Growing up on a century farm in North Central Iowa was a gift. I had an old barn with a haymow and a rope swing to play around with. There were old silos to climb, horses to ride, and timber to explore. My best memories were playing hide-and-seek in the tall grass and climbing every tree I could find.
What I didn’t realize until I was older was that this piece of land wasn’t common, at least not today. This land resembled Iowa’s past. The grass I was playing in was a tall grass prairie and the trees I was climbing were big oaks, several hundred years old. My dad once told me, “You know, a long time ago there was probably a young Native American boy your age playing in that same tree.”
My dad had always stressed the importance of leaving a legacy for your family. In this case, preserving the land for the next generation to enjoy. He started over 30 years ago by picking wildflower seeds and scattering them around on some of his land. After seeing an immediate increase in wildlife he took it further. He went on to add a wetland, cover for wildlife, 15 acres of food plots, a timber stand improvement project, and 100 acres of prairie.
In the last 10 years, I have been able to help him with an oak savanna restoration project and several tree planting projects. I helped create several prairie habitats using native ecotype grasses and forbs, established pollinator habitats, and established filter strips along streams.
Those experiences gave me an appreciation of nature, history, and Iowa that have stayed with me today and led me to work for the Iowa Learning Farms. This work has opened my eyes to the fact that conservation doesn’t start at the field’s edge.
Cover crops, no-till, and nutrient management are just as necessary to preserve Iowa’s legacy as its native landscapes, because the only thing older than that beautiful oak tree is the soil it grew out of and the water it needed to grow. To me, conservation means preserving the past to protect the future.
Back on the farm there is an oxbow restoration project underway with the Nature Conservancy. My Dad is also re-enrolling some CRP land, which means that ground will have been in CRP for 40 years. I recently asked my Dad what’s next because he likes to have a new project every year. He replied, “I think I’ll try cover crops.” Now we’re talking!
When I look back as an adult, I realize it wasn’t just growing up on a farm that was the gift; it was the conservation around me. This is a gift I plan on sharing with my son. I know of a great place to play hide-and-seek and a great big tree to climb as soon as he’s old enough to walk.