By Nate Birt

Why We Must Put Mississippi River And Gulf Of Mexico Back In The National Conservation Dialogue

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June 17, 2021

As in all industries, agriculture has its share of topics that ebb and flow in popularity. Water quality seems to fall squarely into that camp. (Let’s reserve water quantity and availability for another post in the near future–sadly, that subject is certainly having a moment as 10% of the contiguous U.S. reels from drought conditions as of this writing.)

Over the past month, interest in water quality has come surging back among farmers in particular on the heels of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement that it will look to revise the Waters of the United States rule. An earlier expansion of this rule by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers back in 2014 wasn’t well received in ag circles, and already U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is decrying the potentially “devastating” impacts of this new initiative.

I’m hopeful we can make water quality a priority and also voluntary, farmer-led conservation efforts that steward water resources such as the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, whose water quality has been the subject of substantial focus, without negatively impacting farm businesses and rural livelihoods. No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, good water quality is something that ought to bring people together–without it, you and I wouldn’t be here having this conversation.

It’s a discussion farmers and ranchers are happy to have if approached correctly: Trust In Food research has found that the vast majority of U.S. farmers and ranchers feel strongly about the importance of water quality in their businesses and communities. They also feel a responsibility to steward it well. As Michelle, a South Carolina farmer, noted in our report: “Nothing is more important to [our operation] than water.”

Perhaps the quintessential story of U.S. water quality progress–and opportunity to do even more–is that of the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf of Mexico. The Basin drains 31 states, and the River carries an extraordinary amount of farm products out into the Gulf and into the global market. This extensive region stretching from Minnesota down through Missouri and Arkansas, and past Louisiana and Mississippi, is a lifeline for rural America in every sense of the word.

Yet concerns that nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the River–attributed to agriculture–are real and present. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force has aligned multiple agencies and organizations to research, creatively address and report out on progress to keep water clean. Farmers up and down the river have opportunities to adopt voluntary in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that can help keep nutrients in fields and out of water. Yet there is more to be done, and more that trusted advisers and other supporting organizations can do to help.

This is also a climate-smart approach to conservation. Water quality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Climate-smart agriculture practices not only can lend themselves to clean water but also to greater resilience to flooding and severe weather. And climate-smart ag includes the use of precision ag technologies that put nutrients where they’re needed, when they’re needed, reducing emissions and optimizing fuel usage.

For all of these reasons and more, I’m excited that our partners at Sanderson Farms–a Founding Partner of America’s Conservation Ag Movement–have convened a three-part free webinar series spotlighting the River and Gulf of Mexico and practical, economically viable ways U.S. farmers can engage on water quality in their own communities.

The first in this series kicks off from 1 to 2 p.m. CST on Wednesday, June 23, and you can register here. Expert speakers on the panel will include:

  • Chuck Cariker, Mississippi grain farmer and mayor of Tunica, Miss.
  • Katie Flahive, Environmental Scientist, EPA’s Office of Water, and Coordinating Committee Co-Chair, Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force
  • Adrienne Marino, Illinois water quality manager, The Nature Conservancy
  • Joe Zumwalt, Illinois row-crop farmer

I hope you’ll join farmers from across the U.S., Sanderson Farms and Farm Journal for these important conversations.

Let’s put water quality back on the map and raise the visibility of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, for this and future generations.

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