Solving Challenges to Bee Health and Diversity With Prairie Ecosystems

While the loss of bees is relevant to the entire United States, one clear takeaway from Dr. Amy Thot’s January 19th webinar is the particular seriousness of the issue in IA, which had the highest annual loss of colonies among all states between ’20 and ’21: an alarming 77%. For comparison, the annual loss across the globe is about 30% annually, while there are an estimated 20,000 species of bees in decline globally.

These numbers are alarming to beekeepers, whose services are crucial to the food industry, as well as wildlife biologists. However, Dr. Thot stated in her introduction that the concern should be as universal as “If you love food, you should love bees.”

Along with a team of other researchers at ISU and the STRIPS program, Amy’s research focuses specifically of stressors related to poor foraging resources in Iowa, where 86% of the landscape is in production. She acknowledged the equally pressing concerns of pesticide use and parasites/pathogens, but spoke primarily the ecological dynamics of prairie strips vs. a control.

It is important to note that the research questions studied the benefits of prairie ecosystems to both wild bees as well as managed colonies of Apis mellifera. More importantly, Dr. Toth noted that there is an abundance of data which suggests that wild bees can serve the functions of managed colonies in agricultural settings with equal effectiveness.

Regarding the primary goal of assessing whether colonies can be “rescued” by being transplanted to prairie strips, the resounding answer from studies has been a yes. You’ll have to watch the whole webinar for a full breakdown of the variables and conclusions, but one fascinating key to the survival of colonies in prairie is the diversity of plants which are still forgeable into the colder months. While soybeans can provide a surprising source of nectar to pollinators during warm months, the crucial issue is the steep “crash” once the monoculture field has finished blooming.

To get the full details about the prairie’s benefits to pollinators, you can watch a recording here.

Richard Frailing

Northern Soil Compaction Conference – Held Virtually Jan. 26-27

Do you feel like soil compaction is squeezing your yields? Are you wondering what you can do about it? 

I wanted to share a press release from the upcoming Northern Soil Compaction Conference scheduled to be held virtually January 26-27.

The University of Minnesota Extension is proud to partner with Manitoba Ag and Resource Development and North Dakota State University to bring you the Northern Soil Compaction Conference. This virtual event will be held on January 26th and 27th from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm (CST).

Every equipment pass risks compaction. Compaction affects root and crop growth, water infiltration, crop fertility need and yield, and crop diseases, just to name a few. However, many management practices exist to help fix the compaction and avoid it in the future. These practices range from the use of cover crops, crop rotations, and tillage to controlled traffic, proper tire inflation, tracks, and axle loads.

The Northern Soil Compaction Conference is a unique opportunity to hear the latest in technical advice from experts based in the US, Canada, and Sweden on how to deal with your current compaction, build proven strategies to minimize your risk in the future, and discuss the benefits you can expect. 

During the conference, we will discuss management strategies to alleviate or avoid the negative effects of compaction as well as small breakout sessions for a more in-depth discussion. A total of 5.5 CEU’s are available for the 2 days.

The cost of the 2-day conference is $50. Visit for more information and to register.

-Liz Ripley 

Hope is Remembering the Future

Happy 2022! I would say good riddance to 2021, and all of its calamities, but I know that we bring all of them with us. This year, COVID will continue to strain our systems and our spirits. We will continue to have major weather events like tornados, derechos, drought, and excess moisture. 2022 will likely be one of the hottest years on record along with the last seven years. There will be fires, floods, and other disasters. Our social structures will continue to be strained under anger and division that we haven’t seen for over a century in this country. None of that got left behind on January 1.

And yet, I sit here by my fireplace in my basement den, with my 15+ year old dog Charlie, watching the large snowflakes cover my backyard and the many different colorful songbirds pick at my feeders, and I have hope. Hope that we can make the changes we need to make so that 2022 is better and every year after that. Hope that we can leave the world better than it is right now. Better for your children and for all the birds, dogs, fish, and frogs. Better for the trees. Better for the water. Better for everything living.

And I know that hope seems ridiculous. Did I read the first paragraph that I wrote? There are some huge challenges that we face both here in Iowa and globally. How can I have hope?

How can I not? Hope isn’t an emotion. It isn’t a skill. It is a grace and a gift. Hope is the acknowledgement that we cannot accurately predict what the future may bring so we better look the current facts in the eyes and respond. Not being able to accurately predict the future means that we must let go of notions that everything will correct itself and that things are more dire than they seem. Both sentiments lead to paralysis.

As Jane Goodall writes in The Book of Hope, “Hope is a survival trait…without it we perish.”

Hope is the sum of rich imagery and anticipating challenges. In other words, hope uses one’s imaginations about what is possible, but it does that understanding and anticipating what might go wrong and what might get in the way. It is our ability to act on hope that makes us humans.

According to George Steimer, “To hope is to remember the future. It is to remember that which could yet be. The compulsion to hope is at once imperative and enigmatic with us.”

Hope is remembering the future or that which could yet be …  The future I want to remember is filled with life, clean water, diversity of plants and animals, and enough food and resources for everyone. That vision of the future is my hope. What actions will the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs take to realize that hope?

Iowa Learning Farms has a bold new logo. A logo is a logo, but the boldness of the colors and the images become our beacon of hope. After 17 years as a program, it would be easy to coast. And yet, we have decided to get bold. We are building on the tried-and-true, like in-person field days, and keeping the best of the online outreach like virtual field days and weekly webinars.

We are returning to on-farm demonstrations this year and will be adding 15 new farmer-partners. We are seeking partners that bring new voices to the table, and we are open to recommendations (contact Liz Ripley at We are developing tools to help farmers better measure their ecological successes. We are coming up with creative and effective ways to tell the stories of hope.

In December, new team member Richard Frailing launched a new series of blog posts. He is traveling around Iowa with his recorder, his camera and his curiosity to talk to our farmer-partners and visit them at their farms. An exceptional writer and photographer, he profiles each farmer with poignant stories and amazing images. (You can find the first four of these new profiles on our blog, featuring Dennis Staudt, Rick Juchems, Mark Thompson, and Seth Watkins). These stories will continue to post every two weeks. I have known many of our farmer-partners for years and yet Richard has helped me see them in a new light. It is our hope that their stories inspire others to make the necessary changes to have the future we want to remember.

One cannot help but think of the future without thinking of young people. Most people on the team would say that it is their work with Water Rocks! that gives them the most hope. We consider it a minor miracle that not only was Water Rocks! able to survive during the restrictions of the pandemic but we were able to thrive (see Ann Staudt’s blog post Planting the Seeds of Stewardship).

Water Rocks! turns 10 this year and we will be celebrating with an Earth Day Poetry Slam competition on April 22. The competition is for poets over the age of 18 and we are working to get entries from a diversity of perspectives. This is yet another way that Water Rocks! wants to elevate the voices of the future. What will we hear in the poems? How will they challenge us to put hope into action? The poetry slam will be open to the public here in Ames. More details can be found on the Earth Day Poetry Slam page of the Water Rocks! website.

Water Rocks! is not the only one celebrating a milestone. We were honored to join long-time ILF farmer-partner Kelly Tobin in celebrating his 90th birthday!

These are all little things. I know. But the thing about hope is that it leads to action and that leads to impact and that leads to more hope. It is what I call the Hope Success Loop.

We must do what is ours to do no matter what it is. We must be bold and brave. Dive in. Take a chance. Hope is the gift that we are giving to all of you this year. If you accept the hope, join us in making 2022 the best year ever!

Jacqueline Comito

Bees and Prairie Strips – A Winning Combination

Please join us for the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar at noon CST, Wednesday, Jan. 19, featuring Amy Toth, professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology at Iowa State University. Toth is an integrative biologist studying the fundamental and applied aspects of the biology of social insects. Her laboratory investigates aspects of the behavior, genetics, evolution, and ecology of bees and wasps.

In the webinar, “Can prairie habitat in the farm-dominated landscape of Iowa benefit bees and beekeepers?,” Tothwill will highlight connections between bee populations and conservation practices on farms, including the interconnections between bees and prairie strips in supporting the success of managed honeybee apiaries. She will also describe research on some of the environmental stressors facing bee populations in Iowa and recent research results suggesting the benefits of natural woodland and prairie habitat to bee populations.

Bee team (former students Ashley St. Clair and Zoe Pritchard) at work in one of our prairie apiaries.

“Bees in crop-field dominated areas lack the forage resources of abundant, diverse, and nutritious pollen and nectar that is important to colony health and productivity,” said Toth. “The beneficial crossover of agricultural conservation practices and promoting thriving bee populations should be of interest to anyone involved in agriculture and sustainability. This should also help farmers and landowners better understand the role they can play in providing habitat that sustains pollinators while also improving soil health and reducing runoff.”

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Webinars are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before noon CST Jan. 19:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

Or go to and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172

Or join from a dial-in phone line:

Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for. Those who participate in the live webinar are eligible. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Liz Ripley

2022 Water Resources Internship – Now Accepting Applications

Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality?

We are seeking undergraduate student interns for summer 2022 who are self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun!

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

  • Work with two award-winning Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
    • Water Rocks!, focused on youth outreach, and
    • Iowa Learning Farms, focused on adult/community outreach
  • Develop strong oral communication skills as you help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
  • Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of Conservation Station trailers following Iowa State University policies regarding face coverings and physical distancing.
  • Contribute to water and soil research projects with the Conservation Learning Group.
  • Gain technical skills related to agricultural and biosystems engineering, environmental science, soil health and water quality through both field and lab research.

The program is based on campus at Iowa State University and will involve travel to various outreach events around the state, which includes some scheduled night and weekend events, as well as select research sites. This is a paid internship, with students working up to 40 hours/week. The internship program begins Wednesday, May 18 and runs through Saturday, July 30, 2022.

The Iowa State University water resources internship program serves as an outstanding springboard for careers in agriculture, engineering, the environment, and/or further studies. Past participants in our internship program have gone on to such careers as project engineer, watershed coordinator, environmental educator, field research specialist, and USDA-FSA program technician, while others have pursued graduate school opportunities.

From a relatively small beginning as student research assistantships in 2007 with a single trailer-mounted rainfall simulator, to the addition of a second and the launch of the Conservation Station fleet in 2010, interns were integral to the program. Today there are multiple Conservation Stations in regular use, and the teams of interns go out with them for nearly every visit.

Learn about their experiences in this Wallaces Farmer article.

Job Skills and Requirements:

  • Currently enrolled undergraduate student (open to all majors)
  • Demonstrate interest and/or background in environmental science, natural resources, conservation, soil and water quality, agriculture, and/or education
  • Evidence of strong communication skills
  • Ability to learn new tasks quickly
  • Teamwork skills
  • Self-motivated
  • Detail-oriented
  • Time management skills

Additional internship requirements include:

  • Valid US driver’s license
  • Background check with ISU Risk Management for working with youth

How to Apply:

Required application materials include:

  • PDF Resume (Be sure to include your GPA, major, and previous work experience)
  • PDF Cover Letter (Tell us what interests you about this internship and why you’d be a great fit!)

Internship application deadline is 5:00pm on Monday, January 31. Please submit your complete application package to Liz Ripley via email – We will conduct interviews with qualified students in February.

Exploration into Edge-of-Field Practices

In the webinar “Better Utilizing the Field Edge: Saturated Buffers and Bioreactors,” Dr. Matt Helmers dives into a watershed-based conservation case study that challenges students to learn about edge-of-field practices. In the case study, students have the opportunity to learn about the costs and benefits of each practice while also using decision tools to evaluate different practice options for water quality improvement and wildlife goals.

Edge-of-field practices are becoming increasingly common as we try to meet the goals set forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Saturated buffers and bioreactors were explored in this week’s webinar. The effectiveness of each practice is captured in a chart that shows impacts on soil health, nutrient loss reduction and habitat.

Bioreactors are trenches of wood chips where tile drainage water enters. These trenches are in grass buffers where the water would commonly leave the field. Bioreactors can reduce nitrate levels by 15-60% in tile drainage water. It is all made possible by the denitrification process. The carbon in wood chips is used as a food source for bacteria that simultaneously utilize the nitrogen in tile drainage water for respiration.

Saturated buffers utilize tile drainage water that flows into a lateral drainage tile that is placed parallel to a riparian buffer. As the water moves through the buffer, nitrate is removed. Similar to bioreactors, microbes utilize nitrate for respiration but additional nitrate is removed through root uptake by plants. 50% of nitrate can be removed in subsurface flow on average in saturated buffers.

While not the focus of this webinar, wetlands are another key practice in working towards improved water quality, as well as providing essential wildlife habitat.

All of these practices have tradeoffs. Helmers discussed these tradeoffs and how they can be explored through ‘Decision Trees.’  These decision tools help students think in-depth about cost and land utilization, and they can also be beneficial to farmers and landowners as they explore what edge-of-field practice could be best for them. (These user-friendly decision tools can all be found in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual, available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store.)

Towards the end of the webinar, a participant asked about the challenges and barriers towards creating interest in edge-of-field practices. Dr. Helmers answered that using unifying language can address that. To meet Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, working together is essential. This “Better Utilizing the Field Edge” watershed-based conservation case study allows students to learn about the inner-workings of meeting nutrient reduction goals and provides landowners with tools to find out which implementation could be right for them.

 You can catch the recording of Helmers’ full webinar HERE, and you can also catch up on all our past archived webinars on the Webinars page of the ILF website.

Celaysa Mora

New Virtual Platform for Farmers to Learn and Share Ideas to Improve Their Soil, Land, and Bottom Lines

One Good Idea is a new online platform and campaign to help farmers get started and have success with cover crops, soil health and regenerative practices. With content from Iowa Learning Farms and others, the site was created by a multi-state team of university Extension professionals and farmers. One Good Idea is designed to facilitate farmer-to-farmer learning about practices that can improve soil, land, and bottom lines, such as cover crops, conservation tillage, rotational grazing, and nutrient management.

As a clearinghouse of videos and podcasts that feature farmers’ ideas and experiences with these practices, One Good Idea creates a centralized location for farmers to learn from their peers about what has worked or hasn’t, the benefits and precautions, and other nuts and bolts of using conservation practices on their operations. This content is crowdsourced and has been contributed by University Extension, nonprofits, government agencies, farmer-led groups and individual farmers from across the Midwest and Mid-south.

One Good Idea is also running a social media campaign with the hashtag #WhatsYourGoodIdea on Twitter and Facebook. Farmers and folks who work with farmers are encouraged to participate.

Visit One Good Idea at, where you can also subscribe to the email list, follow it on Facebook and Twitter, and learn how to contribute content. One Good Idea accepts video, podcast, and/or idea submissions from farmers and folks who work with farmers.

Attend the Lunch & Learn on Friday, January 14th at 11:30am CT to learn more

This virtual Lunch & Learn is an opportunity for professionals who work with farmers to implement conservation practices – such as Extension agents, farm advisors, and conservation professionals – to learn the “science” behind One Good Idea and how it can support their work. We’ll also cover how you could collaborate with farmers to contribute to the platform and the movement to facilitate farmer-to-farmer learning about conservation and regenerative practices. Registration is required. Register now >>

Liz Ripley

The Need for Diversity in Rural Communities and Landscapes

A few years ago, ILF’s farmer partner Seth Watkins decided to take a photograph every day on his farm near Clarinda. His initial intention was to show people the difficulty of his job and why they should be grateful for farmers. As he accumulated images, however, this intention changed. He explained, “After about two months of focusing through that lens and seeing things, I realized ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world to have this as my vocation. I get to care for the land. I get to raise cattle.’”

Seth is humble in the ways he describes his own insight and perspective, which he brings not just to our ILF network but to countless other public roles, including a highly watched TED talk which he gave in Des Moines. During that talk and throughout our conversation, Seth quoted a diverse array of thinkers including biologist E.O. Wilson: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous.”

While it’s clear that Seth is a powerful and intuitive communicator of agricultural and ecological ideas, the actions that he takes both on his land and in the public sphere speak for themselves.

Though born in San Francisco, Seth’s family moved to his mother’s family farm when Seth was an infant. Seth’s grandfather chose the land because of its proximity to a river, which he used to mill flour for almost 100 years. Seth always wanted to raise cattle and he clearly has a sense for raising animals economically and ethically, but his favorite aspect of his farm are the various conservation projects .

Having intentionally avoided studying agriculture at a university during the 80s when the emphasis at institutions was on consolidation and efficiency, Seth described decisions on his land born out of a system of economics married to the land rather than divorced from it. He affirmed that he couldn’t afford fertilizer inputs on his grasslands, but he could afford to have clover. When the land was being overgrazed, he saw the economic benefit of renting another acre per cow.

Consistently pivoting between the daily innovation on his own land and broad-scale changes that need to happen, Seth offered this concise piece of insight. “If we’d stop subsidizing the wrong things, we wouldn’t have to subsidize the right things… We probably wouldn’t need price support if everyone found the most appropriate land use per acre.”

I asked if this intuition for stewardship was fostered by his parents. He responded that it was in part, but also described a detail of his upbringing that we happen to both have in common: both of Seth’s parents were artists. As we drove around his pasture and restored prairie, he talked not just about the ecological science behind biodiversity but the sensory components of diversity: what it feels like to be in a diverse, stable ecosystem and how this positively effects one’s state of mind and outlook.

When I asked about what he hopes will change in Iowan farming, Seth said this: “I hope as we bring diversity back to our landscape, we can bring diversity to our communities. That’s one of the hardest things about living here. We’re lacking in those new ideas and concepts, and I think it hurts us.” Later in our interview, Seth took this sentiment further: “I want rural migration, not urban migration… We have to embrace immigration. It’s past time.” He continued by affirming that, “More women farmers will make a big difference.”

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Seth if there was one thing he’d want non-rural people to know about life on the farm, and he returned to the importance of gratitude. “One, I want them to know how grateful I am for them, because it’s their tax dollars that kept us going. And number two, I think it’s okay for them to ask for those dollars to be spent in a way that regenerates our resources, provides them with clean water, and provides them with healthy food.”

Finally, I asked Seth what it meant to him to be a farmer partner with Iowa Learning Farms, to which he said he becomes “more proud of it everyday.” He continued, “I think that sociology, anthropology and the arts are part of it. You reach out to young people and farmers. I’m thankful for the ILF team for sticking with it: this stuff is pretty complex, and for us to get it, it takes a variety of approaches.”

Richard Frailing

Which Edge of Field Practice to Deploy and Where to Put it – Focus on Saturated Buffers and Bioreactors

Please join us for the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar at noon CST, Wednesday, Jan. 12, featuring Matt Helmers, professor in the Iowa State University Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center. Helmers leads research on the impact of agricultural management and conservation practices on water quality. He will draw on his expertise with field drainage systems and drainage water quality in this session to address saturated buffer and bioreactor siting principles, benefits to water quality and effectiveness of nitrate removal when these practices are employed.

In the webinar, “Better Utilizing the Field Edge: Saturated Buffers and Bioreactors,” Helmers will take a look at the benefits from edge of field practices in general, and then focus in on how saturated buffers and bioreactors can address the increasing nitrate levels being found in drainage water from tile systems.

The session will also highlight educational tools that can be used to improve understanding of these practices and factors to consider in selecting and siting practices for success.

“Edge of field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, wetlands and oxbows have potential to remove nitrate before it can be delivered to the stream, but must be utilized in the correct sites and circumstances,” said Helmers. “The good news is that there are so many different edge of field practice options, there should be at least one good match for every farm, field or situation. I am looking forward to sharing some tricks and tools that have been developed to facilitate practice and site selections to deliver the most beneficial outcomes for water quality and farm productivity.”

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Webinars are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before noon CST Jan. 12:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

Or go to and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172

Or join from a dial-in phone line:

Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for. Those who participate in the live webinar are eligible. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Liz Ripley

Virtual Field Day Jan. 13 – Road Detention Structures: Adapting Current Infrastructure for Flood Resiliency and Nutrient Reduction

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Upper Iowa River Watershed Management Authority, Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group will present a virtual cover crop field day on Thursday, January 13 at 1 p.m. CST. Join us for a live conversation with Matt Frana, project coordinator for the Turkey River Watershed and Upper Iowa River Watershed, following video footage from a road project site within the watershed.

The virtual field day will highlight one of the unique sites within the watershed that is adapting existing infrastructure to provide increased water storage, as well as water quality improvement opportunities. Working with Winneshiek County, Frana was able to identify a site where the existing road could be raised to enhance an existing pond structure for increased water storage and create a fringe wetland that will provide water quality and wildlife habitat benefits, while also help increase traffic safety.

Located in northeast Iowa, the Upper Iowa River Watershed was selected to work with the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and many other partners to develop Watershed Management Authorities as part of the Iowa Watershed Approach. Through the project, Iowans are working together to address factors that contribute to floods and nutrient flows and enjoy the improvements in quality of life and health resulting from upstream watershed investments. Supported by U.S. Housing & Urban Development dollars, this approach is leveraging the principles of Iowa’s innovative Nutrient Reduction Strategy to make communities more resilient to flooding help improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat.

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms virtual field days are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Virtual Field Day Access Instructions:
To participate in the live virtual field day, shortly before 1:00 pm CST on January 13, click HERE.
Or visit for the registration link.

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:
Dial: 1.312.626.6799     
Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive will be available at

Participants will be eligible for a Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU). Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley