A Conservation Chat with Daniel Robison

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Robison ISU

Daniel Robison, photo credit: Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

On this new episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito sat down the Daniel Robison, the new dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. Robison joined ISU from West Virginia University and has degrees in forestry, silviculture and forest influences and forest entomology.

“Iowa has an extraordinary landscape.” – Robison

Dean Robison shared that he enjoys riding bikes with his wife and that they have been enjoying getting to know Iowa by bike (and are appreciating that there are fewer hills here than in West Virginia!). He went on to explain his background and his ongoing interest in forestry, due to enjoying spending time outside as a child with his family and with programs such as Boy Scouts. After growing up in New Jersey, Robison earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in New York and then went on to earn his doctorate in Wisconsin. His career has also taken him to the Ivory Coast in West Africa and to North Carolina.

Robison stressed the importance of travel and study abroad for not just learning about new cultures, but also learning about yourself through the new experiences. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has many study abroad opportunities and Robison also discussed a new idea for “study across America”, which would allow students to learn about different cultures, food production systems and natural resources around the United States. This program would provide interesting opportunities for students to visit places where there have been more immediate impacts from loss of natural resources, such as areas where topsoil has eroded from areas where there was not much topsoil to begin with. Students will be able to see how other people have impacted their landscape and how they cope with these changes. They will be able to see the vulnerability and challenges of these issues bring about and learn how to manage landscapes here in Iowa better.

To learn more about Dean Robison and the role he believes CALS can play in addressing local and global challenges, listen to the full podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Marty Adkins

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Marty Adkins. Image credit: ISU Extension & Outreach.

There’s a brand new episode of the Conservation Chat podcast out now! Host Jacqueline Comito sat down to chat with Marty Adkins, who is retiring after a long career with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Adkins is passionate about conservation and devoted his career to working to leave Iowa’s natural resources in better shape than they were when he started.

Adkins described how he’s seen equipment and technology change over his 40 year career, but said that the same basic processes remained the same. The most important of those basics? Working with people. He described the importance of listening to and understanding people and then working with them to develop conservation plans and management options that will work for their individual needs and interests.

“I’ve been privileged with the opportunity to work on issues that matter for the long term.” – Adkins

Comito asked Adkins to describe a few highlights from his career – things that he was particularly proud of looking back on. Adkins described a stream channel stabilization project in Western Iowa, which is still working today, his recent work with agricultural business and retailers to work on improving soil management and being involved in the creation of Scenic Byway systems here in Iowa. When asked about his greatest disappointment with his career, Adkins responded that he wished we had gotten into soil health 30 years sooner.

“If conservation is going to happen […] we’ve got to make those systems work for farmers.” – Adkins

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Adkins performing in a Water Rocks! video with Conservation Pack member Charlie

Comito summed up Adkins’ career in one word: “connect”. Adkins worked throughout his career to connect with the major stakeholder groups and has been a key partner for Iowa Learning Farms. In addition to his passion for conservation, Adkins also writes and performs music and is involved in his local community theater.

Listen to the full podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Ingrid Gronstal Anderson and Jennifer Terry

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On the latest episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito discussed the Iowa Environmental Council with Ingrid Gronstal Anderson and Jennifer Terry. Gronstal Anderson is the new Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council and Terry is the Executive Director and they chatted about how the Iowa Environmental Council is striving toward cleaner water for all Iowans to enjoy.

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, photo credit: Iowa Environmental Council

Gronstal Anderson and Terry talked about how the Iowa Environmental Council is a watchdog that holds government agencies accountable on behalf of Iowans. That accountability is important when it comes to natural resources because of the relationship between natural resources and public health, such as in the case of regulations for drinking water quality. They stated the importance of working with partners from diverse sectors at the Council.

The talk then turned to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the Clean Water Act.

“We also would like to see the Clean Water Act adhered to more stringently here in Iowa. In terms of using our beaches and protecting drinking water sources and our lakes, its imperative that we have better enforcement in Iowa of the Clean Water Act.” – Terry 

Jennifer Terry

Jennifer Terry, photo credit: Iowa Environmental Council

They discussed the importance of showing progress toward our water quality goals and the struggle against the lack of urgency that many feel regarding adoption of conservation practices. Although anti-regulation sentiment is common, Gronstal Anderson and Terry talked about how not only would jobs and industries follow regulation, but that it would help to provide a level playing field for farmers across the state.

To hear the rest of the chat and learn more about the work the Iowa Environmental Council does, listen to the podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Pat Boddy

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Pat Boddy

In this brand new episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito sat down with Pat Boddy, who is an environmental engineer, water resources expert, accomplished harpist and respected community leader. Boddy recently received the 2019 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute’s A. Arthur Davis Community Leadership Award for the impact that her work in the fields of journalism, the environment, engineering and advocacy have had across the state of Iowa. She also finds the time to host her own podcast, 900Views – check it out here!

During her conversation with Comito, Boddy explained what led her to pursue a career in engineering and water resources, and her particular passion for water quality. Boddy described joyful memories of times spent in or around water and the importance of water for sustaining life.

“Water is soothing, it’s poetic, it’s musical.” – Pat Boddy

They went on to talk about how dirty water has become normalized for many Iowans, who have not seen anything better in their lifetimes, and the contributions of agriculture and urban areas to water quality issues. The conversation then turned what role cities can play in Iowa’s water quality, with Boddy suggesting that communities need to be more proactive as the cities grow by establishing guidelines to protect the environment before development.

Throughout the conversation, Boddy emphasized the importance of people working together. When asked what she has learned through her work in watersheds, Boddy said that to achieve water quality goals it is important to bring together urban and rural residents, in order to foster understanding and allow the residents to learn from one another. The conversation also included a discussion of the challenges that Iowan agricultural producers face when when they are asked to learn how to do things differently and the importance of understanding climate.

Listen to the podcast!

Hilary Pierce


A Conservation Chat with Ingrid Gronstal Anderson

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In the latest episode of the Conservation Chat, Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, an environmental attorney, sat down with Jackie Comito to discuss identity issues and conservation. Comito, an anthropologist and director of Iowa Learning Farms, was in the hot seat for this episode, with Gronstal Anderson guiding the conversation as they covered Comito’s research as an anthropologist, farmer identity and culture, and conservation.

“I think we need to work really hard to come up with ways that we can make conservation part of the stories that people tell about themselves on the farm that mean that they’re a good farmer.” – Jackie Comito

Comito and Gronstal Anderson’s conversation about identity and culture examined the mythology that exists around farm family identity—who they are and what they do on the farm. Comito said that these stories, which any given family could resemble or could be very different from, can get in the way of actually making things happen, especially when we’re talking about stewardship. Complicating the issue further, farmers can have different ideas about what stewardship means and what actions a “good steward” would take.


Comito connecting with students at a Water Rocks! assembly

Shifts in farmer identity and culture to include conservation practices, such as cover crops and extended rotations, as well as having more women farmers, more young farmers and more farms are things that Comito believes will make a difference. Ultimately, Comito identified a lack of a sense of urgency as the biggest challenge she sees through her work with Iowa Learning Farms. Despite this, she is still hopeful, especially after spending time working with and talking to young people. After all, she says, “nature hasn’t given up”, and neither can we.

Listen to the podcast!

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

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.