Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

August Webinar – Exploring Soil Health Through Tea Decomposition

On Wednesday, August 15th at noon Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor in soil-plant interactions at Iowa State University, will explore the decomposition of tea as a low-cost, scientifically-robust soil health indicator.

tea bag soil health studyThe term ‘Soil Health’ has recently become popular due, in large part, to the increased awareness of the importance of soil biology.  However, current biological soil health tests are expensive, highly variable, and difficult to interpret. Dr. McDaniel studies the relationship between soils and plants, and how this relationship is affected by management and the environment. The McDaniel Research Group’s ultimate goal is to understand what enhances soil-plant synergy, soil health, and agroecosystem sustainability.  One thrust of the research is using decomposition of tea bags as an inexpensive, yet scientifically-robust, indicator of soil health.

“Increasing soil health is not only good for the environment, but also for the bottom line through increased yields and decreased money spent on farm inputs,” commented Dr. McDaniel. “Citizen Science is a great way to educate and engage farmers in measuring their own soil health, and also help to inform professional scientists’ understanding of soil health.”

DATE: Wednesday, August 15
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this webinar! More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon

Interactive Rock Your Watershed! game takes top honors in the Educational Aids Competition for novel approach to teaching players of all ages about watershed science and ecosystem impacts

Water Rocks! received a Blue Ribbon Award in Educational Aids from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) at the ASABE 2018 Annual International Meeting held in Detroit, Michigan July 29 through August 1, 2018.

“Rock Your Watershed!: A Game of Choice and Chance” is a browser-based game that engages players in applying various land uses, both agricultural and urban, conservation practices, and runoff mitigation techniques, then offers immediate feedback regarding the impacts of these choices. Players quickly see the environmental and cost impacts of conservation and learn about the natural ecosystem along the way. The game can be found and played online at http://www.waterrocks.org/ Players can see their scores immediately under multiple rainfall scenarios, play again as many times as they like, and the top twenty-five are included in the leaderboard.

“We are honored to be recognized by a prestigious global organization such as ASABE with a blue ribbon for Rock Your Watershed!, and are excited to share the game with colleagues from around the world,” said Matthew Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University and faculty advisor to Water Rocks!. “The Water Rocks! team has done extensive research into the appeal of previous versions of the game to different demographics. We’ve incorporated that research to make this latest edition rewarding to players of all ages and backgrounds. Animals play a much more prominent role with a new biodiversity scoring metric and the option to add grazing livestock on the land, plus there are also four new urban development choices. Playing this game can be a significant learning tool and we look forward to seeing many new names on our leaderboard.”

Teachers attending the Water Rocks! Summit compete in the Rock Your Watershed! game and discuss ways to utilize the interactive game in their classrooms.

Developed in partnership with Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm in Urbandale, Iowa, Rock Your Watershed! moves the science and research spreadsheets to an accessible and engaging learning environment for all ages.

“The game is as simple or complex as the user wants to make it, and it’s really catching on,” concluded Helmers. “Since its launch in 2012, the game has been played more than 48,000 times, with some 20,000 of those plays taking place within the past year.”

Growing Healthy Relationships: Key to Farming

When it comes to success in farming, it’s all about relationships: with neighbors, landowners, tenants, family, bankers, tax professionals, USDA and extension specialists, and the larger local community. And most importantly, relationships with the land.

The relationship theme ran deep at the inaugural Emerging Farmers Forum, August 1-2, hosted by Iowa Learning Farms and southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins.  The new Emerging Farmers project is a proactive initiative that reaches out to emerging farmers and future landowners, offering insight into integrating successful business and financial operations with conservation, caring for the land that carries deep familial and emotional ties.

Our Emerging Farmers Forum brought together seven emerging farmers from across the state, each with a unique situation and story to share. Some of the participants were actively farming with family, raising livestock and/or row crops. Others were landowners trying to discern the best ways to responsibly care for the land in their hands. From a personal perspective, we both can be considered emerging farmers, having grown up on family farms in Butler and Floyd Counties, respectively. While not involved in day-to-day operations, as future landowners we both have a desire to see the land nurtured for years to come.

Finished artwork

Farming is a science and an art! Proudly showing off our mixed media barn collages.

The two-day Emerging Farmers Forum was packed full of information and insight, good food and fellowship, multiple farm tours on the hay rack, and a shared vision for healthy farms and vibrant rural communities, all interwoven with Watkins sharing his personal stories and experiences from his little “slice of paradise” on Pinhook Farm outside New Market, IA.

Consider our Top 5 take home points that really resonated with us throughout the forum:

1. Relationships are key. Nurturing relationships with landowners and neighbors is a big deal, and it’s all about building trust. Seemingly little things like mowing a drive or cleaning up the grounds with a weed eater can make a big difference to landowners. Relationships are key on the business end of things, also. Consult with your banker and your tax advisor/CPA – they are there to help you succeed!

“Age doesn’t matter. Relationships matter a lot.” – Seth Watkins

“Younger farmers are really proactive. It’s exciting to work with them and be a part of that journey for 30-40 years.” – Jake Jobe, Bank Iowa

2. Balance taxes and debt.

“Don’t do all of your business planning around avoiding taxes. You don’t go broke paying taxes. You only pay taxes when you’re making money.” – Frank Comito

3. Consider what business opportunities are right around you. Embrace innovation. Diversifying the operation makes smart business sense, whether that be offering custom planting/spraying services, adding a herd of goats, or embracing the agritourism trend.

 “Start small. Start with what you are comfortable with and grow the innovations that work.” – Seth Watkins

“The most successful businesses come from those with passion, pursuing something they truly care about.” – Kevin Kimle, Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University

4. Conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land – strategic placement is key.

As Seth described, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.” The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I love cows, but I really love the land.”

5. Pause and enjoy. Find your happy place. For Seth, that means taking a trek out to a peaceful wetland in his pasture – water full of life (you should see the frogs!), surrounded by healthy wetland plants, abundant bird calls in the air, and adjacent to an extensive timber.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’m having, but I can come out here, hear the birds all around, take it all in, and it puts everything in perspective.”

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What does it take to make it work as an emerging farmer or landowner? Passion, drive, love of the land, willingness to work, sacrifice, problem solving, and creativity were common themes that emerged. Nurturing a healthy ecosystem and vibrant communities takes every single one of us. The land is in good hands with folks like Seth Watkins and this exceptional group of emerging farmers leading the way.

Liz and Ann

Water Rocks! is Hiring!

BREAKING: Water Rocks! has new openings available in our 2018-19 Water Resources Internship Program!

Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality? We are seeking college graduates to join the Water Rocks! team for a 12-month paid internship, starting September 2018. The ideal candidates will be self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun!

Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around environmental issues and challenges in Iowa. Interns will have the opportunity to:

  • Work with two exciting Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
    o Water Rocks!, focused on youth outreach, and
    Iowa Learning Farms, focused on farmer outreach
    • Help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
    • Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of Conservation Station trailers
    • Develop strong oral communication skills
    • Contribute to water and soil quality research projects in ISU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
    • Gain technical skills related to environmental science, soil and water quality through both field and lab research

Applications close on August 17, with interviews to be scheduled during the last week of August. We look forward to seeing some stellar applications as we search for the next rock star member(s) of our dynamic team!

Ann Staudt

 

The Future Looks Bright

Back in late February, I made a decision to join the Water Rocks! team for the summer. Little did I know that decision would take me to every corner of the state, meeting countless new faces. I knew this summer was going to be an adventure but I had never guessed that it would be on such a great magnitude.

My name’s Wyatt Kaldenberg, a pretty standard farm boy from Southern Iowa. I grew up being surrounded by agriculture, on the family farm and got very familiar with the ins and outs of farm life. I soon realized it was difficult to get people not involved in agriculture to become interested in it. I think that’s what has surprised me most about this internship, people’s willingness to explore agriculture.Last week I was at an event in Eastern Iowa, with the Conservation Station. The Conservation Station is a trailer that features a Rainfall Simulator out the back, as well as an Enviroscape watershed model. At this event I was stationed at the Rainfall Simulator and answering questions from the occasional passerby.  A family of five stopped by the simulator. The dad told me that he had grown up on a farm but he had chosen not to farm as a career. Being in the same boat myself, we soon struck up a great conversation.

We talked about the importance of soil conservation and improving water quality. His three kids soon became interested in the rainfall simulator and started asking some questions themselves. “Why does that look like chocolate milk?,” one kid asked while pointing to the runoff from the intense tillage tray. I explained that working the soil could make it loose and how it could easily get washed away from the field if there was a big rainstorm. The answer satisfied her question and I told her that her and her siblings could learn more if they went to the side of the trailer and checked out the Enviroscape, or as we call it, the Watershed Game. The dad then said to me, “I want my kids to know about this stuff; a lot of people don’t realize how important it is.” I agreed and we talked for another minute or so before he thanked me for my time talking and joined his kids and wife at the Enviroscape.

Wyatt had the opportunity to present the Rainfall Simulator to both Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg (L) and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig (R) at county fairs this summer!

Although I just described one conversation I’ve had while on this internship, this is not an unusual encounter. People from all over Iowa, agriculture background or not, want to learn more about how they can help maintain Iowa’s beauty. It’s nice to be able to tell them that no matter if they’ve lived on a farm their whole life or just seen cows from the interstate, they can help make a difference. I’m so ecstatic that I’m a part of a team that gets to spread that message. The future looks bright, Iowa.

Wyatt Kaldenberg

Wyatt Kaldenberg, originally from Indianola, is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. Kaldenberg grew up on a family farm and has served as an Assistant Commissioner with the Warren Co. Soil and Water Conservation District. In the fall, he will be starting his junior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Finance and Management with a minor in Ag Business.