First Experience at My Very Own County Fair

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

On Friday July 26th I was scheduled to go to the Hamilton County Fair in Webster City with the Conservation Station trailer. Now this fair happens to be my hometown county fair, but the thing is, I have never been to it before. In my time with Water Rocks!, I have worked at a lot of different small town fairs, so I was curious to see how the Hamilton Co. Fair compared, and what it had to offer.

Going to county fairs around Iowa is a cultural experience!  Some of the fairs are pretty small in size, but they’re filled with a lot of pride around the 4-H and FFA exhibits and the livestock, like the Chickasaw Co. Fair. This year I also attended some medium sized fairs, like the Johnson Co. Fair in Iowa City. I originally believed this one would be huge considering the location, but it was still highly focused on livestock with a few other trailers and activities. It did also offer some different food options, including a homemade ice cream stand which really caught my eye.

And of course there have also been a few large fairs that I have attended as well, such as the Great Jones Co. Fair and the Mississippi Valley Fair. Both of these fairs offer lots of different things. Jones Co. offers dirt bike races, fair rides, and concerts. This year they had TobyMac perform along with some other relatively popular artists. And as for the Mississippi Valley Fair, they had an entire building dedicated to kids activities including interesting speakers and a petting zoo. They also had plenty of rides and food stands that span probably close to a half of a mile. Plus they bring in big name artists such as Dan + Shay and Nickelback, just to name a couple.

Arriving at the Hamilton Co. Fairgrounds, what first came to my attention is that it is a relatively small fair, which I expected, but they had a midway and a really nice sized stage for the artists that would be playing the fair. This was quite surprising to me. I did not expect it to have all the different things that it had. There were quite a few livestock buildings, as most fairs have. Another thing that surprised me was the many different food vendors. There were the usual ones like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and lemonade, plus they also had a few that I would say are less common such as smoked barbeque, tacos, and a stand completely dedicated to chicken that went by the name of Chicken City. You know I’m all about the fair food!

Photos from 

Now as for my overall experience at the Hamilton Co. Fair, it was good. One thing that was especially unique was that myself and my coworkers got to teach a 4-H STEM camp that was happening at the fair. We taught students from 3rd to 5th grade all about the Fabulous World of Wetlands!


Then after the camp, we were on site for 3 more hours, talking to other fair goers at our Conservation Station trailer and encouraging them to check out our hands-on interactive activities.  While the fair was on the smaller end of those we visit, all the conversations we had with people were great, as they were very interested in what we were trying to teach. Most of the people that we saw were really interested in the Enviroscape (our “Watershed Game”). Even though it was my hometown fair, I did not end up talking to anyone that I knew from high school or my local community.

County fairs seem to be a summer staple here in Iowa. I can now proudly say, at 19, that I’ve finally been to my own local county fair!  Next summer I will have to go back on my own time to experience everything else that the Hamilton Co. Fair has to offer!

Joshua Harms


Hitting 100 County Fairs in Iowa – We Did It!

Schools out, the crops are growing, and it’s July. Fair season is here.

First, let’s dispense with the confusion. Iowa has ninety-nine counties, but one-hundred county fairs. It’s a story for another time, but Pottawattamie County holds two. Since 2007, Iowa Learning Farms has been providing conservation education at county fairs across Iowa. In 2010, together with Water Rocks!, we set the goal to attend the fairs in every Iowa county. It took multiple seasons, but we achieved that objective at the Jones County Fair on July 19, 2018. Along the way, we’ve entertained and provided conservation outreach and education to tens of thousands of Iowans through one hundred seventy-four fair visits.

With three Conservation Station trailers and dedicated Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms teams, some creative scheduling, and tricky logistics, we were at twenty-eight fairs in 2017, and are on track for twenty-six this summer.

EnviroscapeAttending fairs in all ninety-nine counties doesn’t seem much of a feat until you consider that they all take place during the same few weeks each summer. Coordinating and scheduling the teams and equipment, working with tremendous local representatives at each stop, and responding to rain-outs, flat tires, and other hiccups, is a hectic but fulfilling job. At the end of the season, everyone involved gives a sigh of relief and accomplishment, and then looks forward to field days, workshops, and Water Rocks! school programs that fill up the rest of the year.

While we’re crisscrossing the state attending fairs, what should visitors expect from Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms? A unique combination of information about conservation, farming techniques, and fun. Conservation is a choice that every Iowan must make for themselves, and we are dedicated to putting science-based information into the hands and heads of people of every age and background. Building a Culture of Conservation in Iowa is the core principle of the organizations.

Big CS RSWhere else, but at the Conservation Station, can kids win prizes by picking up dog poo (fake) and tossing it into targets? And along the way, learn about animal waste from domesticated pets and livestock, that can pollute the rivers and streams that are a great source of recreation and drinking water throughout the state. The lessons resonate with the parents and grandparents too. We see it in their faces as they lean in to encourage the kids.

The approach encompasses multiple media to capture a visitor’s interest, regardless of their age or background. We use music, art, games, and scientific displays to tune the Culture of Conservation message to everyone.

The Conservation Station trailers incorporate art and science to demonstrate how no-till and cover crop techniques benefit the broader ecosystem through controlling nutrient loss and erosion.

IMG_4781Our new Conservation Station On The Edge trailer also includes working bioreactor and saturated buffer demonstrations that help farmers visualize how these might work on their farms. These structures, which work below the surface and out of view, have proven to reduce nitrate levels by as much as seventy percent.

This year, the Big Conservation Station’s walk-through learning lab has been outfitted with all new artwork depicting the past, present, and potential future of Iowa’s farming practices and environment. Through this original artwork, we solicit visitors to contemplate the future they hope for Iowa, and share those dreams through their own artistic contributions.

Throughout Iowa we’ve been welcomed and welcomed back. And when we return to a fair to see the same smiling faces ready to hear more about conservation, we know that we’re making progress on our mission. We’re excited to get back to each county as soon and as often as possible.

Come out to see the Conservation Stations and Water Rocks! at the following fairs this summer:

  • July 20, Tama County
  • July 20, Decatur County
  • July 21, Poweshiek County
  • July 21, Henry County
  • July 23, Jasper County
  • July 24, Story County
  • July 25, Wayne County
  • July 26, Monroe County
  • July 26, Des Moines County
  • July 27, Fayette County
  • July 27, Crawford County
  • July 28, Hancock County
  • August 3, Clayton County
  • August 4, Mitchell County

We’ll see you at the Fair!

Liz Juchems


About Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms:

Water Rocks! is a unique, award-winning statewide water education program that fosters the interplay of knowledge, caring and engagement among Iowa’s youth.

Established in 2004, Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) is building a Culture of Conservation by encouraging adoption of conservation practices. Farmers, researchers and ILF team members are working together to identify and implement the best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.

Partners of Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms include Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA Section 319), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Request the Conservation Station for Your 2018 Summer Event Today!


If you have a summer camp, county fair, farmers market or other community event in need of unique and educational entertainment, look no further than the Conservation Station. We are currently accepting requests for community events in June and July 2018. Get your requests in by Wednesday, March 21 for priority consideration!

IMG_2963The Conservation Station brings with it a multitude of activities that educate and inspire children, adults and families to think deeper about the world around them. Our rainfall simulator demonstrates the impacts of land management choices on water quality. Our hands-on, interactive activities and games emphasize that, if everyone does their part, we can all make a difference in water quality in Iowa and beyond.

Do you want to include the Conservation Station at your community event? Request the Conservation Station for your event this summer! Get your requests in by Wednesday, March 21 for priority consideration!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Julie Winter

Conservation, Water Quality, Dog Poo, and Rock Walls… recapping my experiences at county fairs!

This guest blog post was written by Jessica Rehmann, a high school intern with the Water Rocks! team.  Jessica is beginning her senior year at Ames High School this fall, where she is actively involved with music (playing saxophone in band/jazz band), athletics (cross country/ track), and more. And no, you are not seeing double… Emily Rehmann (previous blogger and summer intern) and Jessica Rehmann are identical twins!

As a summer intern with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms, I have been traveling around the state with the Conservation Station to many county fairs. Our goal is to educate fair attendees about water quality and watersheds with the Enviroscape model, the Rainfall Simulator, the Learning Lab trailer posters and videos, and the Poo Toss game. We also sometimes have free popcorn for the people who visit our station! I have enjoyed teaching kids (and adults!) about the Enviroscape and Poo Toss game.

Teaching the Enviroscape at the Dallas County Fair!

Teaching the Enviroscape at the Dallas County Fair!

With the Enviroscape model, we want to help people see the effects of pollution and rainfall within a watershed. Because the Enviroscape is a three-dimensional model of a watershed, we start by discussing what a watershed is. To make the point that a watershed is an area of land where all the water drains to a common point, I ask kids to make a cup with their hands to represent the watershed and a landscape (or as fellow intern Megan calls it, a “handscape”). We choose places on our “handscape” for our homes, the fairgrounds, and maybe a store. Next we pretend-rain on our hands and determine where the water would go. The kids realize that in their watershed, the water that rains on their houses and the water that rains on the fair would all go to one place, the lowest point on the landscape. In the Enviroscape watershed, they guess that the common point that water drains to is the lake.

The Enviroscape watershed model, clean and ready for teaching.

An overhead view of the Enviroscape watershed model, clean and ready for teaching.

Next, we add pollution to the watershed. I invite the kids to take a tour through the watershed first to get an idea of where pollution could be. The model includes a neighborhood, forest, factory, roads, vehicles, construction site, golf course, farm, pasture, rivers, and lake. We add loose soil (the biggest polluter of water in Iowa), fertilizer, pesticides/herbicides, oil, and manure to the watershed. The kids will often guess what the powders representing the pollutants are, and they are surprisingly accurate, especially with the lime Kool-Aid representing fertilizer!

Megan Koppenhafer, fellow intern, adding loose soil to the watershed, with an eager repeat visitor (in stripes), at the Audubon County Fair.

Megan Koppenhafer, fellow intern, adding loose soil to the watershed, with an eager repeat visitor (in stripes), at the Audubon County Fair.

Jessica Rehmann adding oil to the landscape (Brian Stout looks on) at the Dallas Co. Fair.

Jessica Rehmann adding oil to the landscape (Brian Stout looks on) at the Dallas Co. Fair.

After we have added pollutants to the watershed, the kids summon their inner rain clouds and make a big rainstorm on the Enviroscape with squirt bottles. As the rain hits the ground, it carries the pollutants with it as everything runs downhill to the lake. The kids are often surprised that all the pollutants run into the lake and cause the lake to become disgusting and polluted. They declare that they would not like to drink or swim in the water and that the plants and animals in and around the lake would not be happy.

Making it rain on the Enviroscape with Megan! The lake on the top left is definitely polluted (see clean lake picture above to compare).

Making it rain on the Enviroscape with Megan (above) and Jessica (lower right)! The lake on the top left is definitely polluted (see clean lake picture above to compare).

Then we discuss what we could do differently to help the water in the watershed stay cleaner. The kids can often come up with fixing leaky cars and boats, using less fertilizers and pesticides, and picking up after dogs. I also explain checking the forecast for no rain before applying fertilizers and pesticides, planting buffer strips along fields, using cover crops, planting plants on loose soil, and more.

Jessica Rehmann demonstrating where a buffer strip could go and how it would work.

Jessica Rehmann demonstrating where a buffer strip could go and how it would work.

After learning what they can do to help the watershed, Conservation Station visitors get to play the Poo Toss game. In the Poo Toss game, kids learn to properly dispose of dog waste in order to reduce nutrients and bacteria from getting into water. Once they bag the waste, they can toss it into waste buckets to win prizes. The kids enjoy playing the game and like to see other parts of the Conservation Station or come back and do the same activities again! A couple kids kept coming back with more friends to replay the Poo Toss, or see the Enviroscape and Rainfall Simulator!

Kids trying their hand at the Poo Toss to win prizes from the treasure chest with intern Megan Koppenhafer and staffer Ben Schrag.

Kids trying their hand at the Poo Toss to win prizes from the treasure chest with intern Megan Koppenhafer and staffer Ben Schrag.

While the Enviroscape and Poo Toss were the main activities I was involved with, the Conservation Station offers multiple other learning opportunities, as well. The Rainfall Simulator includes parcels of land that show different land management practices, including no tillage, minimum/conservation tillage, intense tillage, cover crops, urban environment (pavement), and a green roof. A rain machine mists the trays, and there are jars below to collect the surface runoff as well as water that infiltrates (soaks into the land). The jars show the amount and the cleanliness of the water that comes from each plot. Inside the Conservation Station trailer, people can walk through the Learning Lab and check out fun Water Rocks! videos and posters about conservation practices and water quality.

Top: Brian Stout presents the rainfall simulator at the Dallas Co. Fair. Below: Kids checking out videos and posters in the Learning Lab, inside the Big Conservation Station trailer.

Top: Brian Stout presents the rainfall simulator lesson to a group of kids and adults – we talk to people of all ages at county fairs! Below: Kids checking out videos and posters in the Learning Lab, inside the Big Conservation Station trailer.

We invited one enthusiastic girl (in pink) to help teach the Rainfall Simulator (with the help of Ann) to her cousin, which she excitedly did at the Dallas County Fair.

We invited one enthusiastic girl (in pink) to help teach the Rainfall Simulator (with the help of staffer Ann Staudt) to her cousin, which she excitedly did at the Dallas County Fair.

In the quieter moments of the fairs (to be expected with some smaller counties and extreme heat), I enjoyed watching a mud run, walking around the fairgrounds, climbing a rock wall, and meeting Cy!

Ben and I scale the rock wall at the Audubon County Fair!

Ben Schrag (left) and Jessica Rehmann (right) scale the rock wall at the Audubon County Fair!

Cy visits the Conservation Station - two thumbs up for conservation!

Cy visits the Conservation Station – two thumbs up for conservation!

I hadn’t been to any small county fairs before, so it was an interesting experience to see what they had to offer. I had a great time traveling the state with the Conservation Station and teaching about water quality!

The sun sets after a good day at the Dallas County Fair.

The sun sets after a good day at the Dallas County Fair.

Jessica Rehmann

Coming soon to a fair near you…

July is always a super fun (and chaotic!) time of year as our Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! team crisscrosses the state, traveling to as many county fairs as we can.

While we’d love to visit every county fair in Iowa, that’s a bit of a challenge with the vast majority of the fairs falling within the same three week window of time!  However, between our staff and students, we do our best to hit as many counties as we can, often sending out two separate groups to visit two separate fairs in the same day.  Our grand total this year is 28 individual fairs, an all-time record for our team!

What do we have to offer when we visit a county fair?  We may bring any combination of the activities shown below:






The list of 28 county fairs we’re visiting this summer is included below.  To find out what time of day we’ll be there, check your local fair book OR contact us and we can help you out with the specifics.

June 25       Linn Co. Fair
June 27       Howard Co. Fair
July 8       North Iowa Fair
July 9       Dallas Co. Fair
July 9       Central Iowa Fair
July 10       Cedar Co. Fair
July 12       Mills Co. Fair
July 12       Chickasaw Co. Fair
July 13       Adams Co. Fair
July 14       Sioux Co. Fair
July 15       Wapello Co. 4-H Expo
July 15       Adair Co. Fair
July 16       Monona Co. Fair
July 16       Muscatine Co. Fair
July 17       Osceola Co. Fair
July 18       Audubon Co. Fair
July 18       Clarke Co. Fair
July 21       O’Brien Co. Fair
July 22       Grundy Co. Fair
July 22       Washington Co. Fair
July 24       Boone Co. Fair
July 25       Buena Vista Co. Fair
July 28       Story Co. Fair
July 28       Lucas Co. Fair
July 31       Des Moines Co. Fair
 August 1       Plymouth Co. Fair
August 7       Fayette Co. Fair
August 7       Kossuth Co. Fair

Our full 2015 schedule of events can be found online, and additional summer events (community festivals, library visits, and more) are included there, as well.

Ann Staudt

Guest Blog: Making A Difference

Today’s guest blogger is Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! student intern Pacifique Mugwaneza Simon, or Pac for short!  Pac is a fourth year student at Iowa State University studying Industrial Technology and Agriculture Systems Technology.  His family is originally from Burundi, a small country in East Africa, but Pac spent most of his childhood in refugee camps throughout Rwanda, Congo, and Tanzania.  He has lived in the United States for almost eight years. 


Pac setting up the Enviroscape watershed model at the Howard County Fair

Growing up in a different part of the world, I saw first-hand how agriculture and natural resources are vital to everyone.  A large percentage of people in Burundi depend on agriculture, but there are many problems. The amount of land available is scarce, while the quality of arable land is diminishing through over-use and erosion.  To make things worse, about 60 percent of the population still doesn’t have access to clean water because they don’t have anyone who can help them understand how to properly care for and use the available water.

I decided that I would do my best to educate as many as I can about water quality.  When I began looking for an internship, I could not find one that seemed like a good fit.  Then I discovered the internship opportunity with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms.  Since then, I have been working with an awesome group of people who have such a large depth of knowledge and understanding about our environment and who do their best to help keep the earth as it should be. Throughout the summer I have been busy doing field work, such as collecting lysimeter samples and soil samples.  We have also been doing many outreach events, where we go out to different parts of Iowa and try to teach the people of the communities, and hopefully, in turn, they will help each other with local conservation practices.

I can honestly say I enjoy doing everything this internship has to offer me, especially the outreach events!  I like talking to the local youth about conservation in their community. Recently, I went with our team to the Howard County Fair.  It was one of my favorite outreach events because we had a lot of fun and when we were done we walked around and explored the different types of food the fair has to offer!


Pac and fellow intern Sam at the Howard County Fair.

Since joining the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms team this summer, I have seen what is best for us and the environment and what is not. I hope to one day return to East Africa, to Burundi, so that I may impart what I have learned. I want to help the people to work together to improve their soil and water quality.  I want this not only for agricultural success and clean drinking water, but to help keep the earth healthy as well.

Pacifique Simon

Observations from a First Time County Fairgoer


Student intern Nick Hunter uses the Enviroscape model to teach Conservation Station visitors about watersheds and water quality at the 2014 Central Iowa Fair

NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Nick Hunter, one of our summer interns with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!.   Hunter is starting his senior year at Grinnell College, double majoring in Physics and Spanish.

I’m a pretty big fan of the Iowa State Fair. Mostly for the fried pickles and other greasy goodness, but also for the eclectic crowd that gives the fairgrounds such a unique atmosphere. As a Des Moines native, it’s the only fair I had ever known until I started going to county fairs this summer with our fleet of Conservation Station trailers. I had been accustomed to the crowded and epic fried food mecca that is the Iowa State Fair.  County fairs were going to be something mighty different.

For the most part, they’ve been much less crowded and mostly attended by rural Iowans. Honestly, at first I didn’t think we would be able to meet with a very significant amount of people, and sometimes we don’t.  Many kids often bolt away right in the middle of a conversation to show their chickens or hogs at the 4-H events. Yet, no matter how small the fair, there always seems to be groups of fair-goers – families, groups of kids, seniors – who sincerely enjoy doing the activities at our Conservation Station.

Recently at the Central Iowa Fair in Marshalltown, a young girl came to watch the Enviroscape watershed activity. When it finished, she entered the trailer’s learning lab, we talked through the module, and went outside to play the poo toss activity.  She absolutely loved that game. She came back all afternoon to play and when it was time to leave she insisted in helping us pack up.


Intern Nick Hunter (left) proudly holds a chicken for the first time in his life

When we finished, she brought us over to her chicken coop to see the chickens she had shown earlier that day for 4-H. She opened the cage, yanked out her prized chicken, and shoved her into my arms before I could object.  It wasn’t exactly one of the most monumental moments in my life, holding live poultry in my arms, but it certainly was the first time I had held a chicken and for that I was proud.

I could tell that our young friend really enjoyed the presence of the Conservation Station at her fair. I also noticed the appreciation in almost every visit from the group of summer school kids that were bussed in to the fair that afternoon. By the end of the day, 110 kids and 20 adults had actively participated in our activities and had learned all about pollution, water quality, and conservation — a pretty successful day. Plus, I even held a chicken.

– Nick Hunter