Since I was a boy growing up in rural Illinois post-World War II, American agriculture has achieved momentous productivity increases, from about 45 bushels an acre of corn back then to an average of 180 today, with farmers in my area sometimes getting 300 bushels per.
Much of the credit goes to Big Chem, the companies that turned from producing the munitions that helped win the war to stimulating farm yields with NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), and chemicals for killing pesky weeds and pests.
All this has been a mixed blessing. The relentless chemical drenching of farm and yard soils has been depleting our ground of its lifeblood, that is, the organic material that helps percolate growth. At the same time, huge amounts of excess NPK are running off the fields, down streams and rivers, into an ever-expanding hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, now larger than the state of Massachusetts, where all life is suffocated.
I am amazed that attorneys general of Texas and Louisiana have not joined hands to sue states in the Midwest, as well as the chemical companies, for their continuing travesty. After all, everyone — farmers, chem companies, federal and state EPAs — know they have a gargantuan problem. They simply don’t know how to fix it.
Enter Donald Hey, a Northwestern University PhD engineer. Hey has devoted most of his 70-plus years to mitigating environmental problems, often with a market-driven approach. Founder of the Wetlands Initiative and Wetlands Research, two Illinois groups, Hey and his associates have developed big plans to — get all this — generate much more income for riverbank farmers than they make today; suck off the excess nutrients before they reach the Gulf; reduce flooding, and offer boating, fishing, and scenic walking trails for you and me.
How to make more money for farmers along the rivers? And this is key, as nothing will happen unless farmers can be satisfied.
Hey proposes that riverbank farmers transform their land from corn-and-beans to a new kind of farming, what Hey calls "nutrient farming." I find the term a little awkward, but it means creating wetlands that would act like sumps to absorb, bury and reuse the chemicals before they reach the rivers.
In return, these nutrient farmers would be paid handsomely by polluters — municipalities, chemical companies, maybe even other farmers, ultimately — for the external costs they have imposed on society. Right now, wastewater treatment plants can be required to buy pollution credits to win the EPA permits they need to operate. You have heard the term: cap and trade. Nutrient farmers would be paid for their environmental good deeds.
Hey has a grandiose vision: that long stretches of land along rivers of the Mississippi River Valley, from the Dakotas to Ohio, be turned into "riverine national parks," where corn-and-bean fields would be turned into nature’s playground.
Since all this sounds way too good to be true, Hey is already working to prove his concept via pilot projects at several locales in Illinois.
Near Ottawa, not far from Starved Rock State Park, he is hoping to restore a parcel of floodplain that was once farmed, then mined for clay, and is now covered with mine tailings and weeds. Hey proposes to grow wetlands and harvest carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants being emitted by upstream municipalities and farms.
Near Peoria, along with leaders at Wildlife Prairie Park, Hey seeks to restore the channelized Kickapoo Creek and rebuild a pool and riffle canoe trail from the park to the Illinois River. All along this restored creek, the wetland pools would extract carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous.
And in deep southern Illinois, where the Ohio and Mississippi meet, Hey would like to repurpose thousands of acres in levee districts for a large-scale project to demonstrate the benefits of using wetlands for harboring flood waters, sequestering pollutants and creating wildlife habitat.
Hey predicts the nutrient farm concept could absorb a big slice of the pollutants headed toward the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient farms deployed across the upper Mississippi River wartershed, he believes, could ultimately begin to shrink the dead zone!
Hey badly needs a clout-heavy political champion or two, say, congressmen on the right committees in Washington, and maybe a Midwest governor or two.
The promise of Hey’s concept is too attractive not to be tested in a number of places, at modest cost. If the pilots prove out, politicos in the Midwest and the Gulf states could come out smelling like a fragrant wetland American Lotus. It is a better and more profitable way to farm, certainly along our rivers.
Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.