The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Measurement Project: Tracking Progress Towards Iowa’s Water Quality Goals


Today at noon, Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, discussed the progress and challenges of Iowa’s water quality improvement efforts.

Nowatzke_photo thumbnailThe webinar covered how progress towards the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) is measured, how much progress has been made and what challenges remain. The NRS is a science-based strategy to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources. Nowatzke shared a brief history of the measurement tracking associated with the NRS and then discussed the recently published 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report.

She explained how the NRS uses a logic model framework to track quantifiable change in inputs, the human dimension, land use and water quality. The 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report shows an increase in funding for conservation practices and programs, mostly due to an increase in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rental payments. It also shows an increase in outreach and education events. Farmer attitudes towards and awareness of the conservation efforts is being measured through a five year survey. Summaries of the survey results for two HUC6 watersheds are available in the report.

INRS Logic Model

Image from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report

Nowatzke also described how conservation practices are tracked, including the tracking of CRP land retirement, cover crop use, and the installation of bioreactors and saturated buffers. Water quality progress is assessed using a two-pronged approach of measuring nutrient concentrations in surface waters and modeling nutrient loss reductions that are associated with different conservation practices.

To learn more about how progress towards meeting the NRS goals is measured, how much progress has been made and the challenges that remain, watch the recorded webinar!

Join us next month, on Wednesday, August 21 at noon, when Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms Program Director, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “15 Years of Iowa Learning Farms”.

Hilary Pierce

Faces of Conservation: Rob Stout

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Farmer-Partner with Iowa Learning Farms

Rob Stout has been farming near West Chester, Iowa, since graduating from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1978. Rob has demonstrated high levels of interest in conservation and water quality and has gotten involved in a variety of efforts to advocate for improvements. This has extended to his own farming choices which have included no-till for many years as well as participation in multiple research studies with ISU.

What has been your involvement and role with ILF?
I started working with the Iowa Learning Farms team in 2006. The ILF commitment to creating a Culture of Conservation resonated with my own interest in achieving water quality improvement through agricultural practices.

We got in on the first year of the long-term cover crop study and I’m proud to say we recently reported our tenth year of data. But it didn’t take me 10 years to see the benefits. The only parts of my farm fields not in cover crops now are the four test strips I keep for comparison in the ILF study.

The farmer-to-farmer communications element of the ILF outreach is very effective, and I’ve hosted field days, invited friends and neighbors to learn about conservation techniques, and volunteered to speak at ILF-sponsored events and meetings.

Why did you get involved with ILF?
Previously, I had been involved in several ISU research projects to help learn and improve farming techniques. I was also already involved in water quality initiatives. I saw working with ILF as an opportunity to learn more and work with others interested in water quality improvement.

The Culture of Conservation concept captured my interest. The ILF approach to research and outreach fit well with my own passion for learning and doing more to protect and promote the natural ecosystem through better agricultural practices.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t think I individually changed the ILF program, but I’ve always been pleased with the genuine interest they’ve shown in learning from farmers through listening to – and acting upon – feedback and ideas from the farmers. Through hosting and participating in field days, showing others the application of conservation practices, and joining in farmer-to-farmer interactions, I think I’ve provided valuable feedback and helped open new ears to the messages of ILF.

I’ve learned a lot from my involvement with ILF. I loved doing research when I was at ISU, and participating with ILF gives me a chance to continue learning while staying involved in research efforts.

I’ve also grown in my understanding of conservation and water quality issues. In 1983 I was doing no-till and thought I was doing everything I could. I initially thought of conservation simply as erosion control. The ILF cover crop study helped broaden my perspective and knowledge about practices that have changed the way I approach farming and conservation. ILF helped me to become an advocate and a voice of experience for farmers who may be interested in learning about the research from someone who has done it.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
A favorite memory is of a field day we were hosting for ILF. As often happens in Iowa, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, and we had torrential rains dropping some 3.5 inches on the morning of the event. We quickly cleared the shop to make room for the participants and were able to have a great experience. However, I think the rainfall simulator in the Conservation Station trailer didn’t need to use its own water supply that day!

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I care about the environment and the future of our agricultural-based economy. Everyone, including farmers, must take responsibility and do their part to help reduce nitrates in our water. I think the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy‘s goals are critical for the future of the state.

I’ve been learning about watersheds and water quality since the early 2000s when I joined a farmer-led watershed group working to restore a local impaired creek. We secured grants to install bioreactors and a saturated buffer, implemented buffer strips along creeks, and took other positive steps to improve the watershed. To me, this kind of on-the-ground action is a core element to creating the Culture of Conservation which will benefit all Iowans.

Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Jerry DeWitt

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Former Director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
When Iowa Learning Farms first started, I was officed next door to Mahdi Al-Kaisi and thought the ILF approach was quite creative and a great idea for improving conservation outreach and education. In 2006 I became directly involved as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (continuing in that role until 2010). Although I wasn’t part of the initial formation of ILF, I was there during the time when things really took off and the team developed a range of programs and components that took things well beyond the traditional extension-type methodology.

What things did you find to be unique about ILF?
As a seasoned administrator, I’ve always liked to take the approach of providing an organization with structure and foundation, but letting the experts drive the outcomes. With ILF this worked out really well. The team included faculty and staff from different departments, yet when we all gathered to talk about program ideas and goals, the typical hierarchy was left at the door and everyone was encouraged to contribute as a peer. This collegial working environment was not just effective and productive, it was a lot of fun.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
ILF was, and continues to be, an innovative and effective conservation outreach program. Promoting farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities and putting actionable information and practices into the hands of those that will use them, have proven to be very effective in working toward the ILF goal of Building a Culture of Conservation.

After a decade of extension budget-tightening, which brought about changes in the ability to deliver services, and damaged our relationship with farmers, ILF helped reaffirm my belief in the important role extension plays in Iowa. ILF is a great example of how interdisciplinary organizations can function and succeed.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
Certainly, ILF’s association with the Leopold Center contributed early credibility to the program within the university as well as with partners in Des Moines and around the state. But in very short order, ILF built its own reputation as a strong partner that consistently progressed toward and beyond its goals.

Working with ILF helped to re-establish my belief in the value of farmer-led one-on-one education in the field. Building these interactive conversations with all stakeholders through direct ‘hands in the soil’ efforts is what extension should be all about.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
There are many, but two favorites come to mind. The first was watching a farmer lead a discussion about soil with a group of farmers using nothing more than two buckets of soil and a spade. He awed the audience with his knowledge and his presentation on soil quality in the words of a working farmer.

The second was the weekly ILF meetings. The meetings were efficient, but more importantly they were fun. The sense of energy and passion was palpable and infectious. They were always eager to make a difference. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself when working with such a group.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I co-own a farm that’s been in production for over 100 years. It’s imperative to protect the soil and environment so that my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy and benefit from a productive farm as well.

Iowa has some of the best and most fertile soil in the world. If we lose the advantage of this incredible resource, we’ve effectively lost Iowa. It’s crucial to protect and maintain our collective resources or we will find we’re no longer in the Iowa we love.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see a totally different landscape in Iowa. USDA-NRCS published a booklet titled “Lines on the Land” which provides a great description of what a diverse and healthy farming landscape can look like: a landscape developed for soil protection, biodiversity, structure, enhanced productivity and cleaner water. If we can make progress toward that ideal, I will be delighted.

In closing…
ILF is showing the people of Iowa and an extension program that’s over 100 years old, how outreach and extension has worked in the distant past and how it should work today—hands-on and farmer-to-farmer.

Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Learning By Doing

WR!HeaderIf you’ve been keeping up with Water Rocks! for anytime in the past six years, you know we love to teach a wide variety of audiences all about our environment and how to conserve it! What you might not know is just how much we learn from our audiences, from young to wise. Even only being on the team for just under a month, I have been able to learn tremendous amounts from students, adults, and communities across Iowa.

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From the small things, like learning carrots are not part of a healthy diet for rabbits during a soils presentation from a 4th grader, to the big things like realizing just how much influence the right knowledge can have on our future generations, I have been absolutely loving what this internship has been able to impart on me in such little time. Of course, I’ve also been able to brush up on my knowledge of the environment through training and teaching our modules, too. It’s been inspiring to see such a young generation so aware of conservation and our environment!

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Given an imaginary plot of land and five million dollars, one student constructed a buffer strip of prairies and wetlands without even knowing what a buffer strip was! Another student constructed a hydroelectric powered greenhouse! I’m not sure I would have thought to build anything but a giant treehouse and an ice cream shop in 4th/5th grade. Both urban and rural schools alike have shown tremendous knowledge on conservation, although rural has been more related to farming and urban to consumption.

I’ve gained valuable insight on to how audiences of different ages respond to activities and have been able to enhance my communication skills greatly. Even on the commutes across Iowa, I have been able to better understand the different landscapes, agricultural practices, and arrangements of different parts of the state. Each piece of this internship has been valuable to me, and I know I will continue to learn more and more as the summer goes along!Photo 1

From learning it’s way more fun to be vibrant (check out those awesome nails), the power of a freeze pop in a 5th grade classroom, and just how competitive a game of hopscotch can get, I have been thoroughly enjoying my time at Water Rocks and can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer has in store!


Emma Flemming

Emma Flemming is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Flemming grew up in Des Moines (Roosevelt High School). In the fall, she will be starting her junior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Environmental Science and International Studies.

Faces of Conservation: Ann Staudt

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Ann Staudt – Assistant Manager, Iowa Learning Farms and Director, Water Rocks!

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with Iowa Learning Farms has evolved and grown since I started with the program in 2009. Immediately after joining the team, I was tasked with “doing something exciting with this new trailer”. It was truly a blank slate! From this broad plan, I applied my background in science, engineering, art, and education to help create the Conservation Stations. As the team brainstormed new ideas and suggested different elements, I coordinated the many moving parts, helping to shape things from proverbial lumps of clay into what I think is a pretty effective, unique and visually engaging learning and teaching tool for natural resources and water quality education.

As a part of the ILF management team, I’ve worn a lot of hats, from coordinating our internship and AmeriCorps programs and field data collection, to producing visually engaging infographic-style publications and serving as fiscal officer for our outreach programs. You’ll also find me out and about speaking at conservation field days across the state, covering topics ranging from bioreactors to cover crops and earthworms (I’ve been dubbed “The Worm Whisperer” on more than one occasion).

What is the mission of ILF?
ILF provides a structure and mechanism to create and curate conversations on-the-ground with and between farmers and landowners, bringing key parties together to build bridges between technical approaches, scientific research and farmers operating their businesses. Our field days and workshops provide an excellent opportunity for farmers and landowners to learn from one another about the best ways to integrate soil health and water quality practices into their day-to-day farming operations.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I like to bring creative out-of-the-box approaches to how we communicate issues, practices and solutions. The Conservation Stations are a key example of developing a comprehensive approach to communicating conservation topics and issues. Integrating visual arts and music into projects has afforded me the opportunity to bring my love of these media into our work as well.

One of my favorite contributions to ILF was the idea for The Conservation Pack – using dogs to tell conservation stories. Through The Conservation Pack, we deliver messages about conservation and water quality in a way that’s fun and accessible for kids, to get the next generation excited about the amazing natural resources around us!

I like to think my enthusiasm for teaching and learning comes through in all our efforts, whether that be with farmers at a field day, or with fifth-graders in the classroom. Between 2009 and 2012, ILF received a growing number of requests for youth programming—school presentations and outdoor classrooms—while at the same time, Iowa’s soil and water conservation district commissioners were asking, “Who is educating the next generation on these issues?” The plan for Water Rocks! was hatched, funded and executed at this time, and is now Iowa’s premier youth water education program, in great demand across the state!

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an amazing group of farmers, partners and experts, learning about what they are doing and why. Learning and seeing others learn has been a great inspiration that I attribute to being a part of ILF – this work has definitely had an impact on my life and career, and helped me reconnect with my family farm roots.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Every day could bring a new favorite, but there are several exciting milestones that stand out.

Launching each of the three Conservation Stations have been significant points of pride for me and the program. With the launch of the Conservation Station On the Edge in 2018, I felt we took a huge step forward in diversifying our educational reach in direct response to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the push for specific practices to address nitrate loads and water quality.

I also learned so much and loved working with Cecilia Comito on the Hope for Iowa mixed media murals and messaging in the relaunch of the Big Conservation Station in 2018.

Something that refuels my energy each year is seeing the growth and transformation of our summer interns. Watching these college students learn –witnessing the lightbulb come on in their eyes – and seeing their ability to communicate their knowledge grow with each encounter fills me with hope for the future.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Outreach is critical because we can’t change hearts and minds with science alone. Outreach puts a human face on the science and helps people absorb the message and understand their role in promoting and driving change.

Iowa has amazing natural resources and it’s important to help every person –rural or urban– understand they can have a positive impact on the environment. The state must also continue to nurture and maintain its natural resources to attract and retain Iowa’s human capital. Parks, rivers and streams, and clean water are key contributors to quality of life in both urban and rural communities.

Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

The Iowa Watershed Academy


Jamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Watershed coordinators are key players in improving water quality in Iowa by providing farmers and landowners technical and financial assistance to implement soil health and water quality improvement practices on their land.  Prior to the initiation of the Iowa Watershed Academy by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO), there were no comprehensive training events focused to develop the skills and technical knowledge of watershed coordinators in the state.

To better understand the skill areas, topics, subtopics, resource needs, and format of a comprehensive training, ISUEO facilitated a roundtable discussion in December 2014. The group included state and federal agency, agricultural, conservation, and environmental organization representatives. In early 2015, watershed coordinators provided feedback on the topics and subtopics generated at the roundtable and were asked to rank them in order of their needs and interests.

Through this needs assessment process and a successful grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and North Central SARE, the first academy was held in May 2016.  With continued funding from NRCS, NC SARE, and sponsorships and in-kind contributions from Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Conservation Learning Group and the Iowa Watershed Approach projects, two Watershed Academy sessions have been held each year.  A highlight of topics addressed through interactive and hands on training during the seven academies include cover crop management, conservation sales strategies, grant writing, preparing for media interviews, project management, water monitoring, wildlife habitat value of conservation and water quality practices, managing pasture for improved water quality

The spring 2019 Iowa Watershed Academy training event was held May 14-15, at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab farm near Boone. This event featured nitrogen management and nitrogen application decision tools, manure management and manure application distribution and calibration methods, reaching women and non-operator landowners, and successful methods and tools for field day and event outreach.

“It’s beneficial to have trainings like this so we can meet with other coordinators and exchange struggles and ideas.”

Pre and post self-assessments are used to evaluate change in knowledge and self-efficacy after each academy, selecting a level of knowledge from 1- minimal knowledge of the indicator and not confident of their skills related to the topic to 4-exemplary indicating a high level of knowledge and confidence applying the skills in the topic area.  On average, the coordinators have identified their pre-academy skills in the needs improvement category, and after the academy, their skills improve to the proficient category.

2019 Spring Watershed Academy 4

“You got my mind thinking of other ways to really look at my watershed and maybe expand my focus area.”

Qualitative questions have also indicated that the watershed coordinators value the Iowa Watershed Academy, particularly with sessions that include hands-on in-field training.  Coordinators indicate that they would recommend that the training continue and the two event per year format held at locations that provide hands-on learning opportunities, time to dig in to important topics through dialogue with the speakers and other coordinators.

“Overall, an amazing training opportunity”

The Watershed Academy will continue each spring and fall and has already begun to address specialized skills and topics including the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework and Reach Middle Adopters with partners from Iowa and the North Central Region.  To stay up to date on future Iowa Watershed Academy events, contact Jamie Benning  to join the mailing list.

Jamie Benning

Faces of Conservation: Allen Bonini

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Allen Bonini – Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Allen Bonini serves as Supervisor of the Watershed Improvement Section at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). As a part of his responsibilities at the DNR, Allen is responsible for funding provided to Iowa Learning Farms through the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I’ve been a part of ILF’s advisory committee since 2005. In the early years of Iowa Learning Farms, the committee provided guidance and advice, but in recent years, the program has matured, developing a strong sense of purpose and direction, so they don’t need our input as often.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
Initially, Iowa Learning Farms was focused on offering educational field days around the state. From this foundation, the ILF team listened to participants and began to expand what was being delivered and how it was being presented. ILF has done an excellent job of applying evaluations and data gathering to inform decisions on program impacts. This scientific approach has not only strengthened the program, but led to the creation of innovative programs including the Conservation Station trailers and Water Rocks!.

While field days are still a staple of ILF, they’ve consistently raised the bar on delivering meaningful and actionable information. Enlisting experts to deliver information and fostering involvement from every sector of the state has built credibility for ILF. In addition, providing a forum for innovators and early adopters to share and learn has been very effective. What has allowed the program to remain relevant is the strength of the concept of Building a Culture of Conservation.

How did you impact the program?
Prior to joining the DNR, I spent many years working to educate the public on the benefits of recycling. I was able to draw on my experience in education and public engagement to bring some fresh ideas to the table for ILF to consider. Whether recycling or instilling conservation in the forefront of people’s minds, the goal of the program is to change behavior – a daunting but achievable task.

One proven path to changing cultural behavior is to engage the energy and enthusiasm of our youth. I feel that the Water Rocks! youth education program, which emerged out of ILF, is a tremendous tool in moving the dial on conservation in schools across Iowa. Water Rocks! took the concept of ILF and applied it to the next generation.

As I saw with recycling, it may take a generation for conservation to be an accepted everyday practice, but as young people gain awareness and devote energy to it, we should see greater adoption and commitment from the public.

 What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The most enjoyable part of working with ILF has been being at the table and participating: offering ideas, refining ideas, and seeing it turn into something that achieves results. An important part of this has been watching ILF gather data and use it to create an impactful message and create change.

Allen was interviewed by Charlie in Episode #1 of the Adventures of the Conservation Pack series! Click the image to see the episode in all its glory.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
It’s a stretch goal, but I would love to no longer need Iowa Learning Farms. We would no longer need to build a culture of conservation because we’ve established a flourishing culture of conservation. Then we can move on to the next big environmental challenge – whatever that may be.

In closing…
The leadership team at Iowa Learning Farms has been a large part of the program’s success over the past fifteen years. The program has benefited from a consistent arc of leadership with innovative team players who are willing to take risks to keep the program alive and moving forward.

Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series: