Published Jul 27, 2022

Nitrate and Water Quality

By Nick Ohde

At PFI, our members believe that truly resilient farms and communities need clean water. We need clean water for our crops and livestock, we need clean water for the health of wildlife, and we need clean water for the pastimes that we love to enjoy with our friends and family, like fishing, swimming, boating and paddling. But perhaps most importantly, we all drink water.

For some of us, that means drawing water from a well, for others, we have access to rural water. For many of us, it means our towns and cities – large and small – treat and deliver water to our taps.

Regardless of how it gets to us, in Iowa and in much of the Midwest, that water starts its journey by falling on farmland, and so we in the farming community have an opportunity to do something about it. While we have to safeguard our water supply against many contaminants, one of our biggest problems is nitrate.

For years, PFI members (including both farmers and friends of farmers) have been the leaders in understanding the nitrate problem in the Midwest, coming up with solutions and getting those practices implemented on the landscape. But, the problem is complex. Many of the processes that lead to nitrate contamination of water happen underground, and all are microbial and therefore invisible to the naked eye. Water that’s high in nitrate looks pretty much the same as any other water (until an algae bloom occurs that is).

Because of that, we have struggled to explain the process, and have heard many inaccurate depictions of how nitrate contamination occurs – in conversations, at meetings, online and in the media. How the process works is important, because understanding how something works is the key to coming up with a fix that makes sense.

To help shed light on this complex process, we’ve created a video that explains both how nitrate gets into the water in the first place, and the different practices farmers and landowners can employ (and others in the ag world can help incentivize) to keep it in their fields where it can be used for plant growth.

To create the video, we sought input from researchers across the country who study water quality, all who have worked with PFI extensively over the years (and who are also PFI members!). This team helped to initially explain to our video team how nitrate moves through our water systems and then to ensure that the video accurately depicted that process. We’d like to thank them for their help on this project.

Dr. Andrea Basche, University of Nebraska

Dr. Stefan Gailans, Practical Farmers of Iowa

Dr. Gina Nichols, Field to Market

Dr. Hanna Poffenbarger, University of Kentucky

Dr. Emily Zimmerman, Iowa State University

We hope this video can be a resource for anyone who seeks to learn more about how nitrate causes water quality problems and how we can work together to fix them. Anyone interested in using this video in presentations, classrooms or for other uses is welcome to do so. For assistance with this (for example, we’d love to help you find a farmer to speak an event about how they work to improve water quality on their farm), please contact Maggie Norton, PFI’s farmer outreach coordinator, at

Finally, this process wouldn’t have been possible without our friends at Studio Iowa who created these animations and edited the videos.