Agri-Tourism in the Shadow of a Lawsuit

Jul 1, 2016  | 6 min  | Ep4145

A judge ordered a New York farmer this week to stop using eggshells as fertilizer after neighboring businesses complained the odor and flies drove away customers.

Lively debates between rural and urban dwellers are nothing new.

And as producer Josh Buettner discovered, bridging the gap goes beyond farmers deciding not to spread manure when their city neighbors are having a wedding reception. The idea has created a role for agricultural ambassadors trying to lift the veil on rural life.

Last year Iowa’s largest drinking water provider sued farm drainage districts in 3 counties upstream.  As trial awaits in 2017, Des Moines Water Works has alleged excess nitrate runoff from farm fertilizers plagues efforts to comply with federal guidelines for safe drinking water.  The utility claims cleaning the surface waters of the Raccoon River for half a million ratepayers in the capitol city vicinity has become an increasingly difficult and expensive task.

Bill Stowe/CEO and General Manager – Des Moines Water Works: “We’re very confident that these are clear point-source groundwater polluters that are coming from agricultural use.”

Ultimately, the case could redefine and broaden government jurisdiction over Waters of the United States – a prospect feared by many in farm country. 

Darcy Maulsby/Expedition Yetter:  “I’m not sure a lot of people in Iowa even knew where Calhoun County was before this lawsuit.”

Various producers, commodity groups, and politicians at the local and national level have called for widespread adoption of voluntary conservation methods to ward off new legislation.

But farmer and author Darcy Maulsby, who traces her lineage to a Century Farm near the small town of Yetter in one of the counties named in the lawsuit, hopes a dose of rural hospitality could mend fences.

Darcy Maulsby/Expedition Yetter:  “I’ve noticed this growing trend towards this rift between rural Iowa and urban Iowa – and that really troubled me.”

Maulsby envisioned a journey bringing farm and city stakeholders together to help elevate the level of discourse. And after partnering with local non-profit Iowa Food & Family Project, the Iowa Soybean Association and several other food industry groups, tourists of diverse backgrounds loaded up in Des Moines early one summer morning for the maiden voyage of ‘Expedition Yetter.’

Aaron Putze/Iowa Soybean Association: “A lot of people think Iowa is flat, but if you look a little closer, it really isn’t.  It has a lot of undulation to the landscape.”

Factoids about rural America were sprinkled throughout the bus ride.

Aaron Putze/Iowa Soybean Association: “You will find that soybean oil is the number one ingredient in your Hellman’s Mayonnaise.  The soybeans that are grown that produce the oil for that product are sourced from a sixty-mile radius around Des Moines, Iowa.”

The first stop on the tour was Bruce Wessling’s family farm outside Grand Junction.

Bruce Wessling/Grand Junction, Iowa:  “We believe in what we do and we consume the products that we raise and I want other people to feel safe doing the same thing.”

Wessling shared the intricacies of his row crop and pig operations, explaining how manure management plans help livestock owners safeguard against health concerns and abide by natural resource regulations.

Bruce Wessling/Grand Junction, Iowa:  “I feel like our operation is a complete circle of the operation from growing the corn, feeding the livestock, putting nutrients back on the soil…”

Former University of Iowa and NFL quarterback Chuck Long hitched a ride as well.  He marveled at the culmination of knowledge found on today’s farms.

Chuck Long/CEO - Iowa Sports Foundation:  “It’s just fascinating that, you know, with technology now, the machinery that they use – how streamlined and precise they can get.”

Nostalgia sprouted for one Sioux City schoolteache, who shared family memories of hard work.

Kris Snively/Sioux City:  “My dad did farm drainage tiling a long time ago, in the 80’s, and there was no GPS.  And I helped him quite a bit.”

Agri-tourism ventures like ‘Expedition Yetter’ have grown in popularity over recent years.  According to USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, over 33,000 farms integrated tourism and recreational services into their repertoire.  As of the last available figures, activities like winery tours, hayrides, hunting and fishing represent $700 million in annual revenue for enterprising American landowners…a nearly $150 million increase over 2007’s Ag Census numbers. 

The largest returns have come mostly in western states, which earned revenues of up to $24 million in certain counties. 

By contrast, Iowa tops out annually around $350,000, but again, USDA figures are now several years old.  Organizers like Maulsby see more opportunities for migrations through the countryside, citing the demand for reconciliation of rural and urban issues.

David Ausberger/Jefferson, Iowa:  “If you think about it, the air that we are breathing is 78% nitrogen.  Those plants will take that nitrogen out of the air, fix it, and use it to help their own growth.”

Rounding out the jaunt, bus riders visited David Ausberger’s 1,700 acre corn and soybean operation near Jefferson.  A fourth generation producer, Ausberger and his family have practiced no-till farming for decades, to minimize erosion.

David Ausberger/Jefferson, Iowa: “I’m really conscientious about soil compaction.”

Ausberger has converted unproductive land to wetland habitat, added buffers strips and cover crops.

He says the approach benefits nature and future farm generations but admits it takes a strong level of commitment to stay on track.

David Ausberger/Jefferson, Iowa: “So it’s a whole systems approach and it’s not something that you go into lightly.”

As farmers attempt to chip away at looming litigation with voluntary efforts, many agree time is the most precious commodity of all.  Farm community members say there are no quick fixes for ever-present nitrates in corn-belt creeks and streams.  And if Des Moines Water Works should win, farming could go under a regulatory microscope. But some see the benefits of a spotlight shining on Iowa agriculture.     

Darcy Maulsby/Expedition Yetter:  “In a way I’m glad that the lawsuit has put the attention on agriculture, because we can show how complex this whole water quality issue is.  We’re happy to open up the barn door and invite people in.  We’re all Iowans.  We’re all in this together.”  

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