Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

Little Conservation Station Available for FREE Check-out this Summer!

Would your organization or multi-day event benefit from having one of our Conservation Station trailers on-site? Then we have some great news for you!

Our Little Conservation Station trailer (Lil CS) is available for check-out this summer! But wait, we have even better news. Checking out our Lil CS is FREE! All you need to do is complete the online request form to make your request. Once approved, you will need to come to Iowa State University to pick it up, and return it after your event.

Our Lil CS trailer comes equipped with a rainfall simulator that demonstrates the impacts of land management choices on erosion and water quality.  We provide you with a detailed, illustrated instruction manual on hitching up the trailer, set up procedures, useful talking points for the rainfall simulator, and tear down instructions, to assure your success with the entire process. Check out more information about our Conservation Station fleet by visiting our Conservation Station webpage.

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A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.

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Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.

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Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.

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When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:

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Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at casehaub@iastate.edu.

Brandy Case Haub

RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops

Iowa Learning Farms believes that the most productive way to reach farmers with our message is to engage with them, and encourage them to engage with other farmers. ILF utilizes several methods to facilitate two-way, open communication at our events. One of our favorites is the Rapid Need Assessment and Response (RNR) technique.

A modified, amped up version of the carousel brainstorming technique often used by educators, RNR is a method for engaging participants in small groups to share their knowledge with one another on a specified list of topics or questions. This technique serves to identify what participants already know about certain topics, and encourages them to interact in small group settings to exchange ideas that will later be offered up to the larger group. Rather than making assumptions about attendees’ knowledge base on certain topics, RNR allows us as event facilitators to actually identify what attendees know, and directly gage our information toward their misconceptions and lack of knowledge on water quality and conservation topics.

Iowa Learning Farms most recently used RNR in September at an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach meeting for absentee landowners, to identify participants’ views on assignment of responsibility for conservation practices on rented agricultural land, to measure their general knowledge of water and soil quality issues, and to identify what methods they believed to be most useful for addressing those issues. By using RNR, ILF was able to observe landowners’ level of understanding of water and soil quality challenges.

The ILF team identified six questions they wanted participants to focus on during the activity. Six large sheets of paper were taped to walls around the room’s perimeter, each with a question written at the top. Small groups of seven people each rotated through the six stations to discuss the questions and add their thoughts onto the sheets of paper. This type of active engagement inspired participants to talk and engage with each other.

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A small group of landowners discusses practices for minimizing nitrogen loss on land as part of the RNR activity.

The questions asked during the absentee landowner meeting, and the answers indicated as most effective during the large group discussion that followed, were:

QUESTION MOST POPULAR ANSWERS
1)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for edge of field conservation practices?

 

Joint responsibility between landowner and tenant, and also watershed cooperators; possibly should be written into land rental contracts
2)    What practices are most effective in preventing soil erosion and phosphorous loss in your area?

 

No till practices, waterways, and cover crops
3)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for infield practices?

 

Landowner (their asset; their responsibility), cooperation of landowner and tenant, or landowners should establish practices and tenants should maintain them
4)    What are the barriers to water quality improvement in Iowa?

 

Cost, lack of technology or knowledge of implementation, and apathy
5)    What are the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa?

 

Surface run-off, too much tillage, stream bank erosion, and lack of conservation practices
6)    What practices are most effective for minimizing nitrogen loss in your area?

 

Buffer strips, measuring nitrogen and phosphorous levels, utilizing crop rotation and nitrogen stabilizers

In addition to encouraging landowners in attendance to interact with each other on these important issues, the Iowa Learning Farms team was able to identify some misconceptions held by several participants. Regulated tile flow, bioreactors, and wetlands were listed by some small groups as practices that help to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. In fact, these practices help to filter nitrates, but do nothing to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. Likewise, many groups believed the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa stem from practices causing increased erosion, when in fact a lot of work has been done already to address surface water run-off and erosion, but less work has addressed the issue of nitrates at the root level.

Identifying these misconceptions and knowledge gaps before moving forward with the meeting was tremendously helpful, as water quality experts, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning, could speak to the group about current scientific studies on these topics, and help dispel myths or misunderstandings of the issues. It also encouraged greater participation during the remainder of the session, since everyone in attendance had gotten a chance to really engage with the focus material, and get a sense of other attendees’ points of view. The rest of the workshop was based on what participants still needed to learn about water quality and conservation practices.

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The large group reconvenes in a discussion lead by Dr. Matt Helmers to go over ideas that were exchanged during RNR.

RNR is one of the many ways Iowa Learning Farms encourages interactive participation at our events, and makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard as we move forward in our efforts to improve Iowa’s water and soil quality through increased adoption of conservation practices! Watch our website, http://www.iowalearningfarms.org, for opportunities across Iowa to participate in an RNR workshop in February and March this year.

Brandy Case Haub

Chatting with Lisa Schulte Moore about Ecology and Biodiversity

Have you heard our newest Conservation Chat? Our 26th podcast in the Conversation Chat series features Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, Iowa State University Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology & Management. Iowa Learning Farms Director, Jacqueline Comito, speaks with Schulte Moore, who is co-founder of the STRIPs (Science-based Trails of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project. This project, based out of ISU with test strips in operation on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and various private lands, is the first scientific field study promoting the use of prairie strips on agricultural land as a water quality and conservation practice.

dscn1150c“I’ve always been, when it comes to science, an innovator,” Schulte Moore tells Comito. Schulte Moore worked as a post-doctoral associate for the U.S. Forest Service before coming to ISU thirteen years ago. Her research specialty is in historical ecology and forestry land management, with an emphasis on bird habitats and populations. While her educational background is highly focused on forest ecology, she has found herself more focused on prairie ecosystems and row crop agriculture through her work with the STRIPs project. She says this about the transition in her research focus:

A prairie isn’t that different from an old growth forest, it’s just that all the biomass is below the ground. But you can get something that looks, at least above ground, like a prairie much more quickly than you can get an old growth forest. And so in some ways it’s a little bit more satisfying because I can see more of my impact in my lifetime.

Schulte Moore tells Comito about not only the dramatic water quality benefits from converting 10-20% of agricultural land into prairie, but the increase in wildlife biodiversity and its benefits as well. She says the results from just the first five years of scientific data on twelve experimental catchments at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are unprecedented: a 7-fold increase in native birds and insects, a 4-fold increase in the total abundance of insects (including a 3.47-fold increase in native pollinators), and a 15% increase in natural enemies (insects that feed on crop pests).

Why should we care about having greater biodiversity of wildlife in our agricultural lands? Schulte Moore tells us that birds, for example, offer humans many benefits—they act as a “canary” for measuring the health of an ecosystem: the more bird biodiversity, the healthier and more balanced the surrounding ecosystem. Birds control insect pests by preying on insect populations, and also eat weed seeds in cropland. And many humans enjoy observing and feeding different types of birds.

Are you a farmer who is interested in learning more about how to put prairie strips onto your land? Are you interested in learning more about the benefits of adding strips to row crops, the funding and costs, and possibilities for implementing prairie strips in new locations on your land in the future? Or maybe you are curious about Dr. Schulte Moore’s self-affirmed obsession with fire, or her special talent related to ornithology. If any of these things spark your interest, then this Conservation Chat is right up your alley. Click on the image below to be taken to the Conservation Chat with Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore!

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Brandy Case Haub

Water Rocks! Hosts Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for Non-Traditional Educators

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In early November, Water Rocks! hosted the Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators. This two-day Summit, hosted at Reiman Gardens in Ames, brought together more than twenty educators from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota. Educators from these states came to Ames to become more familiar with Water Rocks!; our award-winning Iowa State University Extension and Outreach youth water education campaign.

Participants at the early November Summit represented a wide range of professions, from county extension and state DNR offices, to 4-H and county conservation programs and botanical gardens. Thanks to generous funding from the North Central Region Water Network, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (US EPA, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), educators were able to take advantage of the opportunity to come to Iowa State University for water quality education and Water Rocks! training, and received not only reimbursement for their travel expenses, but also took home $800 worth of educational materials to use in their home programs!

Educators attending the Summit heard from Iowa State University faculty on the newest research related to water quality, soil health, nutrient transport from agricultural land, erosion and climate change. These expert presentations were followed up with interactive demonstrations from ISUEO’s Water Rocks! team, allowing Summit participants to channel their inner 5th graders, and engage with the educational presentations just as students would. Water Rocks! youth education modules covered a wide range of environmental topics, including biodiversity, watersheds, wetland ecosystems, and soil health. Attendees participated in regional roundtables to share their tools of the trade with the larger group, and also discussed the challenges they face in their home states in reaching target audiences.

The Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators was an overwhelming success. It opened up dialogue among professionals in neighboring Midwestern states who face similar environmental issues and outreach challenges, and who hope to utilize Water Rocks! educational materials and music videos to address some of those challenges, and bring in a fresh, artistic perspective to their existing programming. But you don’t have to take our word for it; check out what Summit participants had to say about their experiences!

What struck me the most during the summit was the importance of music and movement to learning these science concepts. The Water Rocks! program has found unique ways to make learning about these concepts fun and memorable. What also struck me is how positive, enthusiastic, and talented the Water Rocks! team is, and they are a testament to how big things can happen when people are passionate and enthusiastic about something. –Missouri team

The program’s passion for environmental conservation and education of youth are reflected in the activities and resources it provides educators and learners.—South Dakota team

I’ve attended other conferences in the past where the topics and speakers have been focused on water, but I thought the creativity and scope of the topics and speakers were outstanding…There are so many children who connect with art either visually or audibly. The inclusion of art in the Water Rocks programming… allows children with all types of learning strategies to get involved, understand, and, hopefully, retain the information that is being presented. –Iowa team

I have been involved with water festivals for many years and we have done similar hands-on lessons, however, the Water Rocks kit is the most professionally developed that I have seen. –Missouri team

I am extremely confident I will be a much better teacher and advocate of the topics after the Water Rocks! summit.—Iowa team

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–written by Brandy Case Haub