Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?

As a wildlife biologist, I admittedly have a less mainstream attitude towards weeds. For me, keeping those less obtrusive but often disgraced varieties of flowering and seed-producing plants on field edges and in barn lots is a good deal for the birds and the butterflies. But, as a wildlife biologist and a conservationist, I know that anything that affects efficiency in crop production affects conservation. So when I heard about the weed called Palmer Amaranth being found across Iowa last summer, I read the headline articles, watched the top stories, followed the unanimous senate vote, and learned how to identify the new pigweed to see where I could help.

Palmer, as it’s called, is a major challenge in cropping systems in the southern U.S. and until 2016 had only been found in five Iowa counties. Then, during the 2016 growing season, that list grew to at least 48  and experts predict that number could be higher.

The culprit? Seed mixes shipped to Iowa from southern dealers to meet burgeoning demand for high-diversity native plantings contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP fields where Palmer was rearing its ugly, thousands-of-seed-bearing head were the same fields lauded by conservationists as the best practice ever conceived under the CRP for addressing the plight of economically and ecologically important insects and many declining wildlife populations.

And, just as Palmer had entered the lexicon seemingly overnight, something else became apparent: “conservation plantings” had become synonymous with “Palmer.”

In the last year, I’ve seen this phenomena play out everywhere from professional meetings to farmsteads. I’ve heard stories from across the state about inquiries on CRP contract termination. I’ve talked with landowners that have dismissed high-diversity plantings out of fear for being the source of a new Palmer infestation. I’ve read gloom-and-doom articles implicating CRP in fueling the spread of Palmer on pages of periodicals from across the Midwest.

Vigilance and education are unequivocally important. My concern though is not with the messaging in educational efforts on this emerging threat, but rather the implicit deduction often drawn. That is, if Palmer is the effect and conservation plantings the cause, won’t less of the latter preclude more of the former?

I don’t have any data to support the veracity my concerns. Only my own experiences and anecdotes, which of course is shaky ground as a scientist. Dr. Bob Hartzler, the respected authority and defacto leader of the important response to the Palmer outbreak in 2016, recently told Iowa Learning Farms in his Conservation Chat podcast interview that he didn’t think concerns over Palmer were driving people away from conservation. I hope he’s right.

Professional educators and everyone in the agriculture and conservation community need to continue to address this emerging threat. But, we need to do so while retaining and building on progress for conservation of pollinators, soil, water, and wildlife that are fundamental to our quality of life and the sustainability of rural landscapes in Iowa. We need to be careful to not lose sight of the original goal of the high-diversity conservation plantings. We need to push a uniform message that less conservation isn’t the solution but rather that more vigilance is. Palmer is a huge deal. But I hope we don’t forget, conservation is a huge deal, too.

Adam Janke

Thank you to Adam Janke, Bob Hartzler, and Meaghan Anderson for their willingness to share photographs for this article!

Iowans Walk on the Wild Side

In my first year in Iowa, I’ve found an engaged and motivated citizenry that values wildlife and their habitats. No wonder – Iowa has produced a disproportionate number of 20th century leaders in wildlife conservation, including William Hornaday, Jay “Ding” Darling, John Lacey, and Aldo Leopold. Proof of this commitment lies in Iowan’s support for each of our 99 locally funded County Conservation Boards, a model unique and perfectly suited for the state.

Further proof lies in the outcome of a 2010 vote where 63% of Iowans voted in favor of a self-imposed tax and constitutional amendment to provide permanent funding for natural resource conservation and education. Additionally, a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.3 million people in Iowa participate in wildlife-associated recreation and spend $1.5 billion doing so annually. Wildlife and wildlife habitats matter to Iowans, our economy, and our land.

Plenty of challenges remain. The meritorious work of public and non-governmental entities to preserve unique habitats in our state only amasses to about 3% of the land area.  Between one and two million acres are annually enrolled in federal conservation practices that provide wildlife habitat. But even when combined with lands in public ownership, these conservation lands are only a drop in the bucket of Iowa’s 36 million acres. Thus, the challenge of preserving our rich wildlife heritage rides on the backs of the collective impact of small actions taken by all landowners in our state.

Wildlife conservation challenges are driven by changes to natural ecosystems in our agricultural landscapes. This is where the opportunities lie, because just as wildlife populations track changes in natural ecosystems, so too do many other important ecosystem services. Wildlife are thus one additional beneficiary of sustainable land use practices and should therefore serve as one more bargaining chip in extolling the benefits and promise of conservation efforts that unite every sector and every resident in Iowa.

We’ve all got a stake in this, and as we see improved soil health and water quality, we’ll see more pheasants and meadowlarks. That sounds like a win-win to me and I’m excited to learn how I can collaborate with the Iowa Learning Farms in the years to come.

Adam Janke

Dr. Adam Janke recently joined the ILF team in an advisory role, and will be a regular contributor to the ILF blog. Hear more of Janke’s perspectives on conservation and wildlife issues on the Conservation Chat podcast!

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt

Cover crop researcher Tom Kaspar receives Spencer Award

Congratulations to our friend and collaborator, Dr. Tom Kaspar, on receiving the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture yesterday!

Long regarded as the grandfather of cover crops here in the state of Iowa, USDA-ARS plant physiologist Tom Kaspar is certainly one of the leading voices on cover crops across the Midwest.  He was one of the “founding fathers” of the Midwest Cover Crops Council, and his collaborative work over the years has investigated and documented the benefits and challenges of cover crops in corn and soybean cropping systems, ranging from impacts on water quality, soil health, nutrient cycling, and more.

We are grateful to Tom for serving as a guest speaker at countless Iowa Learning Farms field days and workshops over the years, sharing his findings with farmers, landowners, and other ag partners across the state. We are also grateful for his efforts in guiding the work of the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, including our long-term on-farm rye study and our study of earthworms and cover crops.

Kaspar has amassed years of experience investigating not only soil health and cover crops, but also connections with no till, minimum tillage, climatic variations, disease, pathogens, and more. To hear some great perspectives from the man himself, check out Episode 6 of the Conservation Chat podcast, in which host Jackie Comito talks cover crops with Dr. Tom Kaspar.

Kaspar was also featured in our August 2015 Iowa Learning Farms webinar, presenting on Reaching the Full Potential of Cover Crops in Iowa.  Stay tuned to the blog, as well — we’ll be highlighting some of Kaspar’s cover crop findings here in the next week or so.

In the meantime, congratulations to Tom for an honor that is very well deserved!

Ann Staudt

 

Engineers are Integral!

We are in the heart of National Engineers Week, so let’s give a shout out to all of the engineers out there who are combining science, technology, and problem solving to address real world challenges across the globe!

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Engineers Week is an annual celebration, striving to get the word out about what engineers do, helping to increase understanding and build excitement around science and engineering. Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, Engineers Week is traditionally held around the time of George Washington’s birthday. In addition to serving as our first president, Washington is widely recognized as our nation’s first engineer thanks to his extensive surveying work.

Here in the conservation world, our work today is certainly much different from GW’s, but no less important in terms of working on some grand challenges here in the state of Iowa!  Engineers are integral to so many pieces of the puzzle, from developing agricultural machinery and grain handling/storage,  to working with big data and precision conservation (check out Amy Kaleita’s work for more), studying the interactions of land and water (read about the work being done by Michelle Soupir’s team and Matt Helmers’s team), designing and optimizing practices like wetlands and bioreactors for maximum effectiveness, plus designing water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities that treat millions of gallons of water each day.

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However, technical solutions alone will certainly not solve the water quality challenges that we face here in the state of Iowa – the social sciences, music, and the arts are equally important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making emotional appeals and helping people better understand and connect with the land and water resources around them.

I’m proud to be an engineer working in water quality and conservation here with Iowa Learning Farms, as well as inspiring the next generation to get super excited about science and engineering through our classroom visits with Water Rocks!. Happy E-Week to all!

Ann Staudt

P.S. Today is an especially unique day within National Engineers Week – it’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. DiscoverE is celebrating #GirlDay2017 with a live Twitter Chat “Role Models Unite to Inspire Girls” coming up very soon — TODAY at noon ET (11:00am central)!

 

 

From the Director: A Faith-Based Approach to Conservation

fromthedirectorBack in November 2015, Drake University hosted a conference called Sustaining Our Iowa Land (SOIL), focused on the past, present and future of Iowa’s soil and water conservation policy. Jamie, Ann and I attended the conference. On the first day, a couple of the panelists asserted that a faith-based approach to increased conservation might be an added tool in our outreach and education strategy. Everyone was buzzing about this idea. It seemed to capture imagination. I think we are always looking for that approach that can bring better success. Perhaps it is also an acknowledgment that we need to appeal to folks’ “higher angels” if we hope to make the kind of change needed for a sustainable future.

My mind had already been considering the faith-based approach. Not many of you know that my environmental work started back in 2004 when I coordinated a symposium called “Caring for Creation.” I brought together religious and environmental leaders from across Iowa to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge for a discussion on the environment and religion. I led the effort to craft a series of proposals on energy usage that were later given to the Governor. In summer 2007, I was asked to be a speaker at a religious-based young adult workshop in Boston that was focused on the environment. As a result of that, I was asked to be a speaker at Union College in Kentucky to give a talk on weaving faith and my work. By that time, I was working for the Iowa Learning Farms.

raindropripples2toneSo, this idea of a faith-based approach was not new to me. Nonetheless, the faith side of my environmental work was put on the back burner as I embarked on a secular journey to motivating change in my position at Iowa State University.

In 2015, when Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical (letter) Laudato Si’, I started wondering how I might be a part of motivating Catholics and other people of faith toward the ecological conversion the Pope calls for in this document. I knew whatever I did would need to be on my own time. I met with Tom Chapman at the Iowa Catholic Conference and we started brainstorming ways that we might help spread Pope Francis’s message in Iowa.

iowalanduseThen the Drake SOIL conference happened and the call for a faith-based approach. Jamie, Ann and I met to discuss this. All three of us are practicing Catholics. One of us — Ann or Jamie — suggested that we create a Lenten reflection booklet that taught the science of Iowa’s ecology framed by the Pope’s Catholic teaching. Lenten reflection booklets generally provide daily content each of the 40 days of Lent to help in your spiritual renewal journeying to Easter. Booklets like this usually build on the Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We met with Tom Chapman and agreed to partner with him and Susie Tierney of the Center for Social Ministry to create the booklet. We wanted it ready for Lent 2017.

Jamie, Ann and I would supply the science as a part of our positions at Iowa State. Let me be very clear here: Iowa State University, Iowa Learning Farms, and Water Rocks! are not promoting or endorsing the views of the Catholic Church or any other faith-based organization. Our jobs were to ensure that the science was represented accurately and explained clearly. Outside of work, Ann and I volunteered the rest of our time to help Tom and Susie finish the booklet.

It was a labor of love. My team can tell you that I often take on projects that are a lot more work in the end. This was certainly true of this booklet. We needed to come up with the format that would work. We knew we wanted the science juxtaposed with information from the Pope’s work. We also knew we wanted some kind of daily “action.” The encyclical gave us a natural form: See, Reflect and Act. “See” would be the science. “Reflect” would be a section from the Pope’s encyclical. “Act” would be their daily action – that one’s pretty self-explanatory.

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We decided to link each week of Lent to one of the videos from the award-winning Culture of Conservation video series, offering this as a supplemental resource to help deepen people’s knowledge of the interwoven connections between agriculture and the environment, soil and water, and our dynamic, ever-changing rural and urban populations here in the state of Iowa. Jamie and Ann got their parts completed and that left me to do the editing, write my sections and weave these in with the Pope’s words. I spent my June vacation on Rainy Lake, MN, reading the Pope’s letter and highlighting parts that really struck me. Don’t let the idea of a “letter” fool you — this encyclical is 184 pages!

leaveswitharrowAfter we completed the first draft, we sent it to Tom and Susie to supply the “action” statements. When they finished their part, Ann took over and used her design skills to create the booklet layout. Again, Ann volunteered her time outside of work at that point to complete the booklet.

A year later and the Lenten reflection booklet is available to the public. To obtain copies of Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, contact the Iowa Catholic Conference at 515.243.6256. Booklets cost $4.75 each. The full booklet can also be downloaded as a free PDF from the Iowa Catholic Conference’s website at http://www.iowacatholicconference.org.

We know that this approach is not for everyone. It is available to those who want it. It is another way of reaching people. As The Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines, writes in his forward to the booklet, “This resource, Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, is a way to re-imagine our place in the created order and put us in touch with Iowa’s bounty and the world’s needs….In this resource, we are called to be mindful of how actions can have consequences for our land, water, air, all creatures and especially humankind.”

Jacqueline Comito