ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Soil Health: The Spark of a National Movement

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Steven Rosenzweig, a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University, recently wrote an article titled, “How a new way of thinking about soil sparked a national movement in agriculture.” In the article, Rosenzweig details how Ray Archuleta and many others within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began thinking about how to change agriculture in a way that would allow farmers to avoid the “double squeeze” of rising inputs costs and declining returns. Thus, in the 1990’s, the soil health movement was born. Rosenzweig explains the movement below:

“Known as the soil health movement, it is a management philosophy centered around four simple principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximize diversity of plants and animals. Some immensely successful farmers have ascended to celebrity status in the agricultural community preaching these principles. They are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilizers, which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable.”

Ray Archuleta has now reached over 100,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. with his soil health message. Rosenzweig describes how Archuleta has been able to distill his message to farmers, captivating them with just a few clumps of soil that each tell a story about soil structure and its relationship to soil health:

“The implications of Archuleta’s demonstrations are obvious to food producers, who see the fate of their acres in those clumps of soil. The message is powerful, and producers drive home knowing that soil is alive, that it can be sick or healthy, and that healthy soil can do some pretty amazing things — like make a farm more resilient to drought, sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reduce erosion and support an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.”

Read Steven Rosenzweig’s article to learn more about the soil health movement and how it’s shaping the future of agriculture.

ILF_Badge_Multi_LGIf you are interested in implementing soil health practices, you can find more information about soil conservation, cover crops, and more at our website. Find an ILF Farmer Partner in your area who might have experience with a conservation practice you’re interested in trying, or attend an upcoming field day to learn more about conservation practices.

Julie Whitson

Welcome to Soil and Water Conservation Week!

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Soil and Water Conservation Week
is April 30 – May 7, 2017. This week, we will be featuring stories and information about how healthy soils are full of life. To kick things off, check out our recent video, “Keep That Soil Alive.” The video explores our legacy and connection with the land, landowner-tenant relationships, and the many different conservation practices that help our soil stay alive and thrive – all woven together with a Johnny Cash-inspired tune and some good ol’ fashioned country line dancing!

Do you have your own story to tell about soil and water conservation? There are a few ways you can participate.

  1. Share your stories this week on social media using the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife.
  2. Participate in the Handful of Soil campaign by taking a photo of someone’s hands Healthy soilholding healthy soil with an Iowa plant (seedling, cover crop, corn, etc.) in it. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife!
  3. Nominate a farmer for an award! Nominations are currently being accepted for the Iowa Soil Conservation Awards Program (ISCAP) Conservation Farmer of the Year and the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award. Visit the Conservation Districts of Iowa’s website for details.

More information about Soil and Water Conservation Week is available at the websites of Conservation Districts of Iowa or the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Julie Whitson

Farmers Must Come Together to Drive Farm Policy

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A recent article written by Matthew Russell of the Drake University Agricultural Law Center provides some food for thought and discusses how farmers could benefit, both economically and politically, by adopting practices that address climate change. With a continued downturn in commodity prices that began in 2013, farmers might be more open to adding conservation practices to their operation to help their bottom line.

“Farmers are motivated by economic incentives to implement environmental practices. As an example, they recently enrolled nearly 400,000 acres in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program CP-42 which pays farmers to take land out of production and establish habitat for pollinators. Ironically, today we may need to embrace a source of revenue that just eight years ago seemed to many like regulatory overreach.”

Many of the conservation practices already being implemented in the U.S. such as cover crops, no-till, and extended crop rotations can increase soil carbon and address climate change. With higher adoption rates of these practices, and the exploration of new or improved practices designed to increase carbon in soils, farmers stand to profit. So, Russell inquires, will farmers rise to the challenge?

“Now American farmers face a choice. Do we want to explore ways of providing environmental services to fight climate change? Or will we sit back and allow farmers in other parts of the world to develop these agricultural solutions?”

Russell notes that The Paris Agreements and the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill are two opportunities for farmers to unite in support of policies that address climate change while also benefiting the individual farmer, especially as forward-thinking farmers are looking for creative ways to manage on-farm income.

Read the article here.

Julie Whitson

Chatting about Conservation with Sharon Krause – From Farm to Community

When it comes to conservation, Sharon Krause, strives for a comprehensive approach. As owner and operator of Dalla Terra Ranch, a grass fed organic lamb operation, and a member of the Earlham community, she has a love for preserving soil and water as well as town heritage and pride.

In the 30th episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito met with Sharon, a native Iowan, to discuss her passion for lambs, healthy lands and her local community.

Sharon KrauseSharon’s motivation for conservation and the love of the outdoors is credited to her parents who encouraged her to get outside and explore the world around her.  They also supported her as she pursued her engineering degree at Iowa State University.

Upon graduation, she was the first female engineer hired at the Firestone in Des Moines and helped launch their recycling program.  Her career then led her to Metro Waste Authority where she pioneered their Curb It! Program that made household recycling easier which has led to increased participation. Before the program began in 1994, an average of 8 pounds per household was recycled each week. In 2015, nearly 28,000 tons of material were recycled through the program.

From working a tire manufacturing plant to a landfill and now a farm, Sharon and her husband, Kyle, joke that “she is not having fun if she’s not dirty!”

Sharon began her lamb operation about 10 years ago and as a former engineer, she is using data and research to help make decisions. The operation maintains about 225 ewes that throw nearly 400 lambs each year.  Using a smart phone app, she analyzes her operation’s performance by tracking time spent in each of the 23 smaller pastures of the larger 153 acres of pasture that the lambs rotational graze.

“I very intensely rotationally graze my animals over the course of the year. You want to be very care that you don’t let your foliage get too short. That’s very hard on the root system and there’s not enough leaf area to take in the sunshine. So the shorter you graze your pastures, the less production you are really going to get.”

In addition to implementing conservation practices on her land, Sharon is helping lead a project to revitalize the Bricker-Price Block on Main Street Earlham.  Through community input, the project aims to provide a farm-to-table restaurant, community center and a youth gathering space.  The conservation of the building’s history will help tell the story of the city and strengthen the vitality of the rural community.

Tune in to Episode 30 of the Conservation Chat for more of this great conversation with Sharon Krause!  You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.

Liz Juchems

 

Working Together to Educate Youth in Dubuque

A few weeks back, the 4th and 5th students at St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Schools in Dubuque were treated to high energy, highly interactive presentations from Water Rocks! … but these presentations were particularly special in that they featured a couple of local rock stars in the conservation world!

The Back Story:
As our Water Rocks! visit to St. Anthony & OLG was approaching, I realized it was going to be a pretty tight week for our small staff, and I’d likely be handling the event solo. However, situations like this also present the opportunity to partner with other conservation stakeholders across the state, and even better when it’s someone that’s already been trained on Water Rocks! materials.

Bev Wagner, with the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, has participated in multiple Water Rocks! workshops in the past, including the Water Rocks! Summit, so she has been trained on a variety of the unique hands-on games and activities that we utilize in the classroom. Knowing I was headed to Dubuque, I knew exactly who to call upon!

I connected with Bev right away to see if she might be available to help out and co-present with me, and within a matter of minutes, she responded, “I am available the whole day and would love to help out.” With a smiley face. :)

A few days in advance of my trip to Dubuque, Bev contacted me and asked if her student helper, Ruth, an education student at Loras College, could also come and help out. YES, absolutely!

Fast Forward to Game Day:
Bev, Ruth and I met 30 minutes ahead of time, getting everything loaded into the classroom, set up for the interactive presentation, and we quickly talked through the content. Our topic of the day was The Wonderful World of Wetlands (read more about it in our earlier blog post Wetlands Outreach: Tools of the Trade). The first class of the day, I took the lead in presenting; Bev and Ruth observed while also actively assisting with handing out materials to the students, awarding prizes, etc.

With one class under our belts, Bev and Ruth were both feeling more comfortable with the content, so from that point forward, we tag-teamed the entire 50-minute presentation. We started off with an audio listening tour of wetlands, describing the creatures that live there and what the environment might look like. Ruth showed the class an image of wetlands as we connected that with the listening field trip the students had just gone on. Bev guided the students in talking through all of the different names that wetlands go by, calling on students to share one of the names and then saying it out loud together as a class.

We then jumped in with the characteristics that make wetlands unique (hydric soils, presence of water, and vegetation). That was followed by the 3 jobs that wetlands perform – there were 3 of us, so each one took a job (and its corresponding prop) and explained it to the class!  I started off with a filter (water purification), Ruth followed with a sponge (water storage), and Bev concluded with the house (representing habitat).

Bev and Ruth led the classes in discussing the amazing diversity of plants, animals, microorganisms, and other life found in wetlands – as much biodiversity in Iowa’s wetlands as is found in the Amazon rainforest!  We talked about how wetlands are especially important to migratory creatures – birds and butterflies.

Students then got the opportunity to summon their inner birds for an intense game of Habitat Hopscotch!  Bev was the keeper of the (infamous) “situation jar” which housed different situations that impacted wetlands, while Ruth and I acted as the “bird police,” ensuring that students were landing in the correct squares and sending them to bird prison when they stepped out. Being a Catholic school, one of the 4th grade students asked if instead of bird prison, could we call it “bird heaven”? Priceless!

After 5-6 rousing rounds of Habitat Hopscotch, it was pretty clear that the loss of wetlands has a serious impact on migratory birds. Iowa has lost ~90% of its original wetlands, so that means protecting the remaining 10% of wetlands is critically important!

One 5th grade student responded, “I think we all need to #(HASHTAG) Save The Wetlands!

It was then time to move on to our other big game, Wetlands BINGO!  Again, Bev and Ruth were awesome helpers. Bev was our official BINGO caller, while Ruth and I called out the names of corresponding creatures found in wetlands. Each one of us chipped in with fun facts about the different creatures, as well as sharing which ones were our favorites. When a student got a BINGO, we worked together to come up with a simple trivia question to test their knowledge before awarding a prize from our treasure chest. The 50 minutes with each class passes by so quickly with all the games and hands-on activities involved!

By the end of the day, we had presented to five different classes of students, and I’m pleased to say that not only did the students have a whole lot of fun, they also learned a whole lot about wetland ecosystems and their importance on our landscape. Further, this school visit was a great success in terms of the collaborative teaching effort – a win-win all around!  Bev and Ruth were awesome to work with, and it was fantastic to have local conservation personnel involved helping out with Water Rocks! as well as connecting with the local teachers and students. We look forward to more opportunities like this in the future. All in all, it was a great success —  one of those days when you go home really feeling like you made a difference. And that’s a great feeling.

Ann Staudt