On Monday, October 8, 45 people ventured out on the cold and windy day to hear farmer Chris Henning talk about her use of cover crops, prairies and wetlands on her farmland during the Iowa Learning Farms field day. Henning was raised on a farm but it wasn’t until 20 years ago that she was able to buy land of her own and start farming.
She told us that she currently lives about a quarter-mile from where she was raised. Her parents were resistant to her (or any of her siblings) farming but Chris knew that living and working on the land was a part of who she was. Sharing her story about how she came to farm helped us understand why she is such a strong advocate for practices that improve her soil health and water quality in the area.
The multigenerational audience listened as she explained that her land was the “carbon sink” for the farms around her. She saw this as an opportunity to put in practices on her land that would help clean the water for everyone in the area and ensure that the water flowing from their watershed to the larger Raccoon River would be cleaner before it makes its way to Des Moines where her children still lived. In her 20 years on the land, she has experienced floods and droughts and she knows that her conservation practices work to make her land more resilient.
The field day attendees, over half of whom were women, asked Chris several questions about her cover crops. This is Chris’ second year to plant cover crops and despite the lack of rain we could see the crop coming up on the field in the distance. Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa was on hand to share some of the science and data on cover crops that has resulted from the four-year research project they are conducting with Iowa Learning Farms.
In addition to row crop farming, Chris has established prairies on her land and participates in the local farmers’ market through a large garden. In fact, the main part of our lunch that day was potato soup prepared in Chris’ kitchen with her home-grown potatoes. Chris’ success rests in the different ways she works the land: selling vegetables, prairie seeds, CRP, and row crops.
On the prairie theme, Matt Helmers, ISU professor, shared with the attendees the data on nitrogen reductions they are seeing with the STRIPs project at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. Attendees were quite interested in the use of prairie buffers to help reduce nitrogen runoff from their land. They were also able to visit the ILF Conservation Station to learn more about the relationship between soil health, erosion and productivity and the importance of ground cover to increase infiltration and reduce soil erosion.
The field day was filled with hospitality, from Chris’ neighbors serving everyone coffee and drinks, to the wonderful home-prepared meal. After the meal, 15 participants stayed to walk out to the cover crop field and listen to Sarah share more information on managing cover crops.
This was Iowa Learning Farms first field day in partnership with Women Food and Agriculture Network. I have attended many of ILF’s field days. This field day illustrated to me the importance of having women at field days and having their voices in the conversation about soil health, productivity and water quality. Just like diversification of crops and land management practices is the key to soil health and water quality; diversification of people working the land is also key to the future of agriculture in Iowa.
We are really pleased to welcome Chris as one of our newest Iowa Learning Farms partners!