Creativity in Challenging Times

Matt Helmers | ISU Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of Iowa Nutrient Research Center

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend two events that have left a distinct impression—what really struck me is the creativity and passion for conservation and sustaining rural communities. The first was the Iowa Learning Farms Leadership Circle that brought together farmers and landowners from all corners of the state. The second was the Michigan Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Annual meeting. The farmers and landowners that participated in these conservation-focused events are not only willing to try new things to protect their land, but also, just as importantly, they are willing to share their message and help others. In some cases, this included speaking out that some of the land management practices they see are concerning. While there are many cases where positive action is occurring, we also have to be willing to acknowledge where improvements are needed and can be made.

An example of creativity was a farmer from Ontario that shared information on grazing cover crops and finding substantial value of these as a forage source. He has started to work with an adjacent farmer to reduce tillage to be able to implement cover crops on his land. The farmer with the land where the cover crops are now being planted gets benefits of the nutrients from the cattle as they are grazing the cover crops.

Farmers’ and landowners’ passion for their rural communities and building of these communities for the long-term is a theme that clearly emerged. Particularly impactful in the Iowa Learning Farms meeting was the strong desire of younger farmers to see an increase in peers within their rural communities. While they value the rural lifestyle, they also desire more neighbors. There’s a genuine passion for what they are doing and desire to see others have the opportunity to be a part of it in the future.

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In both meetings there was also substantial discussion about changing climate and adapting to smaller field work windows. This is something we all need to think about and reflect upon with increasing weather variability. We have certainly seen the last couple fall and spring periods present challenges to completing field work in a timely fashion.

To me this brings up whether we can use these challenges as opportunities to try something different to perhaps reduce the number of days needed for field work. One potential way to do this is reducing tillage passes. As I drive around the Iowa landscape, I see a smaller percentage of corn stalks that have been tilled than many previous years. If these acres are going to soybeans in 2020, is there an opportunity to try no-till soybeans on some of these acres? This would reduce labor needs for tillage, fuel consumption, and time.  Research has shown excellent response of soybeans even in a no-till environment.

As I reflect on these conversations I have heard, I am reminded of the tremendous creativity of so many of the farmers I have the pleasure to get to interact with.  Can we use this creativity in challenging times to ensure we improve on protecting our soil and water resources?

Matt Helmers