Eli Chen / St. Louis Public Radio 17 October 2019

When corn and soybean farmer Kenny Reichard stopped plowing some of his fields in northern Missouri in 1982, other farmers told him that it was a terrible decision that would lower his yields.

“I’ve been told many times that no-till doesn’t work,” said Reichard, 62, who farms north of Brunswick in Chariton County.

More than three decades later, state programs and agriculture initiatives are trying to encourage farmers to adopt no-till and other practices that reduce fertilizer runoff that contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. While many farmers think such methods are expensive, they’re critical to cleaning up the Mississippi River basin.

“We do realize if we put too much [fertilizer] on, it’s going to go somewhere, and we don’t want to be paying to kill the fish in the Gulf,” said Mitchell Rice, 39, a farmer in Chariton County.

Urban stormwater, sewage and farm runoff that flow downstream from states in the Mississippi River basin have created an area in the Gulf where oxygen is too low to support marine life. Missouri is among the top contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to the river basin, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Federal data shows that the state’s pollution largely comes from fertilizer and manure.

Iowa, Minnesota and a few other agricultural states have set goals for the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus. Missouri has not set targets. The state’s approach to curtailing farm runoff, which environmentalists say lacks strength, is to use sales tax revenue to provide farmers financial incentives to improve crop and livestock practices.

Under the Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax program, Missouri farmers can apply for funding that would cover up to 75% of the cost of conservation projects. The projects could involve planting cover crops, types of crops that reduce soil erosion, or using vegetation to build buffer zones that block nutrients from waterways.

Last year, the state spent $40 million generated by the sales tax on projects that helped farmers adopt conservation practices. The program has received such a high level of interest from farmers that the state can’t accommodate every funding request, said Chris Wieberg, water protection program director at the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“We would double that conservation if we doubled that money,” Wieberg said.

Some environmentalists in Missouri want the state set targets on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. It isn’t enough to increase acreage of cover crops and fund better agricultural practices, said Maisah Khan, water policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“You can check the box and say we have accomplished x, y and z, but there’s not a lot of data and metrics behind it,” Khan said. “The strategy isn’t really tracking what we’re achieving with this plan.”

Khan has also pressed the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to increase its monitoring of nutrient pollution. The state’s plan to track nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency last year. However, the DNR has no plans to monitor runoff in Missouri’s streams or in the Missouri and Missisippi rivers.

Many farmers in Missouri are opposed to limits on nutrient pollution. Some argue that the approach could be counterintuitive. For example, state regulators might instruct farmers to avoid applying fertilizer during a rain event, which may result in farmers adding more fertilizer before the rain, causing more runoff to occur, said Andrea Rice, director of research and outreach for the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board.

“By putting targets [on nutrients], you’re having to adhere to end goals, whereas here in Missouri, we’re able to focus on the process,” said Rice, who is married to Mitchell Rice.

Rice and her husband farm 1,700 acres of corn and soybean near Clifton Hill, where they plant cover crops and use grid sampling, or precision technology to conserve fertilizer.

Rising fertilizer and seed prices have motivated farmers like him to use these practices, Mitchell Rice said.

“We have to look at the bottom line on everything,” he said. “Cover crops, where we’re having to use less chemical, eventually less fertilizer. It makes sense to be good stewards and do those things.”

Research suggests it could be many years before efforts by farmers and state governments would make much of a difference in the Gulf of Mexico, said Steven Herrington, director of science and impact measures at the Nature Conservancy’s Missouri chapter.

“Let’s say we reduced all of our nitrogen into our soil to zero,” Herrington said. “We still have a legacy of nitrogen in our soils from decades and decades of agriculture that would still be moving down through these systems.”

Missouri DNR officials plan to study the impact of the parks, soils and water sales tax in the coming months.