Farmer Profile: Ben and Andy Johnson

Ben and Andy Johnson_cropCLLThe Johnson brothers farm in Floyd County where they grow corn and soybeans and manage a ewe flock and feeder lamb operation. The duo are no strangers to conservation and trying new practices. They began no-tilling soybeans over fifteen years ago and have nearly ten years of experience strip-tilling corn. Other conservation methods they have employed on their farm include buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks, a pheasant safe program and cover crops.

Ben began using cover crops in 2013 when a wet spring delayed planting on hundreds of acres until it was too late to plant a cash crop. Not wanted the fields to remain empty all year, Ben planted oats and radishes for the first time. As to why he does it, Ben explained, “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.” Within his no-till system for soybeans and strip-till system for corn, he found that using cover crops helped control erosion and improved organic matter and overall soil structure.

“I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.” – Ben Johnson

In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Ben and Andy to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs* (CLL) project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale. The Johnsons farm near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Floyd County that has measured water quality for about three years.

Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after cover crops are planted in the project area over the next three years. The Johnsons agreed to participate in the CLL project, and in fall of 2017 they seeded cover crops on over 54% of the nearby research watershed acres.

Ben says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy have two sons, Jackson and Riley. Andy Johnson had his wife Abbie also have two young sons, Kyle and Carter. Ben was featured in our Conservation Chat podcast – listen to the episode to hear more about his operation and what drives his conservation ethic.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

Conservation Chat: We must clean up our water sources voluntarily

Ben&Amy Johnson2

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy.

This month, host Jacqueline Comito has a conversation with a farmer in northeast Iowa. Ben Johnson is a sixth generation farmer that purchased his first farm with his brother Andy when he was a sophomore at Iowa State University. Conservation saves him one of his most valued resources on the farm: time.

Johnson takes part in our Conservation Learning Lab program with a small scale watershed and CREP wetland on a neighbors property. He and his family began using cover crops in 2013, a year that had a terribly wet spring. They had 200-300 acres that were too wet to plant and didn’t want them to sit bare all year so they took an old seeder and ran oats and radishes that August. He noticed an improvement in the soil tilth right away and in the beans produced that fall. 2013 was also the year that they introduced strip-tilling, increasing water absorption and yield in those areas.

Other conservation methods Johnson employs are buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks and a pheasant safe program. Johnson says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

“I hope my kids can be the seventh generation (to farm) so it means a lot to me to leave the land in as good or better shape than it was when I started,” that means the soil needs to be productive and the water needs to run clear “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.”

Listen to this Episode of Conservation Chat to learn about the numerous benefits of strip-till, no-till and cover crops and how easy it can be to get started! You can subscribe to the podcast for future episodes as well.

Brianne Osborn

Iowa CREP Wetlands

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and USDA’s Farm Service Agency, in cooperation with local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). The program provides incentives to landowners to voluntarily restore shallow, semi-permanent wetlands in the heavily tile-drained regions of Iowa to improve surface water quality while providing valuable wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.


The goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers by targeting wetland restorations to “sweet spots” on the landscape that provide the greatest water quality benefits. CREP wetlands are positioned to receive tile drainage by gravity flow; they remove nitrate and herbicides from the water before it enters streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen not only affects Iowa’s waters but is also one of the leading causes of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. CREP wetlands are one strategy to help reduce nitrogen loading to those waters.

Targeted results. To ensure that wetlands are sited in the most advantageous locations, IDALS uses advanced geographic information system (GIS) analyses to find locations that are properly sized and situated to provide large nitrogen removal benefits. The CREP wetland criteria are based on over two decades of research and monitoring conducted by Iowa State University.

This research and monitoring has demonstrated that strategically sited and designed CREP wetlands remove 40 to 70 percent of nitrates and over 90 percent of herbicides from cropland drainage waters. Nitrogen reduction is achieved primarily through the denitrifying bacteria that occur naturally in wetlands. Through denitrification, the bacteria remove nitrate from the water and release it into the air as nitrogen gas (N2), an innocuous end product.


The highly targeted nature of this program has led to 83 wetlands currently restored and another 12 under development. During their lifetimes, these wetlands are expected to remove more than 100,000 tons of nitrogen from 122,350 acres of cropland. In 2016 the number of restored wetlands reached an annual capacity of removing over 1,300,000 lbs of nitrogen. These 95 targeted restorations total more than 891 acres of wetlands and 3,100 acres of surrounding buffers planted to native prairie vegetation.

More than nitrogen removal. Even with the impressive results so far, Iowa continues to explore and develop new technologies to optimize wetland performance by incorporating additional considerations for habitat, hydraulic efficiency, and temporary flood storage benefits. CREP wetlands are already providing high-quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in addition to water quality benefits. Studies conducted by USGS have shown dramatic increases in the presence of several frog species at CREP wetland sites. The high-quality buffers, in conjunction with the shallow wetland habitats, have proven to be a tremendous boon to a multitude of wildlife species commonly found in these areas. Populated by birds ranging from trumpeter swans to shorebirds, these areas have shown that targeting wetland restoration for water quality benefits does not come at the expense of mutual habitat and recreational benefits.

To see additional photographs of CREP wetlands across Iowa and to read more about the program, click here (

Jake Hansen

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito

Voluntary Can Not Mean Optional – Nutrient Reduction Strategy Featured at Upcoming PFI Annual Conference

The Iowa Learning Farms is sponsoring a track of  sessions at the Practical Farmers of Iowa 2014 Annual Conference emphasizing that voluntary can not mean optional when it comes to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The conference will be held Friday, January 24 and Saturday, January 25 at the Iowa State Center Scheman Building in Ames. Click here for more conference information.

A view of one of Arlo VanDiest's strip-till fields.

A view of one of Arlo VanDiest’s strip-till fields.

ILF Sponsored Sessions:

Friday 12:30-4:30pm: Presentations and discussion with researchers about cover crops, wetlands, strip-till, and STRIPS.  The five member panel of Mark Rasmussen, Tom Kaspar, Bill Crumpton, Barb Stewart and Matt Helmers have extensive experience in each of their respective areas and will be available to answer questions about each of the practices.

Saturday 9-11am: Hear from two farmers, Tim Smith and Seth Watkins, who have successfully begun implementing different tools in the nutrient reduction strategy toolbox including cover crops, bioreactors, and prairie STRIPS

Saturday 11:30am-12:30pm: Farmer Allan Armbrecht has successfully implemented Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland and will provide insight into his decision to adopt the practice and his experiences so far.

Saturday 1:45-3:1pm: Farmer commissioners Rick Juchems and Bob Lynch and urban commissioner Kevin Griggs will discuss current and future challenges with the adoption of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.   Clare Lindahl,  Conservation Districts of Iowa executive director, will be on hand to moderate the discussion and questions.

Register online or contact Erica Andorf at (515) 232-5661 or Discounted registration ends January 15th. Special rates are available for students and Practical Farmers members. You can register on site at the conference too.

Liz Juchems

Badger Creek Lake Watershed: We are better together!

Just beyond the Des Moines Lobe lie the rolling hills of Madison Co., which we had the pleasure of visiting this past Saturday evening, July 14.  As part of the Badger Creek Lake watershed improvement project, the Madison Co. SWCD commissioners planned and hosted a field day for local watershed residents, with the event based at the historic barn of Ron & Jenny McBroom.

As residents arrived, they were invited to tour the Conservation Station.  In addition to seeing the rainfall simulator in action, folks loved sharing stories and reminiscing as they explored the unique display created for Badger Creek Lake inside the trailer.  The air conditioning inside was a nice draw, too!  The Madison Co. commissioners were a gracious welcoming committee, greeting guests as they arrived,  mingling with watershed residents, and helping transport people out to the wetlands via hayrack (though they were down to one due to a blown tire).

Madison Co. commissioner Frederick Martens led the 50+ guests on a tour of the newly established Martens wetland, part of the CREP program.  Fred was a wonderful tour guide, answering questions and sharing his experiences in establishing the wetlands site at the head of the watershed, and its many benefits on water quality, including sediment removal and nutrient cycling.

Whether on foot or via hayrack, the 50+ people in attendance got to see firsthand the quiet beauty of this wetland.  Even though it is newly established, you didn’t have to look far to see (and hear) abundant wildlife all around.

While some took in the sights and sounds of the wetlands, others self-entertained with a grass sword fight!

Nonetheless, folks thoroughly enjoyed seeing the wetlands up close and personal and getting the chance to visit with Frederick and several agency personnel in attendance.

After touring the wetlands, we all came together for a community picnic and some time for fellowship.  We shared a delicious meal of sloppy joes, chips, pasta salad, plus brownies and cookies for dessert.  Oh, and baked beans – it’s not a real field day without the baked beans!

We also recruited several new members to join the Conservation Pack.

Thanks to the Madison Co. SWCD commissioners and secretary Diane Fitch for their work in planning this event, being such gracious hosts, and bringing folks together for an evening of education, fun, and fellowship.  We are better together!