Opinion: The Iowa Farmer, and the Decay Of the Rural Economy

Today’s guest blog post represents the opinion of AmeriCorps Service Member Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

It’s been almost six months since I first started my service with Water Rocks! and Iowa State University. Throughout this time, I have traveled all over the state of Iowa for numerous outreach events, from Decorah to Council Bluffs, Sioux Center to Cedar Rapids. The bluffs and plains of Iowa offer some truly great views along the highways, but there is another sight that has become all-too-familiar to me: the sight of a small, rural, agricultural town along the way. My home town, Jefferson, was not much different than this when I was a child, but in the last few years gained new businesses, most notably a Hy-Vee and the Wild Rose Casino. However, many small towns do not get an opportunity like this and run the risk of fading away.

Rural areas on the decline is not a new concept: farm income plunged for three straight years since 2014, says Barbara Soderlin of the Omaha World Herald (American farm income to fall in 2018 according to USDA forecast). A combination of low prices and poor weather have made it rough for farmers trying to get by. Some made the tough decision to give up their family farms simply because it couldn’t provide. And as farm family numbers shrink, so do the number of stores, hospitals, and other places of work. Even the factories, a partner with farms as the great job producers of Iowa’s rural economy, will leave, searching for more workers. And as such, rural Iowa, the lands that we are known for, decay.

When you see the same circumstance time and time again, you truly want to help your state find a way to bring jobs, wealth, and prosperity back to how they used to be. And, in a way, it helps you realize why some decisions are made the way they are. At first, it may not make sense for a factory to get a tax credit. But, if they didn’t have the tax incentive, the factory may not have been there in the first place. Bringing one part of the rural economy’s life blood back is a good first step for the state. More jobs lead to more population in the towns, which leads to town necessities like stores, hospitals, and gas stations being built, which leads to more jobs and a better economy. Ideally, this leads to a revitalization of an entire area. But what of the farmers of the state? I can’t give an answer to that.

The future of the Iowa farmer is uncertain. Price lulls, poor weather, and a disappearing rural community all factor in to the life blood of the rural economy. Ideally, the price of corn and soybeans will rise again, and the problem will solve itself, but the future lies at a crossroads. Does the small town/rural Iowa we know rebound and thrive again, or does it become the agricultural equivalent of the Rust Belt, a relic of a better time?

Jack Schilling

Why the delivery scale?

When it comes to monitoring water quality, there are quite a number of factors to consider: What are you monitoring for? How is land utilized within the targeted area?  How, when, where, and for how long will water samples be collected? Under what flow conditions? The scale at which you monitor really makes a difference!

The plot scale is valuable for looking at the impacts of specific in-field management practices. Plot scale (or field-scale) monitoring is where most of the pollutant export and delivery data come from that informed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Treatments can also be easily replicated on the plot scale. However, it’s challenging to properly scale up plot-level measurements to the area of practice implementation to truly assess water quality impacts across landscapes and with multiple practices.

Monitoring on the watershed scale allows us to look at the collective impacts over a much larger land area.  For instance, watershed-scale monitoring provides a broad picture of water quality challenges and aids in the identification of impaired waters. When monitoring on the watershed scale, measurements inherently include what’s happening on the land (field scale practices), plus field-to-stream transport, plus in-stream processes (bed and bank processes).  It certainly provides a comprehensive look the big picture, but you can’t “sort” out the different contributions of what’s happening in-field versus in-stream.

In between these two lies the delivery scale.  Delivery scale monitoring occurs at the point where water is delivered to a creek or stream. For instance, with drainage research, this would be the point where the tile main surfaces and water empties into a stream. In a nutshell, the delivery scale reflects the direct water quality impacts from an agricultural area, minus the potential confounding effects of in-stream processes like bed and bank erosion. Here at the Iowa Learning Farms, we’d argue that this is truly a sweet spot for looking at the impacts of specific conservation practices.

You need to monitor at the delivery scale if you want to know specifically what the agricultural impacts are.  That’s exactly what we’re striving towards with the Conservation Learning Labs project.

Within a small watershed area (several hundred acres), can we get a substantial percentage of producers adopting a conservation practice, like cover crops, and then measure corresponding water quality improvements at the delivery scale?  Modeling suggests so, and this project will quantify what nutrient load reductions are actually realized thanks to large scale, targeted adoption of cover crops.

Cover crops were seeded for the first time in fall 2017 within our two Conservation Learning Labs project sites.  Stay tuned for results as we look at the water quality (and soil health) impacts of substantial cover crop adoption on the delivery scale!

Ann Staudt

Going the Extra Yard

A few years ago, Liz, Matt and I attended the funeral of Barry Kusel, one of our dedicated ILF farmer partners. Barry had passed away unexpectedly right before Thanksgiving that year. Barry was always someone we could turn to when we needed a strong advocate for cover crops or no till. Attending his funeral was important. None of us knew the rest of his family but I kept thinking that Barry was always willing to go wherever we asked him to go in order to help educate others about cover crops. Since Barry was always there when we needed him, we needed to be there for his family when they needed us. I know it meant a lot to his mother and his wife that we would come from Iowa State to pay our respects.

Two people in my own life really stand out for helping me learn the lesson of going the extra yard for folks: Joe Gronstal and Steve Padgitt. They didn’t teach me so much by their words but by their actions.

Joe was an old friend of the family but I really got to know him when he invited me to spend the summer at his house on Spirit Lake years ago. I was young and sort of in between things. A summer on the lake sounded great. Joe was an “old school” guy. He had his own way of doing things around the house and he was good at getting everyone around him to do it his way. You knew you were in trouble when Joe would look at you with that twinkle in his eye and say, “Well, I was thinking maybe we should try…” That summer, I would go along with whatever he asked me to help out with. His kids still tease me about how he got me to sit in the canoe and paint the side of the dock. He thought it would be easier. Trust me, it wasn’t easier.

What really stands out to me from that summer was how generous Joe was with his time and resources. He would drive hours one-way to visit a sick friend or do a favor for a friend. He was always looking out for his neighbors. He would point out to me the importance of being there in person for other people. My parents also did that in their lives but Joe used to go to such lengths to be there for his friends and neighbors that it really impacted me.Steve Padgitt was the sociology professor who first hired me for the Iowa Learning Farms project in 2004. Steve was a really good guy and I was so lucky to get to work with him before he retired. He was incredibly generous with his time as he gave me a crash course in the social aspects of agriculture. He was a great listener. After decades of Extension work, he knew agriculture and rural Iowa but he was still interested in my insights.

In the beginning, our primary task with Iowa Learning Farms was to send out a baseline survey to assess the status of conservation practices in Iowa. We needed to report regionally and so we needed a large response rate. We sent out thousands of letters and surveys. Steve signed every one of those letters. He made it clear to me that I should always hand-sign the letters I sent with a survey. Steve said that if we were going to ask the person to take the time to fill out the survey, we could take the time to sign our names. In other words, he was telling me not to ask more of other people than we are willing to give. Make the extra effort in what you do and people will respond.Now that I am director of the Iowa Learning Farms, I constantly remind myself of these principles as we are developing programming and doing our day-to-day activities. We have tried to be generous with our resources and our time. It is one of the reasons we still exist after 13 years. We try to be present in the state as often as possible through field days and community events. We make the extra effort. We could do none of this without our farmer partners.

Through the years, our farmer partners like Barry have been the living embodiment of these principles. They show up in person for others and they are cheerfully generous with their time and resources. They participate in important on-farm research and are always trying to find additional ways they can build soil health, reduce nutrient loss and improve the health of our land and water. They aren’t asking other farmers to do more than they are willing to do. They make conservation and water quality practices work on the land while they still continue to produce good yields and earn a decent living.

During this Thanksgiving season, on behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank our farmer partners for all they do on the land to make our state healthy, for all you do in being present to others across the state, and all you do to make our program a success! Thank you!

Jacqueline Comito

Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.

 

Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.

 

Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!

 

Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”

 

Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.

 

Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?

 

Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt