How it Started, How It’s Going: Conservation Stations

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a demonstration is worth a million words at least!  I am reminded of this as we are brushing off the winter dirt from the Conservation Station Fleet and beginning to plan for summer 2021 outreach. The summer of 2020 was the first time since we launched our first trailer that we didn’t have a trailer rolling somewhere in Iowa. It might be the first summer we haven’t been to at least one county fair. We are really excited to be back on the road again this summer.

We have come a long way since we first introduced the Conservation Systems Rainfall Simulator back in 2006. There was definitely some initial hesitation amongst the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee about developing this trailer and the ability to take this around the state. Fortunately, Mark Licht and others were persistent. That one trailer has become several trailers in the 15 years since that first one. These trailers, named the Conservation Stations in 2010, have now been to every county in Iowa at a variety of events including county fairs, farmers’ markets, and numerous other community events. They have also been used for youth education in all corners of the state.

The changes we made over the years goes well beyond changing the name and adding to the fleet. The first rainfall simulator used disturbed soil and grass strip we would dig up behind old Davidson Hall on the Iowa State campus. Our team was not satisfied with this system and thought it would be better to show more realistic soil conditions where more accurate impacts of infiltration and runoff from no-till and other practices could be demonstrated. So, we came up with a system to extract undistributed soil from the field. This was no small feat and took many discussions with Howe’s Welding in Ames on how this system should be built.

Original Conservation Systems Rainfall Simulator

In addition, the team wanted this to be more than just a rainfall simulator to illustrate the impacts of land management. The team envisioned a traveling learning lab and from this the Conservation Station was born and started to roll in 2011. This had an indoor display to enhance the learning outcomes. In 2019, this indoor display was revised to illustrate what the Iowa landscape could look like in the future. These indoor displays along with the rainfall simulator allowed us to educate on the need and benefits of conservation practices.

Early on, I spent quite a few days on the road with the trailers. One particular encounter with a farmer still stays with me. I showed the rainfall demonstration and discussed the science behind it and this farmer got a thoughtful look on his face and said, “Well I guess 30% residue cover is not enough.” Now that is the power of a visual demonstration!

Conservation Station Circa 2011

While these rainfall simulators did a great job of illustrating in-field conservation practices, new edge-of-field practices were emerging. So, in 2018, the CS On-the-Edge was released. This trailer demonstrates bioreactors and saturated buffers for nitrate-N reduction to downstream waterbodies. Since both of these practices are buried below ground there isn’t much to see once they are installed. So having models that bring what is below ground above ground, improves our understanding of how these practices work. Oh and as an aside, the plumbing to make this all work was not the easiest to keep from leaking! I still have to tinker with the models every year before we send them out on the road.

Another thing that has changed with time is the look of the trailers. These trailers have now become more eye catching with artwork covering the trailer. The artwork relates to the topic of the trailer and we often hear that people remember seeing the trailer from the artwork they see driving down the road.

CS On-the-Edge Circa 2018

So what is in store for 2021? To celebrate getting back out in Iowa, we are launching a new trailer!  This trailer will demonstrate and educate on wetlands and oxbows. As with the big Conservation Station, there will be demonstrations, outdoor activities and a learning lab. Artworks Studio is doing the wetland and wildlife art that will be featured on the outside of the trailer. We think it will be our most exciting trailer yet. I won’t release any more details as we want to build the suspense.

As you review the pictures above I hope you see the team is always looking for ways to improve the educational experience and we will continue to do so.

During the pandemic over the last year, all of us on the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! Team have missed getting out to talk to Iowans about conservation practices. The trailers will start rolling soon and I encourage you to keep tabs on the Water Rocks! website for a location in your area where the trailers will be. Come see us and tell us whether a demonstration is even better than a picture.