Keota, Iowa - Children play in Tim Sieren's cover crops while the Practical Farmers of Iowa group meet about conservation implementation.

A special two-part report written and photographed by Spike Johnson in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Read part one, which focuses on the dead zone’s impacts on the Louisiana seafood industry.

With his guests gathered around a white folding table last May, Tim Little cut his oven-bake cake into squares, excavating pieces from the foil wrapper, and handing them around on paper plates. An assortment of china mugs brought out from the house wait for coffee from a pot teetering on a pile of farming books. Shafts of morning sunlight peeked through small windows, illuminating the inside of the steel barn – a classic John Deere tractor, a car lift, and mechanical tools.

Little and his friends grew up here, on family farms in Bridgewater Township, just an hour from the Mississippi River. Now in their 60s, they’ve formed a loose collective to pool resources, and share knowledge. Over the last decade they’ve been measuring increasing losses in topsoil, and a decline in soil health generally, aware of their connection to local rivers and streams, and subsequently to the rest of America. 

Now they’re pushing the boundaries of their industry to develop more efficient ways of farming locally, and towards solving a greater national problem – a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

 “We need to protect our land, our water, and our seas for future generations,” Little said. “We’re all connected through industry and ecology, and change will require a huge group effort.”

Little’s home state of Minnesota gives birth to the Mississippi River, its cold water bubbling over football sized rocks that edge the glacial lake of Lake Itasca. Here it begins a walking-paced meander, 2,320 miles towards New Orleans, collecting water from 31 states, along with leftover agricultural chemicals that are blamed for a growing dead zone spanning the Louisiana and Texas coastlines.

Bridgewater Township, Minnesota. Tim Little and his friends grew up here, on family farms just an hour from the Mississippi River. Now in their 60s they’ve formed a loose collective, meeting to pool resources, share knowledge, and push the boundaries of their industry towards solving agricultural pollution. “We need to keep the soil here, we can’t send it down to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Dead zones begin when farm fertilizers wash off fields and into rivers, eventually concentrating in the sea, where they promote algae blooms that absorb oxygen needed by marine life. Escaping fish are forced to migrate out of natural habitats, and oysters perish where they lie.

Globally, dead zones have quadrupled since 1950, according to the journal Science. And as the human population rises and increases its reliance on large-scale farming, the problem is expected to continue. This year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf dead zone is 6,952 square miles, roughly the size of New Hampshire. That’s slightly smaller than their earlier prediction of 7,829 square miles, but much larger than the 5-year average of 5,770 square miles.

In 2008, The Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), promised a 20 percent reduction of the dead zone by 2025, and along with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), have granted millions of dollars to agricultural and conservation groups for the development of nutrient reduction strategies, which are beginning to bear fruit.

In the Midwest, farmers are experimenting with new methods of agriculture, taking advantage of federal cost-share incentives and co-operative arrangements to limit the spread of fertilizers into rivers and streams. They’re bucking the trends of an entrenched industry, aware of their connection to the coast. 

“We’ve got to do something different, something more environmentally friendly,” Little said. “We need to find ways of keeping our soil on the land, reduce the chemicals we use, to protect our watersheds.”

‘We lost the crop diversity, and then we lost the soil health’

A convoy of scuffed work trucks turned left off the single-lane county road and bounced over the uneven dirt of Little’s land in Bridgewater Township. In a line, they made a wide arc over the stubbled field, heading for the middle. Dead vegetation burned on the horizon, sending columns of white smoke drifting across a flat landscape, dotted with grain silos and lonely trees.

Little climbed from his cab, well-worn work boots treading the dusty earth. For five years Tim has been planting cover crops across his 2,000 acre farm, a method of reducing fertilizer runoff and increasing soil health that’s quickly growing in popularity among conservationists and farmers. 

The process works by sowing new seeds (a cover crop) into mature corn or soybean fields (the primary crop) before the primary crop is harvested. When the primary crop is cut, the cover crop sees the sun and grows through the stalks of the primary crop. The decaying stalks return nutrients to the soil as worms break them down, boosting nitrogen levels for the next rotation of primary crop.

“It’s really opening up the ground, restarting the soil biology.”
—Tim Little

Bridgewater Township, Minnesota. With a dirt stained spade Tim Little scythes through the topsoil, levering up clods of earth, prying them apart to show earthworms and new root systems. There are other benefits to cover crops, but they’re hard to quantify, and happen over a long timeframe.

Cover crops mean that fields have year-round vegetation, without any periods of bare earth. They protect the ground from the summer heat, their new root systems improving drainage so that rain and soil stay on the land rather than washing off the top. Any fertilizers left in the soil are used by the cover crops as they grow. After five to seven years farmers report better soil health, and a higher yield in their primary crops. 

“It’s really opening up the ground, restarting the soil biology,” Little said. “Now it’s giving the nitrogen back to the soybeans. We’re seeing increased growth because of the nitrogen uptake.”

The hay-brown remains of Little’s soybean harvest lay in foot-long stalks on the ground, unplowed, and rotting where they fell. In patches the new green growth of his cover crops pushed through the old plants. They were a mix of cereal rye, radish, kale and purple top turnips sown by airplane between his soybean plants. With a dirt stained spade Little cut through the topsoil, pulling up clods of earth and prying them apart to show earthworms and new root systems. 

Through the 1950s and 1960s farmers in America were pushed to mechanize. The material shortages that hampered farm machinery production in World War II eased, but the resultant decline in war-time farm labor persisted. 

The purchase of machinery designed for specific functions — planting, plowing, or harvesting — pushed a natural tendency to find return on investment through crop specialization. In the Midwest, markets for corn and soybeans gained in demand as international trade developed, and the use cases for these high yield crops increased to include biofuels, animal feed, high fructose corn syrup, and bio-based plastics. Interest in alternative crops, dairy, and livestock waned, leading to farms planting corn one year, soybeans the next — a habitual duocrop rotation.

“Our fathers had diverse crops — oats, alfalfa, corn, what we needed for the hogs and the cows,” Little said. “But as the cows went we raised corn and soybeans only. We lost the crop diversity, and then we lost the soil health.”

‘It’s a really difficult conversation’

In Keota, Iowa, Stefan Gailans, research and field crops director for the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a 3,000-farmer organization, carried a battery powered microphone through a field of knee-high oats last [month], preparing with his host Tim Sieren to address group members about cover crop strategy. 

“At the moment the main economic opportunity to cover crops is as a food source for livestock,” Gailans said. 

Around them children played sword fights with ears of corn, and in the eaves of a wooden barn volunteers grill burgers on a steel smoker. 

Keota, Iowa. Tim Sieren, addresses Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) members about his cover crop strategy.

Most PFI members plant cover crops on their farms, and between fifty and sixty run research trials, sharing their findings with the rest of the group. But the evolution of farming in America to a duocrop model has eroded markets for alternative species. Small grains are used less and less as animal food, and the limited markets that do still exist are already saturated with supply. 

“Corn and soybeans are easy to find markets for,” Gailans said. “But stuff like wheat or rye isn’t grown here so much anymore, so there’s nowhere to sell.” 

The reintroduction of new markets would further incentivize farmers to adopt cover cropping. As well as contributing to conservation, farmers would have alternative income sources, and resilience against the economic fluctuation of the prominent duocrops. But this means competition for the dominant corn and soybean trade, and tough conversations all round.

From buyer to seller we’ve favored market over environment, voting with dollars through our supermarket carts and restaurant menus, unknowingly punishing farmers whose profits are half that of 2013, according to USDA statistics. Grinding tariff negotiations with China, one of the largest importers of American corn and soybeans, have damaged markets and plunged the price of U.S. crops, highlighting an economic downside of such limited trade options — when the largest customer stops buying your only product, values tumble. 

PFI is making headway though, and recently enticed Pepsi and Unilever into the cover crop fold, both companies now offer financial incentives to farmers growing cover crops. And Target is buying oats grown as cover crops in perhaps the first building block toward new market creation.

Discussions about changing the way we use agricultural land arrive at similar stalemates. 

“Land use is something that we don’t talk about enough, and there’s political reasons for that,” said Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a state government initiative to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous from Iowa agriculture and wastewater treatment that get into state waterways and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s hard to talk about changing our farming structure.” 

Nowatzke tracks conservation practices and water quality on farms across Iowa, one of the largest producers of corn and soybeans in America, and argues that switching corn and soybean fields to prairie after one rotation, using it to graze livestock, would help conservation efforts. The soil would have time to regain its natural nutrients, would need less fertilizer to support future crops, and with planned down-time there’d be less fertilizer on the land anyway. 

“It’s hard to talk about changing our farming structure.”
—Laurie Nowatzke

Keota, Iowa. Fertilizer trucks parked at Vision Agriculture.

“It could have a much greater impact on nutrient loss,” she said. “But it’s a really difficult conversation.”

However if a dent in Gulf Coast hypoxia is the goal, Midwest agriculture is tip-toeing toward it. 

Earlier this year the Census of Agriculture published that in 2017, Iowa had nearly a million acres of cover crops planted, with a slight increase predicted for 2018, compared to just 10,000 acres ten years before. 

“To put that in perspective though, studies in nutrient reduction strategy in Iowa show that we need 14 million acres of cover crops,” Nowatzke said. “We’re only just scratching the surface.” 

There is no national prediction from the EPA, the Hypoxia Task Force, or the USDA indicating the total fertilizer load that would lead to a reduction of the dead zone, or how long a reversal would take. The problem is too complex for definitives, its outcome relying on rainfall, ocean temperature, soil health, and crop growth rates. 

Guesswork is rife but well meaning, and alongside the Hypoxia Task Force’s goals — to shrink the dead zone to under 2,000 square miles, on average, by 2035 and reduce nutrient load by 20 percent by 2025 — Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, written in 2013, also seeks to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen pollution by 45 percent by 2035.

Trempealeau, Wisconsin. There is no national prediction indicating the total fertilizer load that would lead to a reduction of the dead zone, or how long a reversal would take. The problem is too complex for definitives, its outcome relying on rainfall, ocean temperature, soil health, and crop growth rates.

In July, a report by the Iowa Environmental Council found that at current implementation rates, it would take nearly 100 years to reach the Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s cover crop goal, and hundreds or even thousands of years to reach other key goals outlined in the strategy, according to a July report in the Des Moines Register. Mike Naig, the state’s secretary of agriculture, told the Register that the report was unfair, pointing to hundreds of millions of dollars in new state appropriations and saying he anticipated that rates of strategy adoption were likely to speed up as a result. 

In Keota, the sun was grasping at the horizon. With Gailans’ talk finished, his guests ambled in the waning light, querying the talk’s finer points. Dressed in checkered shirts, blue jeans, and a spectrum of faded baseball caps they break off gradually toward their parked trucks. 

“There are practices that can improve water quality in the Mississippi River,” he said. “But can agriculture have a positive impact on the dead zone? Absolutely we can, it’s a matter of do we want to?”

For now, the Gulf Coast Dead Zone remains, oblivious to swinging political pendulums, nutrient regulation negotiations, and cover crop incentives. An apex predator of our own invention, hungrily digesting fish and fertilizer alike, it swells onward in the deep.