Watkins Announced as Spencer Award Winner

We are thrilled to share the news that one of this year’s Spencer Awards for Sustainable Agriculture is being awarded to Clarinda-area farmer Seth Watkins, long-time farmer-partner and friend of Iowa Learning Farms!

The Spencer Award recognizes researchers, teachers and farmers who have contributed significantly to the environmental and economic stability of the Iowa farming community. Nominated by fellow farmer-partner Nathan Anderson, Seth Watkins is one of the most forward thinking, creative, and innovative farmers you’ll meet. He is dedicated to learning all he can about improving the water and land under his care. How he treats the land and how he gives of his time demonstrate both his conservation-focused stewardship and his incredible generosity.

Watkins’ crop and cattle enterprise, Pinhook Farm, is a little slice of paradise in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, featuring rotational grazing, restricted wildlife areas, riparian buffers, ponds, wetlands and shallow water habitats, integrated pest management, prescribed burning, windbreak restoration, no-till, cover crops, terraces, prairie restoration/CRP, late season calving, and prairie strips. He sees no conflict between profitability and environmental sustainability.

For Watkins, conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land around him– strategic placement is key. As Seth described to a group of Emerging Farmers he hosted on his land this past August, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.”

The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I do love cows, but I really love the land.”

Watkins is a big-time conservation and systems thinking advocate, sharing that message on the local, state, and national levels. In addition to hosting a two-day Emerging Farmers retreat on his land with Iowa Learning Farms, Seth has been willing to be interviewed by a dog for the “Adventures of the Conservation Pack” video series, participated in ILF Leadership Circles and hosted both farmer field days as well as elementary school field trips on his farm. Seth teaches through example and he is kind and patient regardless of his audience. His creativity, compassion and willingness to help others make him stand out in a crowd.

Read more about the Spencer Award and this year’s winners in the news release Leopold Center at Iowa State University Presents Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

Join us in congratulating Seth – we couldn’t think of a more humble and deserving farmer!

Ann Staudt

Water Rocks! Refreshes and Streamlines Online Presence

New county map feature, simplified calendar of events, and a fresh navigation experience optimized for mobile devices and tablets, highlight website updates

Water Rocks!, a unique, award-winning, statewide water education program, recently revealed its updated website at www.waterrocks.org. The site contains a wealth of resources regarding environmental programs, farm and agriculture outreach, conservation efforts across Iowa, and interactive learning activities. The update includes more intuitive navigation and the addition of an interactive county map, calendar of appearances and events, and optimization to ensure compatibility with mobile devices, tablets, and popular web browsers.

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“After six years, and considering feedback from users ranging from elementary school students to retirees, we decided it was time to take advantage of the latest in web technology to redo the website from the ground up,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The new navigation buttons on the home page make it simpler for different constituent groups to find what they want, while continuing to provide the resources, videos, games, and music Water Rocks! is known for.”

With the help of Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm based in Urbandale, Iowa, Water Rocks! addressed navigation challenges that had been observed – particularly with young users – by organizing all information and resources for teachers and students under high-visibility banners at the top of the home page.

Visitors to www.waterrocks.org will still find award-winning videos, music, games, and activities geared for all ages. There is also an area of the site dedicated to the fleet of Conservation Station trailers used by Water Rocks! for outreach and education.

The new site also sports an interactive county map feature which enables visitors to click on any county in the state of Iowa to see what Water Rocks! and Conservation Station activities have taken place over the past several years.

In addition, the website provides a single calendar for all Water Rocks! and Conservation Station appearances at schools, fairs, and special events throughout the year. Teachers and administrators are encouraged to review the calendar to see where Water Rocks! will be, and to use the simple online visit request to plan for a visit to their campus.

“The Water Rocks! team is excited about this new portal which makes it easy for visitors to learn about conservation, environmental issues, water quality, and choices that make a difference for all Iowans,” concluded Staudt.

Check it out today at www.waterrocks.org/!

The Most Rewarding Work

When I first began my AmeriCorps term in October of 2017, it was a matter of serendipity. I had been eager to do something meaningful in the space between graduating college in December of 2017 and moving into a full-time job in August of 2018. I had considered AmeriCorps, but worried about the year-long commitment given my timeline for a new job. My excitement to join the Water Rocks! team as a part-time service member was unmatched — it fit my timeline perfectly and the work I would be doing was so meaningful. This position ended up doing more for me than just allowing me to work with such a cool program. It helped me to grow as a young adult and paved my transition into full-time working life.


Time Management is the Key to Success

I began my service term during school and quickly learned that time management for a full-time job is different than time management for a part-time job because you want to take your work home with you. I had to quickly learn how to effectively manage my time at work so that I wouldn’t let it bleed into my school/homework time and later my other jobs. Because I was a part-time service member, I had the opportunity to find a second job. It was challenging to orchestrate both schedules and to give both jobs the time I felt they deserved. I gained a new respect for people who work multiple jobs. Even though my service was top priority, keeping my promise to my other employer was also of the utmost importance to me. Learning to balance my schedule helped me to feel confident in giving my best to my service.


Doing Your Best is Up to You

In my new position with Water Rocks! I was given freedom to develop several programs, including a library and day camp program, and run them on my own. In the development process of both programs I worried they would not be good enough or that I had not put in enough work to make them successful. My team always puts out high quality teaching tools and programs that are well-organized, so the bar was high. I got over my anxiousness by putting in the time to make the programs meet my standard. If you work on something until you are proud of it, other people will see that and feedback you get will only help you to elevate the project. I was setting the bar for myself lower than what I could actually do because of the limits I was putting on myself. Being a part of this AmeriCorps service opportunity helped me to gain confidence to push the limits of what I thought I could do and move beyond good to great.


It’s a Bow-Wow World
When We Work Together

Teamwork means more than just the work I put in with my team in the office. My team at Water Rocks! headquarters is amazing and I learn things from each and every one of them each time we are on an event together, but working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partners across the state taught me the power of regional teamwork. We are able to reach so many more students and we are better able to connect to the people who live across the state because we have partners on the ground who live in and know these communities.

I have been on 79 events this year and talked to thousands of people about conservation. I have seen the power of song and games and the staying power of the conservation message. No matter how long the travel or how many people we saw, teaching people about conservation was enough to make me feel the impact of the work we do. Watching people’s faces change as we talked about pollution AND solutions to pollution never gets old. Conservation work is the most rewarding work I will ever do. I look forward to bringing these lessons to Nebraska as I continue my journey of public service as a regional planner for the Panhandle Area Development District.

Megan Koppenhafer

Megan Koppenhafer just completed her term of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since October 2017 (and as a college intern with Water Rocks! two prior summers). Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan — many thanks! You both rock!

Hanging Up the Name Tag

All things must come to an end, and AmeriCorps service is no different. In the middle of the winter, going to classrooms on the daily, it never seems that it will end. But, that’s not a bad thing. You continue teaching students many lessons: we all live in a watershed; keep the soil covered; wetlands provide a pitstop for migratory animals; just one block could cause the tower of biodiversity to collapse; pollinators are a really big deal.

And then, you look at the calendar. August. Your last days of service are here. How did it come so fast? You don’t know. What you do know is that the familiarity of your classroom visits, assemblies, and day camps is gone. It’s time to be thrust back out into another unfamiliar experience, not unlike your first day a year ago. But, this time is different. This time, you have the lessons you have learned on your AmeriCorps journey to guide you.

These are the thoughts I had as I came to the full realization that my service was about to end. Over this last year, I have learned so much about conservation, Iowa, responsibility, and communication from my service time in Ames. These are some of the most important I learned throughout my journey.

Own the Problem – Don’t Blame
or Make Excuses

I and the rest of the Water Rocks! team had the privilege to read Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out: The Nine Communication Rules You Need to Succeed by Loretta Malandro, a book that teaches different guidelines to improve your communication, whether it be in the workplace or even in your day-to-day life. While all nine rules are important, this is the one that stood out to me the most. We tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, either by blaming someone else or making an excuse about the circumstances. The solution is simple in concept – just own the problem and accept when you made a mistake – but it’s hard for us to take responsibility for our actions. This chapter struck a chord with me as I, like many other people, got defensive whenever I made a mistake, and I took a lot from this chapter with me into my day-to-day life.

Sometimes, you Just Have to Say “Oh, Well.”

This lesson did not come from a book, but from my coworker Todd. In the hectic life that is travelling to schools and assemblies, sometimes things don’t work out how you planned. A wrong turn is taken en route, the contact person tells you the wrong school building, an iPad is left behind. It can be easy to stress out over these things as they come up. However, stressing out after the fact does little to fix the situation. The best thing to do is take a breath and say “Oh, well.” I always admired Todd’s ability to keep himself relaxed and away from stress, and I aspire to have that ability.

Cedar Rapids is in the East

This is something I did not know for certain before travelling all over the state with Water Rocks!. Before AmeriCorps, I lived the stereotypical midwestern life where I only knew my county and the counties around me, not knowing where anything else in the state was. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t know what quadrant of the state most areas were! AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to travel all over the state, and even into South Dakota for assemblies twice.

This is a map showing all the locations I travelled to throughout the year. I went all over the state, from Decorah, to Sioux City, to Council Bluffs (many times!). Travelling my home state gave me the chance to become more familiar with it than I’d ever been, and I’m glad I got the chance.

AmeriCorps may be ending, but a new journey is beginning. I am now starting my first semester at DMACC in Ankeny to begin my Video Production Diploma. It is a good fit for me and I hope to meet many new friends when I get there. Even with my completed service, I will take everything I learned with me. And blow people away when I tell them Cedar Rapids is, in fact, in the East.

Jack Schilling

Jack Schilling is now completing his year of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since September 2017. Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan (who you’ll be hearing from soon) — many thanks!

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt