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Kerry Meyer farms the hilly landscapes of Scott County, Iowa, just a mile up the road from his parents’ farm, and a few miles east of his brother’s land.
He is a tall man with broad shoulders; his forehead and his cheeks are tanned from the summer sun. Dressed in heavy leather shoes and blue jeans, he steers his silver Chevy along a gravel road bordered by grassy slopes. A sea of soy leaves yellows to his right. Corn stalks crisp on the left. It’s mid-September. “Nearly time to harvest,” he says.
But Meyer doesn’t want to plant crops on all of his land this year. Along with tens of thousands of other Iowa farmers, he’s opted to take portions of his crop acreage out of production, and put it into what’s called “CRP”—private land that’s part of the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program. Meyer currently has 15 acres of CRP land on his 1,200-acre property, with 30 more coming later this year.
Pulling his truck to the side of the road, he points out six lines of fir and spruce that he, his wife Dawn, and their son Jamey planted on a hill near their crops. Years of continuous farming have eroded the soil up there, he says, making for a bum corn yield. They planted this “shelterbelt” of trees on CRP land in place of corn with the hopes of boosting soil quality and preventing further erosion. Not to mention, Meyer says, that with the price of corn dropping and a dour sales forecast for the next several years, the trees provide some income. “[The CRP is] paying me $245 an acre each year for the next 15 years not to farm that,” he says, “and I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
Meyer’s conservation land includes the trees, as well as wetlands that filter runoff from his crops to keep excess nutrients from fertilizer from seeping into his groundwater. He maintains wildlife habitat that includes a scattering of flowering plants such as milkweed, goldenrod, and wild bergamot—plants that support the region’s pollinating insects, including the monarch butterfly.
While Iowa may not come to mind when one conjures up the famous black and burnt-orange butterflies, it is in fact a key site for monarchs who migrate between Canada and Mexico. For centuries, butterflies have been resting on Iowa’s oak and pine trees and sipping from flowering plants now found mostly in the region’s ditches, abandoned lots, and grasses. Adult butterflies lay eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves—the only food source for their larvae.
But drought, other unpredictable weather patterns, and the conversion of grassland into cropland (for both foods and biofuels) are contributing to major declines in the numbers of nectar-producing plants—a trend pushing monarch numbers into steady decline.
The American Midwest’s Corn Belt wasn’t always overflowing with grain and oil-producing seeds. Following colonization in the early 1800s, the native tall grasses, flowers, and other plants that grew in its fertile, black topsoil were rapidly plowed under. Pioneers steadily converted the grasslands into the heavily rowed and tilled landscape that now produces billions of bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat to feed the livestock and people of the world—and, increasingly, to fuel it.
WWF’s 2016 Plowprint Report estimates that 3.7 million acres of intact grassland in the Great Plains were converted to cropland in 2015. As of the same year, just 366 million acres remained intact in that region. The report defines “intact grasslands” in the US as those lands that have not been converted to annual crops between 2008 and 2015, excluding developed and barren lands, and open water. And while almost half of the acres plowed since 2009 have gone back to being grasslands or wetlands or planted with perennials, it’s difficult to measure how monarchs are responding on those acres.
Conversion of grasses to crops can push out local species, like milkweed. In 2014, Iowa State University estimated that 98% of the milkweed that once grew where Iowa farmland now exists is gone. Eighty percent of all Midwestern milkweeds have been eradicated as well. According to The Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, that percentage closely mirrors the drop in monarch egg production in the Midwest. And in 2014, when University of Guelph researchers in Canada compared the various life threats to the monarch, they found that milkweed loss had the greatest effect on recent declines.
In response to this data and alarming downward trends in the numbers of monarchs that overwinter in forests in the southern US and Mexico, President Obama launched a landmark Pollinator Health Task Force in early 2014. That effort is paired with commitments to protect monarchs made by Mexico and Canada—the two countries that bookend the butterflies’ migration route.
One of the task force’s main partners is the CRP, a program that has existed in some form or another since the Great Depression. CRP’s modern incarnation—administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency with support from the department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—came about with the 1985 Farm Bill, which shapes what our nation’s growers will produce each year. In response to problems such as eroding soil, a surplus of corn and soy, and steep drops in crop values and farm household income, the 1985 bill laid out a string of new options that would make economic sense for both the country’s farmers and national needs. In effect, the CRP “rented” parcels of private land so farmers would not use it for crops.
Kerry Meyer is in a position to appreciate this option. The price of corn and other crops rises and falls in reaction to a myriad of factors; between 2012 and 2015 alone, corn plummeted in value from around seven dollars a bushel to below four dollars a bushel. That volatility makes farming hard. “I just broke even on my crops last year, in 2016,” says Meyer, adding that corn needs to be at four dollars a bushel for him to break even.
Meyer sits in his truck listening to a news show playing through the static on the radio. In what seems like serendipitous timing, he catches the end of a segment about butterflies in Iowa. “Everyone’s talking about pollinators right now,” he says.
One of the most popular CRP options, in fact, is the “pollinator strip,” known as CP-42. The option asks farmers to replace old cropland with plantings of at least three flowering species that host bees and insects like butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles. Taken together, these insects are responsible for pollinating about a third of the food eaten in the world.
The CP-42 option became available in 2012, and the Pollinator Health Task Force began encouraging the Department of Agriculture to promote native flowers for bees and butterflies in the summer of 2014.
“Since then, awareness has definitely increased” among Corn Belt farmers, says Alan Lange, a resource conservationist at the NRCS office in Des Moines. In fact, more than 342,000 acres were enrolled in the pollinator program nationally in 2016 (about half of them, or 176,000 acres, in Iowa alone).
By planting the nectar-producing plants on private acreage through the CRP, as well as in roadside ditches and on public lands, task force partners hope they will help ease the pollinator crisis and keep the tri-national monarch migration alive.
WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Sixteen years ago, Meyer reconnected with a high school acquaintance: Donald Ray “Spin” Williams, former baseball pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and now a coach for the Washington Nationals. The two ran into each other at a banquet hosted by Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit group of hunters who conserve habitat for game birds.
At the time, Williams and his wife Mindy were scouting land in Iowa with the intention of moving back to his home state. Little did Meyer and Williams know that within a few years they would be neighbors. And little did they suspect it would be habitat restoration—specifically of the grassy, blooming acreage adjacent to Meyer’s property—that would unite them as neighbors and stewards of the land.
At the Pheasants Forever banquet, Meyer invited Williams out to hunt pheasants on his land, which happens to border one of Scott County’s Century Farms—a designation for farms held by one family for more than 100 years.
“That’s when I asked, ‘Who owns that nice land up there?’’’ says Williams. “Now, that looks interesting.”
“That nice land” was 160 acres and a home owned by the Hebbeln family, who had passed it down to their only son, Jack, and his wife, Helen, in the ‘70s. After living in Colorado for 20 years, Jack and Helen had moved back and equipped the family farm with experimental solar panels, wetlands, and ponds surrounded by wildlife areas. They received an Iowa State Conservation Award for their efforts. “That couple was so far ahead of their time,” says Mindy Williams.
Three years after Spin first laid eyes on the land, Jack and Helen were looking to sell. Meyer had had his eye on their acreage, though less so on their house, as he already had his own home across the street. So he called up Spin. Within a week, Spin and Mindy drove from Pittsburgh to Scott County to sit down with Jack Hebbeln, who said he would be willing to split his family’s land only if both buyers were right. Meyer was already a neighbor and a friend, and Hebbeln quickly understood that the Williamses would keep the land as he had, for stewardship. Meyer took 130 acres and the Williamses took the other 30, along with the house.
That fall, the Williams family moved in. While Meyer has mainly planted soy and corn on his portion of the Hebbeln property, the Williams section feels like a wild and natural park. There are the ponds, and the white pines, lilacs, and jasmine planted by the Hebbelns, but also deep yellow goldenrods and native milkweeds that the Williamses have let go wild.
Mindy, who studied park management in college, earned certification as an Iowa Master Naturalist and began studying the damselflies breeding in the ponds. She learned about the life cycle of the monarchs that took off for Mexico in September. With guidance from a beekeeper at the farmer’s market, she took up honey farming. The Williamses also signed up seven acres of farmland to be CRP quail habitat—and bought a seed mixture from the local feed store, mostly shorter grasses, to provide the quail with shelter where they could nest and hide. “I love to hear the quail whistle in the morning,” says Spin. He also wanted to stop any agricultural runoff from wandering onto their land—“I wanted to get a big buffer from Meyer’s crops.”
WAYS AND MEANS
Meyer and the Williamses, like all landowners, face a multitude of choices every day about how to best steward their land. Farmers and other landowners must make decisions in response to ecological, market, and personal factors, as well as the restrictions and opportunities provided by public policy. Programs like CRP can enable farmers to incorporate conservation into their operations, and CRP’s success depends on its availability to farmers as well as its feasibility in guiding on-farm management decisions.
“The economics really need to make sense” for a farmer to keep land in CRP, says WWF senior policy specialist America May Fitzpatrick. CRP contracts come in 10- or 15-year plans. If corn and soy prices are high when that time is up, farmers are unlikely to renew; they might even attempt to cancel mid-lease. Crops equal income, and farmers have to respond to market price and policy signals to stay in business. On the other hand, even when the economics make sense on an acre-by-acre basis, demand among farmers to enroll in CRP can outpace state-defined limits on CRP acreage—meaning not every motivated farmer can participate.
And policies can change. As Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley told the Des Moines Register in 2016, “everything is on the table as the 2018 Farm Bill cycle approaches.”
Policy-makers will consider the future of a broad range of agricultural programs and policies for the benefit they offer farmers, the environment, and the public, especially when facing an uncertain future of extreme weather and climate change.
That’s why farmers like Kerry Meyer and landowners like Spin and Mindy Williams—among thousands of other stewardship-minded farmers—are so important. By doing the right thing and sharing their stories, they are demonstrating not only a public commitment to monarchs and other pollinators, but also that it’s possible to make the future success of American farming and American wildlife one and the same.
Sitting at the Williams table eating catfish from one of their ponds, Meyer says that he comes from a long line of traditional Scott County farmers, all of whom earned a living off corn and soy. He’s a proud steward of this land, and can easily recall how it has changed. About a mile from his property, he says, he hunted squirrels as a kid almost 50 years ago. Back then, he saw monarchs roosting “by the millions” on the pine trees, but “I don’t see anywhere near that these days.”
Both farming and conservation are parts of Meyer’s identity, but he’s also been subject to the “good neighbor effect.” After all, it was shortly after the Williamses got their CRP land going that Meyer decided to plant his. He, too, restored quail habitat: 50 feet all around his land on the west side of the Williams property, as well as a big plot of it around one of his ponds.
“The world is always going to need to be fed,” he says. “But you’re also supposed to understand how nature works.” The rental money from NRCS is important, he admits, but, “when you like your neighbors, you want to do the right thing.”