ILF Scores Quickly with Virtual Field Days

When plans for the spring series of field days were scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) team pooled their collective creativity and experience to quickly develop a method for effective delivery of a field day via online tools. With this effort, the ILF Virtual Field Day went from idea to reality in the space of a few weeks. And it worked out great!

The task came with some fundamental challenges; 1) How to generate content, 2) How to script and produce compelling and interesting programs, 3) Finding and using the right delivery platform, and 4) Technology.

ILF program director Jacqueline Comito, proposed the idea of interleaving short video segments with live commentary and discussion between the virtual meeting host, presenters, and the audience to help keep the audience engaged and the program moving. Understanding that an audience watching on computer screens does not have the same attention span as one gathered on a farm, the virtual events would only run one hour.

These video segments would also provide a great deal of flexibility by transporting the audience to multiple sites without getting their boots muddy.

Getting the Content

As you all know, Iowa can be fairly windy, so getting good sound quality while outdoors can be challenging. After a few early experiments that failed, Comito settled on using her iPhone X with a Beastgrip Pro, tripod, Samson wireless microphone system, and Lightning-to-USB camera adapter. This combination delivered excellent video and audio quality, and provided production agility, enabling quick set up and tear down in multiple locations around the farm. The wireless microphone also facilitated social distancing for all participants in each shoot.

A helpful tip is to shoot more video and b-roll (video without a presenter which is used in editing to smooth transitions and add interest) than you think you could possibly use. This simplifies editing offers more options for creativity.

Production and Editing

Our video production goal is producing multiple visually meaningful video segments to reinforce the live presentation content. Just like agenda items for an in-person field day, each video segment contributes to the flow of the field day and must have a clear purpose. The videos bring the field to the virtual audience in ways that cannot be done with still photographs. Cutting together shots of the presenter speaking with close-ups or b-roll showing what they are talking about will keep the audience hooked and visually reinforce the message.

Since no one on staff had days to dedicate to the editing of the video material, we needed an editing program that was simple to use with professional features and a reasonable price. With this in mind, we selected Movavi. It is intuitive for beginners yet has some nice advanced features for people with more experience and time.

Delivering the Program

We chose Zoom as the delivery platform. A major advantage of Zoom is its integrated participant registration. ILF offers CCA credits to participants, but must have appropriate registration records to validate submissions. Registration also provides us with a ready-made list for sending follow up evaluations – a hallmark of the ILF program and fundamental tool for assessing the success of the event.

We have also experimented with different approaches during the live event to encourage natural and dynamic interactions between presenters and participants. These field days are not meant to be a one-way presentation such as a webinar, but an opportunity for discussion and back-and-forth conversations. We actively encourage participants to ask questions directly or through the Zoom chat feature. However, we have learned that it is more effective for a field day host to read the questions to the presenters to keep the conversation flowing.

Technical Lessons Learned

Moving quickly while breaking new ground, we ran into some technical challenges with the virtual field day productions. Things such as the recording issues noted earlier were quickly resolved. Others took more experimentation and research. Immediate and survey feedback was crucial in helping us understand and resolve the issues.

Despite performing technology tests before each of first two events, we got feedback that the video was choppy, and the motion didn’t sync with the sound. We consulted experts and tested multiple configurations before finding what we believe to be the golden ticket for reliably delivering the program. It certainly isn’t point-and-click, but it delivers the result we want.

  • Record at 720p and compress during the export process
  • Upload the video to YouTube
  • Embed YouTube video into PowerPoint
  • Share PowerPoint screen via Zoom using a dual monitor computer set up

A word of caution – when streaming YouTube embedded in PowerPoint, the screen sharing host cannot click anywhere while the video is playing. If they do, it will cause the video to stop and will resume at the beginning of the video when they hit play. So be sure to mute and turn off the host camera before hitting that play button!

Assessing Success

After getting past all the technical parts of virtual field days, we are left with two additional challenges: 1) Assessing the educational impact of the event, and 2) Reaching more farmers and producers. As with the technical side, we are experimenting with effective evaluation and promotion practices.

Adapting our standard field day survey strategy to the virtual environment, we send a brief online survey to all participants immediately after the event using Qualtics XM. An email reminder is sent one week later. Response rates to the three virtual field day evaluations have been about the same as we typically receive for our standard two-week evaluations.

We are actively working to increase participation from farmers and landowners by sending direct mail and electronic invitations to field day participants from the past three years. We hope that by reaching out directly, we will be able to encourage increased participation in future events.

As we continue to improve the virtual field day experience, we are excited about the positive feedback we’ve heard. Virtual field days will not replace in-person field days but the ability to visit multiple sites and opening attendance to those beyond driving distance make them a good addition to the full outreach program. We do look forward to getting back into the fields. Until then, stay safe and we look forward to seeing (or hearing you) online!

Jackie Comito and Liz Ripley

Wetland Ecosystem Services: How wetlands can benefit Iowans.

Kay Stefanik | Assistant Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

              Iowa was once a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, rivers, and forests.  Today, Iowa looks drastically different as agriculture now dominates the landscape.  Fertile prairie and wetland soils, which are ideal for row crop agriculture, have paved the way to a booming agricultural industry and led to Iowa being one of the top corn and soybean producing states in the country. 

              While agriculture is vital to the regional economy, all things in life come with trade-offs.  The rise of agriculture came at the expense of nature. Of Iowa’s natural ecosystems, wetlands have been particularly hard hit.  Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up almost 4 million acres of Iowa’s landscape.  Today, there are only about 422,000 acres of wetlands remaining; this is an 89% loss in wetland habitat.   

              At this point, you may be wondering “why does wetland loss matter”?  When a wetland is lost, we do not just lose a physical space.  We also lose the wetland’s ecosystem services – the essential direct and indirect benefits that nature provides to humans.  Even though wetlands are much harder to find today, the wetlands that do exist are still providing a variety of ecosystem services.  These ecosystems services include:

  • Flood prevention
  • Water quality improvements through nutrient and sediment removal
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Food and fiber

              I am in no way implying that sides need to be taken, that it is agriculture or nature.  What I am suggesting is that not only can agriculture and nature coexist, but that nature can be used to improve agriculture.  By protecting wetlands already on the landscape, as well as strategically creating and restoring wetland habitat, we can increase the impacts of wetland ecosystem services.  Of interest in Iowa are the ability of wetlands to help with flood prevention and to improve water quality. 

              Flooding has become a major issue throughout Iowa over the last decade.  Wetlands placed along streams and rivers have the potential to capture surface runoff before stormwater reaches the stream and can also act to hold water from a river that spills over its banks.  This holding capacity prevents some of that floodwater from being immediately transported downstream.  By holding floodwater in place, downstream fields and developed areas may be spared from extreme flooding events and severe economic loss. 

              In addition to flood prevention, wetlands also help to improve water quality.   Wetlands receiving surface runoff can reduce phosphorus concentrations through the settling out of soil particles in the water column. The settled-out phosphorus becomes trapped in the wetland sediment and thus held on the landscape.  Wetlands that receive water with high dissolved nitrogen concentrations, usually ground water or tile line water, can reduce nitrogen through microbial conversion to nitrogen gas.  This nitrogen gas is then lost to the atmosphere, which is already about 78% nitrogen.  The ability of wetlands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus can help us meet the 45% nutrient reduction goal laid out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

              These wetland ecosystem services – flood prevention, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, food, and fiber – give wetlands both instrumental and intrinsic value.  Wetlands have great potential to benefit the lives of all Iowans, but only if wetlands are allowed to exist in Iowa’s landscape.

Kay Stefanik

@kay_stefanik (Twitter)

Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the efforts and progress being made toward reducing agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, explained:

  1. How does nutrient loss occur in Iowa agriculture?
  2. Which practices reduce nutrient loss?
  3. Are these practices being adopted?

Nowatzke explained that agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus mainly occur in two different ways: soil and phosphorus loss through erosion from surface runoff and loss of nitrate-nitrogen and some dissolved phosphorus through subsurface drainage. In-field and edge-of-field practices have been designed and are being adopted by farmers and landowners to reduce these losses.

These practices can be used to meet the nutrient reduction goals set forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Strategy lays out several different scenarios in which the goals can be reached through different combinations of practices and the necessary adoption rate for each scenario. One of these scenarios is shown in the figure below, with the current estimated adoption rate also shown.

More widespread adoption of these practices (in this combination of practices or in the other scenarios) will be needed to reach the nutrient reduction goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Nowatzke shared the following resources for more information:

More information about the progress toward Iowa’s water quality goals can be found in the forthcoming 2018-19 Annual Progress Report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Last year’s report can be found here.

Watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week, on May 6, when  Ross Evelsizer, Watershed Planner & GIS Specialist at Northeast Iowa RC&D, will present a webinar titled: “Multi-Cropping as a Profitable Soil Health Solution“.

Hilary Pierce

Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge: Efforts and Progress in Reducing Agricultural Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loss

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 29 at noon about the work that is being done in Iowa to reduce losses of agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as the progress that has been made.  

What are the drivers of nutrient loss and water quality impacts in Iowa? To what extent are agricultural conservation practices being used in Iowa to address these concerns? This webinar will explore these questions, describe the wide variety of data sources available, and present findings from the forthcoming Annual Progress Report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, will share how Iowa’s water quality efforts are tracked, the latest findings, and where participants can find additional resources about these efforts.

“There are many programs and initiatives working toward reducing nutrient loss in Iowa. This project uses data to show the current status and outcomes of those efforts, and it aims to provide Iowans with timely information regarding water quality improvement,” said Nowatzke. She works for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to evaluate Iowa’s progress in meeting water quality goals, research Iowa farmers’ conservation practice adoption, and track statewide use of water quality improvement practices in agriculture.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm on April 29:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

    Or, go to and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Farming for the Future With Wade Dooley – Virtual Field Day April 24 1pm CDT

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Conservation Learning Group, is hosting a free virtual field day on Friday, April 24th at 1pm CDT.

The event will include video footage from the field and live interaction with Marshall County farmer Wade Dooley as he shows changes he is making within the family farming operation to adjust to changing markets and climate.

Dooley is truly farming for the future, with an emphasis on making his family farm resilient in the changing climate and finding systems that allow him to learn, adapt and get excited to try again next year. For Dooley this means making big changes: moving away from row crops to CRP acres, raising cover crops for seed, extending his rotations and growing a grass-fed cow-calf operation.

“It is important to find a system that allows you to do what you enjoy, but that will also be a successful and profitable business,” noted Dooley. “One of my main goals is to grow food – vegetables, fruit and meat – in order to feed our neighbors here in Iowa.”

Make plans to join us and chat with Wade on how he’s making these changes with his family on their farm and how you can implement similar practices in your own system.

To participate in the live field day, shortly before 1:00 pm CDT on April 24, click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 315 189 792

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. The archive is available at

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

The First Earth Day: A Personal Remembrance

Today’s guest blog post was written by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Section.

The first Earth Day, which took place on April 22, 1970—50 years ago—sparked the creation of environmental policies and programs that helped clean up parts of the environment not only across the U.S., but also here in Iowa.

The first Earth Day, founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, followed by the passage of the Clean Air Act that year, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and years later—in 1987—Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, a new program to provide funding and technical assistance to address nonpoint source pollution in the U.S. to help clean up rivers, lakes, and streams.

Iowa has actively participated in the Section 319 program. Since 1990, the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement program has funded over 600 local, regional, and statewide clean water projects (mostly watershed projects) totaling over $100 million, through the EPA’s Section 319 grant program. Currently, the DNR provides $1.8 million annually to locally-led watershed projects to restore lakes, streams, and river segments in Iowa.

When the Section 319 program was created, I was completing my master’s degree in Land Resources at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, named in honor of the founder of Earth Day.

Although I can thank many people for teaching me about nature and the environment—including my professors and fellow students at Wisconsin—among the first were my paternal grandparents, Claude and Bernice Hopkins.

At the time of the first Earth Day, I was an 8-year-old boy who loved to visit Grandpa and Grandma Hopkins at their pasture-based cattle farm in northwest Missouri, only a three hour drive from our home in Atlantic, Iowa.  Grandpa loved working with and observing cattle, which he had done his entire life, and he was in fact the 1935 national collegiate dairy judging champion, while competing with the Iowa State College Dairy Judging Team.

Grandma loved animals, too, but also so much more.  She not only helped Grandpa with livestock chores, she also kept a large garden of healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers, and she cooked delicious meals every day.  She had studied home economics and horticulture at Iowa State, and she put her knowledge to practical use on the farm.

What I remember most about her, though, was how she loved birds.  She would listen carefully to bird calls on the farm, and she had an old 78 record of bird calls that she listened to so she could learn bird calls better. She also could whistle the call of bobwhites so accurately that they would respond by calling back to her.  And, in describing the musical call of meadowlarks, which sang from the tops of the many fence posts on their farm, she would say joyfully, “It sounds like they’re singing ‘Gee whiz, my feet are cold!’”

Grandma Hopkins would never have called herself an environmentalist. Yet she helped instill in me at an early age an awareness and appreciation for nature that has been a part of me all of my life, even long after her passing from this Earth.

On a recent visit to a watershed project here in Iowa, I heard the familiar and welcoming call of a meadowlark, singing “Gee whiz, my feet are cold!”  I thank Grandma for helping me hear that call, and for helping me find my calling.

Steve Hopkins

Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Why are they absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation?

Billy Beck | Extension Forestry Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach | Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management

Did you know that nearly three million acres of forest stand tall within Iowa’s border? That around one hundred and fifty thousand Iowans own forestland and sell 10-35 million dollars of standing timber annually? In 2016, forestry and forest products produced 4.3 billion dollars in economic output and supported nearly 30,000 jobs in Iowa.

Iowa State University is home to one of the oldest forestry programs in the United States. As an Extension Forestry Specialist, I work daily to remind Iowans that trees, forests, and forestry hold great significance in Iowa’s past, present, and future. They are part of Iowa and help define who we are, just like corn, hogs, and prairie. Why is it that trees, forests, and forestry are generally absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation? From on-farm practices to our statewide vision (i.e., Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy), trees are rarely, if ever, mentioned as a part of our water quality improvement strategies.

Trees and forests are as much a part of Iowa as corn, hogs, and prairie. Yellow River State Forest, Allamakee County. Note floodplain reforestation effort at right.

We’ve done an impressive job in the Midwest to alter our landscape (e.g., landcover conversion, stream channelization) for the purpose of getting water out of fields, into streams, and out of watersheds as fast as possible. The result is what hydrologists refer to as “flashy flow”, where streams exhibit rapid rises in stage immediately following storm events. This altered (flashy) hydrology subjects our streams to increased erosive power, which contributes greatly to Iowa’s current water quality and quantity (i.e., flooding) issues.

Trees and forests help address flashiness, mitigate the effects, and work to restore a more natural hydrology which will lead to better water quality and more stable quantity. Upland forest canopies intercept a portion of rainfall and prevent it from rushing into streams. Roots increase the infiltration capacity of the soil, reducing overland flow and associated erosion. Transpiration pulls moisture from soil, further increasing its ability to absorb rainfall, reduce overland flow, and deliver water to streams slowly through shallow groundwater. Floodplain forests provide resistance against out-of-bank flows, reducing floodplain scour and lessening downstream flood damage. By slowing flood velocities, their upright stems also encourage deposition of sediment and phosphorus on floodplains (a potentially huge nutrient sink). Trees along streams armor streambanks against erosive flows, and roots increase the tensile strength of streambank soils. The shade they create regulates stream temperature, mitigating massive diurnal dissolved oxygen swings.

Many landowners praise streambank trees for keeping flood debris from entering their fields. Trees that fall in streams and other in-channel large woody material may be unsightly to many folks, however, even these provide significant benefit through increase in flow resistance, trapping and storage of sediment and phosphorus, and creation of prime habitat for aquatic biota. In-channel wood also redirects flow towards streambanks, working to reestablish the natural meander pattern of streams, thus lessening slopes and further “slowing the flow”.

Although unsightly to some, trees that fall in streams and in-channel wood mitigate water quality and quantity issues by slowing the flow, trapping sediment and nutrients, and restoring natural meander patterns. Walnut Creek, Jasper County. Photo: Dr. Morgan Davis.

So, why would such a powerful tool be overlooked so often? Why are efforts to establish, manage, and protect streamside (riparian) forests minimized in the Midwest? I believe part of the answer comes down to landowner unfamiliarity with trees. This is no knock against Midwestern landowners (they are the best people on the planet in my book), it’s just that trees are challenging, especially if you lack experience. Trees are different from grass – you can’t simply plant trees in the ground, walk away, and expect success. Trees take advanced planning and site preparation, and at least three years of dedicated maintenance (e.g., weed control) to establish. When these don’t occur, plantings fail, neighbors notice, and word gets around the county that “trees don’t work”.

Management of existing forests is no less challenging. It takes a “100-year mentality,” and willingness to part with annual returns. In addition, landowners struggle to understand the true value of their timber. This spells danger when someone knocks on their door and offers them “ten thousand bucks” for the walnuts on the back 40.  What seems like an instant windfall is often a severe undercut. Before you take that offer, reach out to the many forestry resources, technical assistance, and expertise available to Iowa landowners. Unfortunately, many are unaware these resources exist.

The first, and most critical step to a successful forestry project is to connect with a professional forester. Be they a public (e.g., Iowa DNR), or a private consulting forester, these experts are your guide to a successful forestry project. From planning and planting, to forest stand improvement (thinning) and timber harvest, a forester will guarantee you maximize the benefits (both ecological and financial) of your forest resource. For further details on maximizing your forest resources, join my April 22 Iowa Learning Farms webinar.

As a water quality enhancement tool, and asset to farm enterprises, trees are often underutilized and undervalued in Midwestern states. Rough-sawn Osage orange board, Shimek State Forest, Lee County.

On February 27, I brought together nineteen forestry and water quality experts from across Iowa to explore the question as to why trees are often disregarded as a water quality enhancement tool. The participants in this Forestry and Water Quality Summit agreed that trees and forests are a tough sell to policy makers because they are not a “practice” or an engineered structure you can simply install and expect instant results. Trees take time. There is a multi-year lag between implementation of trees and water quality enhancement. For the foresters in the room, this was to be expected. Everyone agreed that everyone needed more of that “100-year mentality” and to plant more trees.

More importantly, we all agreed that we need Iowa-specific data that quantify tree and forest water quality benefits (e.g., flood peak reduction and nutrient reduction). While such data exist nationally and globally, it is difficult to apply that information to Iowa’s unique stream corridors and watersheds that are often highly-altered and highly-unstable.

Are trees the “silver bullet” for Iowa water quality? No. Do they need to be recognized as a critical component in our water quality efforts? Absolutely. To succeed in reducing nutrient levels in our water bodies, we will need a suite of practices. Like wetlands and prairie strips, trees offer additional environmental benefits. I am so thrilled be a part of the Conservation Learning Group and to partner with the Iowa Learning Farms and forestry professionals state-wide to firmly establish trees in Iowa’s water quality conversation!       

Billy Beck

For information on forestry resources available to Iowa landowners, visit the Forestry section of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Natural Resource Stewardship website.

@drbillyjbeck (Twitter)

@drbillyjbeck (Instagram)