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 21. https://doi.org/10.24926/2471190X.9253.
Download PDF of Collaboration for a Common Goal by Mollie Aronowitz, Jennifer Terry, Ruth McCabe, and Mary Beth Stevenson.