Holy Cross farmer Jeff Schmitt will use his no-till planter to participate in new county programs aimed at soil health and water quality outcomes.

Several efforts to improve Dubuque County’s soil health and water quality came online recently to give agricultural producers and officials avenues to steward natural resources.

Throughout 2020, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors partnered with other area governmental and private partners on a suite of projects and programs aimed at several goals wrapped in one — “creating healthy watersheds by improving water quality, flood resiliency and mitigating climate impacts,” as county Watershed Coordinator Eric Schmechel put it in a presentation last week.

The county contracted Houston Engineering to conduct a field-by-field survey to identify opportunities for structural improvements. Supervisors then spent many months of 2020 negotiating with the City of Dubuque and the Dubuque Soil and Water Conservation District to form a new 28E organization to focus on watershed improvements. Officials also formed a farmers working group to advise those efforts from the producers’ perspective.

One of the key components of all the county’s efforts is a set of programs that seek to address conservation literally from the ground level — on farms. Enrollment for these programs has opened in recent weeks for farmers interested in participating.

Truterra — the innovative agriculture arm of Land O Lakes co-op — has been around for a while, working through private agronomists at the local level. But, in September 2020, the Board of Supervisors approved a contract with the organization for a pilot project to pay producers for improvements to their conservation processes.

“We’re benchmarking and tracking stewardship on a field-by-field basis by assigning an Insight score,” explained Truterra’s Spencer Herbert in a meeting this week. “That’s an aggregation of all the stewardship efforts on that farm for a grower — agronomics, tillage, nutrient management, to the soils of the farm, slope. Then we’ll compensate them on a scale of $2.50 per point per acre improvement on their land.”

For example, Herbert said that a farmer planting no cover crops on a field in 2020 could meet with a Truterra representative, who would score that operation. Then, if they agreed to plant cover crops in 2021, Truterra would model the outcomes of that practice and adjust their property’s score. Adding cover crops would increase the land’s score by 16 points — ending at $40 per acre.

Tim Daly, a farmer near Cascade, has been using Truterra independently for two years now.

“It’s been really good and is an easy platform to use,” he told the Telegraph Herald. “You can plug in ‘If I were doing this — say minimum tillage, continuous corn — but am looking at doing cover crops and no-till,’ there is the influence it will have on my bottom line.”

To date, improving one’s score with Truterra has come with no financial incentive. Dubuque County, however, has allocated $150,000 to watershed improvement projects, which adds that monetary piece.

“Supervisors will be more involved with Truterra in the sense that they will be approving contract by contract, as I bring grower contracts to the board as needed to approve payments,” Schmechel said.

Holy Cross farmer Jeff Schmitt said he is currently considering Truterra as well. He said he had been improving his practices for some time but that new financial incentives are likely to be the thing to clinch farmers’ participation.

“Especially when it comes to nutrient reduction, there could be a small yield penalty, and margins are so tight,” he said. “If we’re going to be making these changes, there should be compensation to entice people to try.”

The county also has a partnership with ReHarvest, a branch of the Iowa Soybean Association.

“We collect data about their current operations and what they’re willing to add to their suite of conservation practices in their fields,” said program coordinator Adam Kiel. “In a pretty quick turnaround, less than two days, we model what the environmental benefits are of that practice change. We look at nitrogen and phosphorous improvements as well as the estimated amount of carbon able to be sequestered in the soil.”

ReHarvest then structures a customized payment to fit the outcomes generated.

“The more outcomes a farmer produces, the higher the payment,” Kiel said. “At the end of the year, we’ll work with Dubuque County and sell you all of the nitrogen and phosphorus reductions that have been generated by farmers in the county.”

This is just one piece of the county’s efforts, but a big one. The county is now earnestly searching for farmers interested in participating.

For more information about the program contact Schmechel or Zach Timm at 563-690-3084, eric.schmechel@dubuquecounty.us or zach.timm@dubuquecounty.us.