Going the Extra Yard

A few years ago, Liz, Matt and I attended the funeral of Barry Kusel, one of our dedicated ILF farmer partners. Barry had passed away unexpectedly right before Thanksgiving that year. Barry was always someone we could turn to when we needed a strong advocate for cover crops or no till. Attending his funeral was important. None of us knew the rest of his family but I kept thinking that Barry was always willing to go wherever we asked him to go in order to help educate others about cover crops. Since Barry was always there when we needed him, we needed to be there for his family when they needed us. I know it meant a lot to his mother and his wife that we would come from Iowa State to pay our respects.

Two people in my own life really stand out for helping me learn the lesson of going the extra yard for folks: Joe Gronstal and Steve Padgitt. They didn’t teach me so much by their words but by their actions.

Joe was an old friend of the family but I really got to know him when he invited me to spend the summer at his house on Spirit Lake years ago. I was young and sort of in between things. A summer on the lake sounded great. Joe was an “old school” guy. He had his own way of doing things around the house and he was good at getting everyone around him to do it his way. You knew you were in trouble when Joe would look at you with that twinkle in his eye and say, “Well, I was thinking maybe we should try…” That summer, I would go along with whatever he asked me to help out with. His kids still tease me about how he got me to sit in the canoe and paint the side of the dock. He thought it would be easier. Trust me, it wasn’t easier.

What really stands out to me from that summer was how generous Joe was with his time and resources. He would drive hours one-way to visit a sick friend or do a favor for a friend. He was always looking out for his neighbors. He would point out to me the importance of being there in person for other people. My parents also did that in their lives but Joe used to go to such lengths to be there for his friends and neighbors that it really impacted me.Steve Padgitt was the sociology professor who first hired me for the Iowa Learning Farms project in 2004. Steve was a really good guy and I was so lucky to get to work with him before he retired. He was incredibly generous with his time as he gave me a crash course in the social aspects of agriculture. He was a great listener. After decades of Extension work, he knew agriculture and rural Iowa but he was still interested in my insights.

In the beginning, our primary task with Iowa Learning Farms was to send out a baseline survey to assess the status of conservation practices in Iowa. We needed to report regionally and so we needed a large response rate. We sent out thousands of letters and surveys. Steve signed every one of those letters. He made it clear to me that I should always hand-sign the letters I sent with a survey. Steve said that if we were going to ask the person to take the time to fill out the survey, we could take the time to sign our names. In other words, he was telling me not to ask more of other people than we are willing to give. Make the extra effort in what you do and people will respond.Now that I am director of the Iowa Learning Farms, I constantly remind myself of these principles as we are developing programming and doing our day-to-day activities. We have tried to be generous with our resources and our time. It is one of the reasons we still exist after 13 years. We try to be present in the state as often as possible through field days and community events. We make the extra effort. We could do none of this without our farmer partners.

Through the years, our farmer partners like Barry have been the living embodiment of these principles. They show up in person for others and they are cheerfully generous with their time and resources. They participate in important on-farm research and are always trying to find additional ways they can build soil health, reduce nutrient loss and improve the health of our land and water. They aren’t asking other farmers to do more than they are willing to do. They make conservation and water quality practices work on the land while they still continue to produce good yields and earn a decent living.

During this Thanksgiving season, on behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank our farmer partners for all they do on the land to make our state healthy, for all you do in being present to others across the state, and all you do to make our program a success! Thank you!

Jacqueline Comito

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Youth Outreach: Updates from Jack

Hi, again! If you read our blog last month, you may remember me as Jack Schilling, the new AmeriCorps service member serving with Water Rocks!. A lot has happened in this last month and a half, and I wanted to share what I have been up to throughout!

To start, I have done a lot of Water Rocks! school assemblies. At assemblies, we teach in front of a large group of students (usually hundreds of them) ranging from kindergarten all the way up to 8th grade. So far at assemblies, I have taught students about watersheds and soil conservation with games and music to help. I also help with behind-the-scenes work such as organizing our posters before we present, setting up the sound system, and scouting for the nearest bathroom.

Thanks to these assemblies, I’ve been able to continue to sing and act outside of school, even getting to play Mr. Raindrop in the assemblies. Having to learn all the songs, lines, and timing was daunting at first, but now that I’ve adjusted, things are going great!

Secondly, I have helped with quite a few Water Rocks! classroom visits. These interactive presentations are given to one class at a time, so it’s a more intimate setting with class sizes ranging from the teens to over thirty. These visits can take anywhere from a few hours to the whole day, but that is mainly dependent on how far across the state we travel. Some days, it could be a school in Des Moines, and other days it could be all the way up to Decorah.

The classroom presentations don’t have singing in them, but I get to help the students participate in fun games like We all Live in a Watershed, where students get to develop a piece of land to put in our watershed. It’s always funny to see the amount of McDonalds that are drawn! I have also taught modules on biodiversity, conservation, soil, and wetlands.

All in all, this last month and a half has been busy, especially with assemblies, but has been fun and engaging as well. In November, the assemblies will become less frequent, but classroom visits will pick up, meaning more time with a smaller, tight knit group of students. I look forward to the coming months ahead and am excited for more opportunities to teach about water and soil conservation.

Jack Schilling

Schilling is a part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Conservation Chat: Building Momentum for Conservation

The most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast introduces us to one of the key players at the interface of agriculture and environment issues in the state of Iowa: Sean McMahon.  A career conservationist with vast experience in the public, private and NGO sectors, McMahon currently serves as Executive Director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.

In this latest Conservation Chat podcast episode, McMahon shares IAWA’s vision of building partnerships and working closely with farmers and landowners to increase the pace and scale of conservation practice adoption. There is a large emphasis on public-private partnerships, particularly via the largest Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the nation, bringing together 47 different partners, including 19 agribusinesses, to promote conservation practice implementation and Nutrient Reduction Strategy adoption.

When it comes to getting additional conservation practices on the ground, McMahon places great emphasis on finding the win-wins:

“What are those practices that can improve productivity, profitability, and environmental performance simultaneously? … We have some interesting programs along those lines, and I think that will continue to pick up momentum.”

While practices like cover crops have seen large increases in adoption in recent years, McMahon recognizes that this is just the tip of the iceberg:

“We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface … We’ve got a whole lot of work to do!”

And we’ll be doing some of that work together in the near future, thanks to a new partnership between Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, focused specifically on edge-of-field conservation practices. In particular, we will be working together to provide education and outreach on edge-of-field conservation practices with our new Conservation Station ON THE EDGE trailer (stay tuned for further details within the next week!).

IAWA and Iowa Corn are key partners in helping make Conservation Station ON THE EDGE a reality, as well as ensuring that the trailer will be demonstrated at 30 outreach events annually. By demonstrating such practices as bioreactors and saturated buffers, our hope is that this will raise the profile of edge-of-field conservation practices that benefit water quality for all Iowans.

Tune in to Episode 36 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Sean McMahon. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

What’s In Your Water?:  Spotlight on Pharmaceuticals

Does your medicine cabinet have half a bottle of prescription medication left over from an injury years ago? How many random expired OTC medications can you find around your house?

This Saturday, October 28, is your chance to dispose of those unused/unwanted medications properly!   National Drug Take Back Day is designed to provide a safe, convenient,“no questions asked” opportunity to dispose of medications, addressing a critical public health issue. Find a Take Back LOCATION near you.  While headlines across the state and across the nation have brought needed attention to such challenges as the opioid epidemic, pharmaceuticals also pose an emerging challenge to our water quality.


How exactly can pharmaceuticals and personal care products impact the surrounding environment?

Historically, unused medications were flushed down the toilet (that’s NOT the recommended disposal technique any longer).

However, in addition, the medicines and personal care products we use every day are having an unseen impact on our water resources. Pharmaceuticals like statins are prescribed to help us lower cholesterol levels, and headaches are banished by a few pills of ibuprofen. While the chemical compounds found in pharmaceuticals are metabolized internally, our bodies are not 100% efficient machines.

The remainder of the medications that our bodies do not use pass through our bodies and exit when we use the bathroom. Although wastewater treatment facilities do a great job of cleaning our water, these treatment processes cannot fully remove the multitude of complex chemicals within drugs, shampoos and other personal care products. These chemicals can build up in our water sources over time – consider the chemical “cocktail” of antibiotics, antidepressants, Viagra, painkillers, and more!  As trace amounts of these different chemical compounds accumulate in the environment, in our waters, the long-term impacts to fish, amphibians, and humans alike are yet to be determined.


Check out “The Shower” from our award-winning What’s In Your Water? video series to learn more!


Do your part and check that home medicine cabinet today!  Find a Take Back LOCATION near you and dispose of those medications this Saturday, October 28.

Ann Staudt


 

Read on for more information:

Planning for Conservation, Planning for Success

Several members of our team traveled to Madison, WI, last week for the kickoff of an exciting new collaborative CONSERVATION PLANNING project with the USDA-NRCS and University of Wisconsin Extension (Environmental Resources Center and Conservation Professional Training Program).

CONSERVATION PLANNING is focused on NRCS field staff and technical service providers working directly with producers to develop targeted, individual land management plans that address natural resource concerns, leading to the greatest return on investment for both the producer and the environment.  From the Conservation Planning Partnership Publication, the planning process is specifically focused on economic benefits of conservation, landscape-scale planning, soil health improvement, knowledge sharing across the conservation partnership, and confidently communicating with customers in a way that leads to an improved understanding about the natural resources on their land.

NRCS is currently expanding its training and certification programs for the conservation planning process nationwide, to better help conservation planners develop and maintain the skills needed to be successful, and that’s where we come into play!

The project team is developing a series of 12 online courses, delivered via AgLearn, which encompass the complete Conservation Planning curriculum  — this portion is being led by the University of Wisconsin, with great expertise in instructional design and creating an engaging online learning atmosphere. Apprentice conservation planners will complete the online courses first, then participate in one or multiple in-person training workshops.

Iowa Learning Farms team members are leading the development of a series of instructional guides that will help direct the in-person training workshops, focused on hands-on, interactive, and in-field activities that will build upon the knowledge gained in the online training modules. These instructional guides are geared towards taking a systems thinking approach, and will be grouped into four different major land uses: croplands, grazing lands, riparian areas, and headquarters (farmsteads).

We will also be creating one more instructional guide that is focused on effective delivery of conservation planning courses – tools and techniques for keeping things engaging and interactive in the classroom (avoiding DeathByPowerPoint!). Our team brings years of extension and outreach experience to the table, so we’ll do our best to build on that experience in making the Conservation Planning trainings as effective and engaging as possible.

We’re excited for the project to get underway, and as we strive to revitalize the Conservation Planning training courses, we ultimately hope that these efforts will lead to increased implementation of conservation practices across our landscape!

Ann Staudt

Sign up today for new Master Conservationist program!

Interested in deepening your knowledge of Iowa’s wildlife and plant communities, broadening your understanding of biodiversity, and connecting the dots between agriculture, natural resources, and conservation issues in our great state? Look no further than the newly revitalized Iowa Master Conservationist program, launching this next week!

Mount Pleasant will be hosting this pilot Master Conservationist program, running from October 5 – November 12, 2017. The newly refreshed Master Conservationist training program is being coordinated by Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist, in partnership with Henry Co. Extension and other local conservation personnel.

The revitalized Master Conservationist program features a hybrid flipped classroom format, including both weekly online lessons and face-to-face interactive meetings.  Themes will cover a broad range of conservation topics pertinent here in the state of Iowa, ranging from conservation history, biodiversity, forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems, to bringing it all together in the watershed and effectively communicating conservation.

Each of the online modules will be led by ISU faculty and staff who are not just experts in their fields, but also highly engaging presenters.  Participants will then meet in person weekly for the face-to-face training component, which will include interactive, hands-on activities and demonstrations led by local conservation enthusiasts, building and expanding upon that week’s online training. With numerous parallels to the Master Gardener program, the Master Conservationist program weaves together both learning and service in the local community.

Don’t delay – get signed up today to be a part of this exciting new pilot Master Conservationist program!   Spaces are limited, in order to foster an intimate learning environment, and today is literally the deadline to get registered. The cost is $100 and includes course materials plus a meal and/or snack for each of the seven weeks of training. Contact the ISU Extension and Outreach Henry County Office today at 319-385-8126.

Ann Staudt