A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.

Jacqueline

January 16 Webinar – A Conservation Chat with Secretary Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Wednesday, January 16th at 12:30pm Iowa Learning Farms will kick off our 15th anniversary by hosting a webinar with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Naig_Central Iowa Fair 2018The webinar will feature ILF program manager Dr. Jacqueline Comito and Secretary Naig discussing conservation, water quality and the Secretary’s vision for Iowa.  They will also discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and how Iowans are working to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus loss reductions outlined in the Strategy. Webinar participants will be able to submit questions for Secretary Naig during the webinar through the Zoom Webinar software.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, January 16, 2019
TIME: 12:30 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

From the Archives: Conservation Chat with Paul and Nancy Ackley

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

paul-ackleyIn Episode 17 of the Conservation Chat, Paul and Nancy Ackley discuss how their interest in conservation and restoring the health of their farm led to changing how they farmed in Taylor County, Iowa over the past 40 years.  One big driver for the couple was knowing that much of the land in hilly Taylor County was degraded and prone to erosion.

To keep more of that soil in place, Paul and Nancy worked to increase organic matter in the soil through the use of no-till and cover crops. Now that they have several areas of soils with 4% organic matter and continue to plant cover crops, they are seeing a big change between their fields and other fields in their county.

“One thing for me that’s always resonated . . . when you drive down the road, and we have terraces standing full of water and there’s all green rye above it, and you go by [another] place, they’ve done full-blown tillage and it looks like chocolate malt ran down the hill.  Pretty soon, it begins to click in your mind.”

The Ackleys talk about the mindset that many farmers have about tilling, and how some farmers find it hard to get past their desire to see the dark soil and smell the overturned earth after tilling. The Ackleys, however, don’t like to see the dark soil in their ditches.

Listen to the podcast!

Julie Winter

From the Archives: Conservation Chat Podcast with Farmer Nathan Anderson

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

nathan-and-father-randy

This month, take some time out to listen to Conservation Chat Episode 28 with Cherokee County farmer Nathan Anderson. Nathan’s interview with host Jacqueline Comito sheds light on a common problem that many young Iowa farmers are facing: how to make the transition back onto the farm.

“It takes people like my dad who are willing to let somebody come back into the farming operation,” Nathan said of his father. He recognizes that his father made sacrifices, including “[forgoing] some of that income, and also [letting] me try new things that maybe he doesn’t agree with or doesn’t know about.”

Livestock is an early entry point for the next generation to begin or return to the farm. Nathan raises a cow-calf herd with his father and was given the opportunity to try new practices including rotational grazing, cover crops, increasing herd size and changing herd genetics to favor cattle that could utilize certain pasture resources. Nathan has fire in his belly for conservation and farming, but he also recognizes that it’s important to be patient.

“This farming world that we work in, there are a lot of things that we might want to do and we can’t have them all right now,” Nathan commented. “It’s a practice of patience. Patience is active. If you’re being patient, you have to work at it.”

Listen to the podcast episode now! Learn more about Iowa Learning Farms’ Emerging Farmer Project and consider attending our upcoming Emerging Farmer Soil Health and Grazing Workshop  on March 15 in Creston!

Julie Winter

From the Archives: Conservation Chat Podcast with Farmer Sally Hollis

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

conservationchat-hollisFirst up on the “Best of” list is a chat with Sally Hollis. Back in December of 2015 in Conservation Chat Episode 15, we featured Sally Hollis of Lanehaven Farms. Sally and her husband Blake grow commercial corn and soybeans, seed corn, and cover crops for seed, as well as run a hog operation.

Growing seed corn allowed Lanehaven Farms the opportunity to first plant cover crops, especially along the end rows to help break up compaction. Sally eventually started growing cover crops for seed. Her farm has been able to experiment with many conservation practices, but, she says, they wouldn’t have been able to do so without being able to learn from other farmers, and ultimately being able to go through a trial and error process on her own farm. She encourages farmers to reach out and share information.

“Farmers need to support each other – build each other up, be inclusive, share your knowledge with others, invite somebody to come along with them.” Sally adds, “Help make this an easier decision for them.”

Listen to the episode here! Check out our entire archive of 38 episodes and find your favorite.

Julie Winter

 

Conservation Chat 38: Go Deep with Earthworms

WebEpisode 38 of the Conservation Chat digs in deep to talk about earthworms, why they matter, where they thrive and what they can tell us about soil health. The chat features two heavy-hitters of earthworm research related to cover crops: Ann Staudt who leads research on the relationship between night crawlers and cover crops with the Iowa Learning Farms and Dr. Tom Kaspar, a plant physiologist who is also considered to be “the grandfather of cover crop research” in Iowa.

To study earthworms, you must be able to count them. In the earthworm literature, there are four common ways that researchers have approached the counting of earthworms:

  1. Excavate an area of soil to find and count the earthworms
  2. Use a mustard solution or wasabi to chemically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  3. Apply an electrical current to the soil surface and electrically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  4. Count middens (well-defined clumpy mounds that an earthworm leaves behind on the soil surface). This is the only method of counting earthworms in which earthworms are not harmed!

Iowa Learning Farms took the latter route and decided to count middens (pictured on the left). Ann Staudt wanted to study whether there were observable differences in the population of nightcrawlers (a type of earthworm) in corn and soybean fields with and without a cereal rye cover crop. The research was completed in fields that had side-by-side cover crop and no cover crop strips. The research found that there were 38% more nightcrawlers in the strips that contained cover crops!

Results

RyeThis research is unique, as very little research has been done about earthworm populations within corn and soybean systems. And, there is much more research that can be done related to earthworms in a corn and soybean system. Future research could include looking at cover crop growth related to earthworm populations, how earthworm populations may respond to different types of cover crop species and mixes, and even nutrient ability in a crop field related to earthworm tunnels, which some literature cites as “hot spots of nutrients.”

The podcast gets down to the heart of why earthworms matter. We often talk about why soil health is important, but it can take many years to detect indicators of soil health with current tests and methods. Ann Staudt suggests that earthworms may be a “reverse canary in the coal mine” for soil health:

“In some ways, it’s like a reverse canary in the coal mine. It’s showing us some of the positive benefits perhaps earlier than we’re seeing it in a lot of the other parameters that we’re trying to measure.”

There is one particularly unique benefit of earthworms that is not commonly considered. Dr. Kaspar explains:

“In [a no-till system], earthworms are basically tilling the soil for you. They’re creating these burrows or holes . . . the nightcrawler in particular is the only worm that produces a relatively vertical hole that goes from the surface down as deep as five or six feet, depending on the soil. . . Those holes allow water and air to enter the soil, which is really important and they provide a pathway for roots to go deeper into the soil.”

This last point is particularly important in a corn and soybean cropping system with tight spacing between plants. In order for crop roots to grow and have a greater ability to access water and available nutrients deeper into the soil profile, they must grow down. Earthworm tunnels can help crop roots do just that.

Listen to the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat with Ann Staudt and Dr. Tom Kaspar! You can now listen in a variety of ways:

Like the podcast? You can help us out by sharing with a friend! Do you agree that earthworms could be a mascot for life in our soil?

Julie Winter

Conservation Chat: We must clean up our water sources voluntarily

Ben&Amy Johnson2

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy.

This month, host Jacqueline Comito has a conversation with a farmer in northeast Iowa. Ben Johnson is a sixth generation farmer that purchased his first farm with his brother Andy when he was a sophomore at Iowa State University. Conservation saves him one of his most valued resources on the farm: time.

Johnson takes part in our Conservation Learning Lab program with a small scale watershed and CREP wetland on a neighbors property. He and his family began using cover crops in 2013, a year that had a terribly wet spring. They had 200-300 acres that were too wet to plant and didn’t want them to sit bare all year so they took an old seeder and ran oats and radishes that August. He noticed an improvement in the soil tilth right away and in the beans produced that fall. 2013 was also the year that they introduced strip-tilling, increasing water absorption and yield in those areas.

Other conservation methods Johnson employs are buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks and a pheasant safe program. Johnson says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

“I hope my kids can be the seventh generation (to farm) so it means a lot to me to leave the land in as good or better shape than it was when I started,” that means the soil needs to be productive and the water needs to run clear “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.”

Listen to this Episode of Conservation Chat to learn about the numerous benefits of strip-till, no-till and cover crops and how easy it can be to get started! You can subscribe to the podcast for future episodes as well.

Brianne Osborn