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?


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!


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

Conservation Chat 35: Clare Lindahl Chats About New Role

Conservation Chat Episode 35 features Clare Lindahl, now CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. As you listen to this podcast episode, one thing will become immediately clear to you: Clare Lindahl is passionate about soil and water conservation.

Clare reflected back onto Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation and the founder of the Soil and Water Conservation Society: “He was responsible for founding the National Resources Conservation Service, he founded the society, he started the districts movement . . . an entire lifetime and career dedicated to soil conservation.” Clare noted. “I have a vest with his face on it.”

Hugh Hammond Bennett used to speak at events called plowing matches in Iowa. Even though the events focused on who could plow the best field, Bennett began giving speeches at these events and turning them into conservation field days.

“In Iowa, we took one of those plowing matches . . . and we made it into a conservation field day back in the 1950’s,” Clare commented. “It was really the first event of its kind. It reminds me of one of those home and garden television shows where you make over a house or you make over a yard. They made over a farm and showed how all of these conservation practices can go in. Those plowing matches that drew all those people in, they used that as an opportunity to show them about conservation at the time.”

Clare described the passion that Hugh Hammond Bennett exuded when he talked about conservation. Clare holds that same passion, yet it expands beyond soil conservation into water conservation and watershed-wide partnerships.

“The partnership building at Conservation Districts of Iowa was my favorite thing. I just loved bringing people together around the table to come up with actions and solutions and get things really done. I look forward to being able to do that on a national scale.”

natl_conf_covercrops_soilhealth_log_09D291130F2D8Keep an eye out for Clare as she forges a new path as the first woman to serve in the role of CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Also consider attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health on December 7 and 8 in Indianapolis.

Learn how cover crops are being used from producers, conservation leaders and scientists. The conference is great for those selling, using, or researching cover crops.

Clare3Listen to Episode 35 of the Conservation Chat with the new CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Clare Lindahl! Listen to this episode on the go from your smart phone or tablet. You can also stream the Conservation Chat podcast right from your computer.

Julie Whitson

Navigating the return of the next generation to the family farm

Chris and Kristi BlogThe most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast provides a candid look at how one father/daughter duo is navigating the addition of another household to the farm business, the joys and challenges that come with working with family, and the mutual goals of caring for the land. In Episode 34, host Jacqueline Comito met with Chris Foss and Kristi Heffelmeier at their farm in Northeast Iowa to chat about their whole farm approach to conservation.

The farm has been in the family for many generations, with Chris first farming with his father.  Kristi grew up on the farm and now lives with her husband at her grandparents place nearby. However, her path to farming was a winding one – first a degree in art education, then a Masters in Business and working in the corporate business world, next up was teaching middle school art in Texas before returning home to the family farm in 2013.

When she returned to Iowa, Kristi understood she had a lot to learn and wasn’t ready to take on a large financial stake in the farm.  Through open communication, she and Chris landed on an hourly payment rate arrangement that helped support the addition of another household. This agreement allows them flexibility to grow and learn from each other while utilizing the skills and passions each of them bring to the partnership.

Together they have a worked with the local watershed projects in Black Hawk and Tama Counties to maintain and add new conservation practices to the operation.  They are nearly 100% strip-tillage (corn), no-tillage (soybeans), and cover crops on 850 of their 2,200 acres to help protect the soil. They have also installed and maintained waterways and a bioreactor that treats about 80 acres along Miller Creek. The bioreactor is being monitored by Shane Wulf as part of Miller Creek Watershed Project that was featured in Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat.

Kristi and Puppy BlogKristi’s return to the farm, also meant the return of livestock – although not the variety we may be used to!  She and her husband breed competition Labrador dogs and sell them all over the country.  And although Chris had gotten used to the quiet without livestock, he has taken a shining to Hogan, Kristi’s indoor pet.

Be sure to tune into this episode to learn more about how they are managing the transition of a child’s return to the farm and the benefits of working together to care for our natural resources. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Liz Juchems

Working Within Our Current System: A Conservation Chat with Eileen Kladivko

Cover kladivko_creditHost Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Eileen Kladivko, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University and founding member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), for the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast.

Eileen Kladivko’s chat covered many issues areas that she has studied for decades surrounding soil health, cover crops, earthworms and drainage. To start the chat off, Eileen wanted to make something clear: drainage is essential.

“I like to remind people that we wouldn’t be growing crops at all on some of our most productive lands in the Midwest if we didn’t have tile drainage.”

Tile drainage is essential if we want to farm much of the land that we currently farm – especially in Iowa. While there are benefits to tile drainage, a drawback of the system is the movement of nitrate with water that flows out of tile lines and into the surface water. How can we begin to solve this challenge? Mimic nature and the system that we replaced, Eileen suggested.

We’ve got agriculture, we’ve got lots of human beings here, and we want to be productive. We want to mimic nature where we can, but we’re not going back to pre-settlement conditions. That’s impossible. But let’s see if there are some things we can learn from what the vegetation cycles were, and the hydrology cycles, that can help us with our current system.”

Adding cover crops to our current system is one way to address our nitrate challenge and to mimic the natural vegetation cycle that once existed on the land. Cover crops have seen a steady increase in popularity, and for some farmers, the desire to grow something comes naturally.

A subject that Eileen Kladivko is most passionate about is soil health. Soil health is a popular topic because we want our soil to function to full capacity for crop production, but we understand relatively little about the soil biology that can shape the physical and chemical properties of soil. In recent years, the soil health conversation is shifting to research about soil biology. The downside is that soil health research takes time.

“That’s one of the challenges with the whole soil health thing . . . we’re trying to look at some of the commercial soil health tests that are available right now and see which of those might actually be able to detect changes with time in some of our Indiana sites. It’s quite challenging because the tests are quite variable. Soil health does take time to improve, and sometimes those tests just don’t show it over the short term.”

Without lab tests to show short-term gains in soil health, there is one indicator that can give farmers a short-term pat on the back: earthworms! Earthworm populations are highest in systems with limited tillage and high levels of crop residue. Eileen has spent much of her career counting earthworms.

“I didn’t think that was going to be a long-term commitment of mine,” said Eileen. Decades later, Eileen has developed a foundation for research on the physical and chemical properties of soil as they relate to soil health and good soil biology.

What are your chances of having a high earthworm population within a system that includes tillage? Not likely. Switching to no-till and adding a cover crop will increase your chances to see early signs of soil health and good soil biology before other commercial soil health tests are able to show results. Iowa Learning Farms has seen similar results when counting earthworms under different tillage and cover crop systems here in Iowa.

Listen to the full Conservation Chat episode! If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson