Fertilizer, fishing and Farmer Specht

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Dan Specht, who was taken from us all too soon last week by a haying accident, was the embodiment of the stewardship farmer. His kind, curious nature—housed in a powerfully-built, bear-like body—was complemented nicely by a passion for the land. And he represented what may be our best bet for balancing food production with a healthy ecosystem: the ability to connect the dots near and far. His use of innovative production systems on the northeast Iowa hills overlooking the Mississippi River should be a model for countless farmers who want to leave the landscape better than they found it.

It is a particularly bitter irony that we lost Dan at a time when nitrogen fertilizer pollution in the Corn Belt seems to be worse than ever. Last month’s report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showing widespread, increasing nitrogen runoff from crop fields was a rude reminder that mono-cropping imposes huge costs on our society. And reports out of Iowa indicate that one of those costs—an increased burden on public drinking water facilities—is becoming too big to ignore. Predictions are that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” will be the largest it ever has been by the end of the summer.

Dan Specht was one of the first farmers I ever met who understood perfectly well why so much nitrogen was escaping Midwestern farm fields—our corn, bean, feedlot machine is inherently leaky and inefficient. He also understood what we needed to do to deal with a problem that’s threatening water quality both here and hundreds of miles downstream. Part of that interest in the role nitrogen plays in our agro-environment came from the fact that he farmed near Big Spring, a hole in the ground from which massive amounts of groundwater erupt daily. The Big Spring “watershed” has been home to one of the country’s longest-running nitrogen runoff demonstration projects.

Virtually from the first time I met Dan at a 1994 grazing field day, he began talking to me about the importance of “closing the nutrient cycle.” In other words, developing farming systems that would integrate crops and livestock in such a way that something like manure would be a ignition switch for a self-perpetuating biological cycle, rather than a waste product that needs to be disposed of.

Many other farmers are aware of this, but Dan had that rare ability to explain things in a way that made sense to a journalist who had barely passed chemistry and soil science in college. His razor-sharp insights were not evident at first, given Dan’s naturally shy nature, but once he got going it became clear this guy was an incredible source of practical information on what was going on above and below the ground.

And as anyone who ever attended one of Dan’s field days knows, he was also very willing to show us what was going on. In 1999 I called Dan and said I wanted to interview him about nitrogen runoff in the Upper Midwest and the impact it was having on the Gulf of Mexico. He was the perfect candidate to anchor the story: he not only was farming in a way that promised to solve such a pollution problem, but had visited the Gulf to see the impacts of all that runoff firsthand.

He was hesitant to be interviewed at first, but finally agreed that a little public embarrassment was a small price to pay if it resulted in publicizing a critical problem (and some possible solutions). But Dan had one caveat: the interview had to be done while we were fishing on his beloved Mississippi River near McGregor, Iowa. That deal-sealer revealed one more reason he cared so deeply about this issue: he loved the Mississippi and didn’t want to do anything that would harm it downstream, as well as in his own backyard. It’s one thing to say you love a River—it’s quite another to show you love it.

I agreed, and what resulted was one of the most edifying conversations I’ve ever had on everything from nutrient cycling and basic crop chemistry to farm policy and the best way to limit out on walleye.

I used the basis of that conversation to write about nitrogen pollution for the Land Stewardship Letter in 1999 as well as the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer in 2001, and later for the 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems.

Dan’s death is a setback in the struggle to control nitrogen pollution. But judging by the reaction—some of it incredibly heartfelt and almost poetic—from people he touched over the years, his passion to “close that nutrient cycle” lives on. Through his work with the Land Stewardship Project, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, he had an outsized influence on a movement while operating from what some would call a remote corner of the universe. This almost guarantees more Dan Spechts are out there, combining their passion for farming and the land in a positive way.

In the hopes of introducing a few more people to Dan’s way of thinking, here’s an excerpt of his story from The Farm as Natural Habitat:

Many pasture wetlands or well-managed streams can add up to one big ecological boon downstream. No one knows that better than Dan Specht. On a late summer evening, Specht wrapped up hog and cattle chores, hopped in his pickup truck and descended to the Mississippi River, just a few minutes’ drive away. He had fishing gear in the back, northeast Iowa soil under his fingernails, and nutrient runoff on his mind. That’s not unusual. It’s difficult for this farmer to separate his various passions—even if they seem to conflict. People concerned about the future of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico would say that farmers like Specht are a direct threat to that industry (both commercial and recreational). Nutrient runoff from Midwestern farms is creating a biological “dead zone” in the Gulf.

Unlike many farmers, Specht, who’s been farming near the Iowa community of McGregor for almost three decades, is willing to shoulder some of the blame for gasping fish in the Gulf. He believes the key is for farmers like him to keep the amount of water and contaminants that leave their fields to a minimum. That’s a challenge on the more than 700 acres of steep land that produces crops and livestock for Specht. In these parts, squirrel hunters joke about hiking to the top of backbone-like ridges and pointing their .22-caliber rifles down at the trees, rather than up, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.

Specht produces beef on his steepest ground using management intensive rotational grazing. This means he doesn’t have to raise corn and soybeans on his most erosive acres.

On the rest of the land he farms, Specht uses a sophisticated mix of rotations and cover crops. One method the farmer uses is to plant rye in the fall after harvest. By the time the snow melts the following spring, he has a lush, green ground cover that suppresses weeds.

The result of all this effort? A soil surface protected by green vegetation throughout much of the growing season rather than just a few months in the summer. These plants soak up nitrogen as they grow and create a soil structure that stymies runoff.

Such a system can be labor intensive, but it hasn’t hurt Specht’s production. He recently won a local yield contest with a stand of organic soybeans.

Livestock plays a major role in managing nutrients on Specht’s farm. It’s difficult to justify the production of small grains like oats and forages like alfalfa, let alone pasture grasses, if there are not hogs or cattle to add value to these crops.

“The system of agriculture where you’ve got these livestock operations eating the crops they grow on the farm is way more efficient at recycling those nutrients, especially if you can use forages and small grains as part of your rotation,” says Specht, who has done on-farm grazing and cover crop research with Iowa State University and Practical Farmers of Iowa. “You’re going to be keeping your nutrients where they belong.”

The farmer’s latest project is a low-cost “hoop house” for raising hogs. This allows him to use bedding from corn stalks and straw from small grains to capture nutrients in the form of manure.

“I’m always working on my nutrient cycle.”

Why this desire to zealously control nutrient movement? Part of Specht’s concern about what sneaks off his fields is based on the fact that area well water is heavily contaminated with nitrogen, posing a public health threat, particularly to babies. Much of the blame for that contamination can be placed on a Swiss cheese-like limestone geological system called “karst,” which underlies northeast Iowa’s topsoil. It allows water, and anything that’s along for the ride, to easily flow through. That’s been shown clearly in Specht’s neighborhood by the Big Spring Demonstration Project, one of the nation’s longest-running and most detailed studies of the relationships between agriculture and water quality.

The research project, which is coordinated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, has found that nitrogen and other agricultural contaminants move quickly through karst geological features into the groundwater. A key component of the research project is the encouragement of farming practices that rely less on heavy tillage and intense chemical applications.

Specht has also had the opportunity to get a big-picture, downstream view of the problem. In the late 1990s, he visited the Gulf and met with commercial fishermen and women whose livelihoods are threatened by excess nutrients from Midwest fields destroying fish habitat.

“It’s really fragile. It’s vast, but it’s fragile,” he says of the area where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf.

After making the drive from his farm to the river bottom, Specht pulled into a boat landing below McGregor and met up with frequent fishing partner and fellow farmer Jeff Klinge. While Klinge guided a small aluminum boat out through the backwaters, the two farmers pointed out the natural beauty of the area and talked passionately about fishing.

A bald eagle coasted overhead while a great blue heron stood on a point as still as a lawn ornament. Tent caterpillar webs drooped from trees along the water’s edge, just a few yards from where a Burlington Northern freight train rattled the Wisconsin side of the river. Massive barges plied their way up and down the main channel as the farmers began trolling for walleye. This area is vast and fragile as well.