Cedar Rapids, IA: It might come as a surprise to many, but The Eastern Iowa Airport is one of the largest farms in Linn County. The airport farmland, leased and farmed by five local farmers, has over 2,000 acres in corn and soybean production. The land is also located at the top of the watersheds for both the Cedar and the Iowa rivers.
This has led the airport to look at how it can have a more positive and sustainable impact on the environment, while still generating revenue. “We want to be good stewards for future generations,” said Marty Lenss, airport director. “This airport has been led by very forward thinking and insightful people through the years. Their decisions have put the airport in a very strong position with financial strength, excellent service, and sound infrastructure. We want to continue that tradition and ensure we are environmentally responsible in all aspects of our operations.”
Two areas have been identified in the conversation: how the airport can improve its farming practices to reduce nutrient runoff and how the airport can play a more prominent role in producing renewable resources. John Yeomans, the airport’s farm manager with Farmers National Company, was instrumental in bringing the environmental projects to The Eastern Iowa Airport.
The airport charged Yeomans with determining how to limit nutrient runoff and still maintain a high level of income. Yeomans said, “Municipal owned property, such as the airport, is often exempt from conservation cost-share payments that are available to many private landowners. To help replace lost cash rental income on the airport farmland required networking with ISU and the University of Iowa Biomass project.”
“These projects fit well with the overall efforts the City of Cedar Rapids is taking in improving water quality,” Said Ron Corbett, Cedar Rapids Mayor. “We have formed the Middle Cedar Partnership Project (MCPP) to work with local conservation partners, farmers, and landowners north of Cedar Rapids to install best management practices to help improve the Cedar River Watershed and water quality in Cedar Rapids. The airport projects address our responsibility to those communities further down the Cedar and Iowa Rivers. The state of Iowa has implemented the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy requiring a 45 percent reduction in nitrate and phosphorus coming out of Iowa. We all have to work together to accomplish that goal.”
Partnership with Iowa State University and the STRIPS Project: Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips
One of the challenges the airport faced in determining how to best address nutrient runoff on its farmland was the lack of data to determine what the runoff was and what impact actions had on reducing the nutrient loss.
“We are airport people,” said Mr. Lenss. “We needed to turn to the experts on farmland conservation and practices to truly understand what impact we could have. So, we are partnering with Iowa State University.”
Iowa State University’s research team for STRIPS — Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips — established experimental study sites in central Iowa at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in 2007. They converted 10 percent of the row-crop land to native prairie strips. During the 2007 to 2012 trial period, the team found that this 10 percent conversion to prairie reduced sediment export by 95 percent, total phosphorus export by 90 percent, and total nitrogen export by nearly 85 percent when compared to the losses from the 100 percent row-crop, no-till watersheds.
The STRIPS team is expanding the research to six new sites across the state, including one at The Eastern Iowa Airport. A 100-acre section of land was identified for the study. The land will be divided into a test field and a control field with measurement tools put in place to test the outflow from both fields. Approximately 10 percent of the test field will be planted with native prairie strips.
The partnership is mutually beneficial. “Working with The Eastern Iowa Airport provides the STRIPS team with increased visibility for our science and the prairie strips practice,” said Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, associate professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University and co-lead researcher on the STRIPS project. “A lot more people will be able to see the prairie strips practice in this location. They also will have a better sense of the effort associated with STRIPS when they see our monitoring equipment in the field and our scientists out collecting data.”
Pheasants Forever will provide the seeds for the prairie strips. Along with the benefits of nutrient runoff reduction, introducing prairie strips back into the Iowa landscape has habitat benefits as well. Prairie strips provide habitat for a diverse community of beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and the STRIPS sites support several species of insect predators that can potentially reduce insect pests of corn and soybean.
This partnership will provide data on the impact prairie strips have on a crop farming operation. Since the airport land is at the top of the watershed, the data will be an accurate account of what the impact is to nutrient runoff. With the data, the airport will be able to make more educated decisions about managing nutrient runoff and what the true impact will be of those efforts.
The University of Iowa Biomass Fuel Project
In 2010, University of Iowa President Sally Mason created the 2020 Vision targets to green the University of Iowa’s energy portfolio. The second goal of this plan was to identify and implement renewable resources that can replace or offset fossil fuel consumption. The university is charged with achieving 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020. The Biomass Fuel Project aims to identify, test, and integrate biomass feedstock for the use of co-combustion biopower to help achieve this goal.
One source of this biomass that has been identified is dedicated energy crops. These are plants grown for the express purpose of producing biofuel, ethanol, or biopower. The University of Iowa partnered with Iowa State University to create and promote a dedicated energy crop alternative to traditional row cropping.
The specific dedicated energy crop The Eastern Iowa Airport will be growing is a large perennial grass called miscanthus (specifically, Miscanthus × giganteus). This is a sterile, noninvasive variety that strikes a balance between agronomic and conservation goals. As a deep-rooted perennial grass, it provides soil and water quality protection similar to prairie strips. But the high-yielding crop also produces an annual 12-foot-high crop every year for 15 to 20 years with low fertilizer and pesticide demands. This allows miscanthus to produce more biomass of fuel per acre, and per unit input, than other types of grass or prairie, thus making it more economically viable and reducing the amount of land needed for fuel production.
Perennial grasses offer many benefits for biomass crop production, including:
- sequester more carbon in the soil than traditional row crops;
- grow on ‘marginal’ agriculture lands;
- require significantly lower inputs of fertilizer and pesticides;
- provide a new revenue source, coupled to energy prices;
- improve both soil and water retention as well as quality; and
- improve wildlife habitat.
“Up to now, there have been lots of good reasons to grow perennial energy crops, but money hasn’t been one of them”, said Emily Heaton, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State and extension biomass specialist. “By providing growers with a stable, long-term market, the UI Biomass Fuel Project removes much of the risk associated with trying a new crop like miscanthus. Even if the farmer decides not to stay in the program, the fields enrolled will end up in better condition than when they were planted. We are pleased to be working with the UI and The Eastern Iowa Airport to provide research answers to miscanthus questions in support of this project.”
“Growing perennials for energy production provides an opportunity for landowners and growers to produce revenue, while simultaneously improving environmental performance of their agricultural operations,” said Ferman Milster, Principal Engineer – Renewables at the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability. “We are excited to be able to partner with Eastern Iowa Airport, and thankful for the opportunity this project provides to demonstrate sustainable energy production in Iowa.”
The airport will be converting 63.6 acres of low performing farmland to Miscanthus production. Fields that are wet and produce low yields are excellent locations for Miscanthus to thrive. Additionally, the prairie grass in the STRIPS project will be harvested along with the miscanthus and used in the Biofuel Project.