Faces of Conservation: Matt Helmers

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.


Matt Helmers – Iowa Learning Farms Faculty Co-adviser and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I started working with Iowa Learning Farms in 2004 as a member of the initial team working on the water quality programming. As I got more involved in the program, I also became more energized with the potential of a small group such as ILF to make a big impact on water quality in Iowa. I moved into a faculty advisory position and have become active in helping the team implement the group’s vision through closely collaborating with program director Jacqueline Comito.

Aside from my administrative role as liaison to the university, I provide technical and engineering contributions to the water quality programming. For example, when ILF was looking to create the Conservation Station trailers back in 2009-2010, we all pitched in to come up with a better rainfall simulator than the model used previously. We felt there must be a better way to show both surface and subsurface water flow, and to simulate true field conditions. I tossed out the idea of cutting undisturbed soil blocks from fields to provide a true model of soil conditions. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the authenticity of the soil samples providing more credible results. See the Rainfall Simulator in action on our YouTube channel!

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t know whether I’ve changed the program. I love working with the team and seeing the vision turn to reality, but I mostly feel that I’ve been given a great opportunity to ride along with some amazing people.

Being a part of ILF has changed my outlook a great deal. My engineering background trained me to approach things from a technical point of view, analyzing impacts using a pragmatic and practical approach and assessing economic effects in a very strict sense. What I’ve learned in working and speaking with farmers, and listening to their concerns and questions, is that there are social and emotional issues at play that don’t fit neatly into formulae or spreadsheets.

I’ve continued to learn from team members and from farmers across the state. Field days help me to gain insight into farmers’ thought processes, broaden my understanding of farm practices and how we can better communicate best practices for improvements.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Among the many fond memories and fun adventures with ILF, I think being a part of the field days is a favorite. Time spent with teammates traveling to and from the field days is often filled with wide-ranging conversations that both entertained and helped everyone gain understanding and knowledge. And at the field days, learning from the farmers through talking with them – and listening to them – about getting practices implemented in working fields has been incredibly insightful.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
As a native Iowan who grew up around agriculture, I would like Iowa to continue to have a vibrant agricultural ecosystem, but one that includes the health and stewardship of our natural resources. This is critical. We are a heavy agricultural state with a water quality problem, and the only way to address the problem is to get conservation practices implemented.

There is a need for better communication and efforts to facilitate conversations that will help farmers and others learn about what is working and how practices will have an impact for the entire state. These conversations can be one-on-one, in groups, electronic or in person, and should involve farmers, researchers and conservation professionals. Iowans need to work whole heartedly on improving our water quality.

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 much more diversity across Iowa’s landscape. The diversity may come in small pieces and may be comprised of different plant varieties and farming techniques that aren’t common today, but with an eye toward sustainability and conservation, the results should help keep our natural resources in good shape.

In closing…
It is amazing that ILF has been around for 15 years and has continued to evolve. We should recognize that the program’s growth and maturity have emerged out of adapting and developing dynamic programming, actively responding to the needs of stakeholders. ILF is a world class organization driven by a creative and focused leader in Dr. Comito. We are lucky to have this team at ISU and in Iowa.


Previous Posts in Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Marty Adkins

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

Martin “Marty” Adkins – Assistant State Conservationist for Partnerships at USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)


What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with ILF has evolved over time but can be broken down into three main categories. I’ve provided guidance and advice from my own background in conservation as a member of the ILF Steering Committee, witnessing ILF’s growth and expanding contributions to the conservation landscape here in Iowa. I have also served as a NRCS liaison on ILF projects to which NRCS contributed funding. I’ve also enjoyed a couple of opportunities to contribute musically to the Water Rocks! program.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
I think the whole idea of building a culture of conservation speaks to the mission of ILF, providing important outreach and education from its base at ISU. Through active partnerships with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and NRCS, the program has made a lasting impact on the statewide conservation landscape.

The outreach through field days, webinars and workshops extends the value of research and technical development at ISU – taking the information and practices to the stakeholders that can use them most. Programs like ILF have really been an important part of building momentum in education and continuing to push for more sustainable agriculture and improvements in Iowa’s ecosystems.


How has working with ILF changed you?
I think the biggest impact ILF has had on me is providing me the opportunity to work with so many great minds and leaders, to learn from them, and to collaborate on important solutions. In other words, when you hang out with people that know more than you do, you can learn a lot from them. The last 15 years have been an amazing time of change and learning in agriculture. I’m excited about the growing number of people and organizations in all sectors that recognize their responsibility to protect soil, water and other natural resources.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One event that stands out was a landowner meeting for the Conservation Learning Labs project that Bill Northey (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture at the time) joined. His presence not only signaled the State’s commitment to water quality improvement, but also gave the landowners a chance to share their concerns and thoughts at the highest level.

Attending a workshop with new farmers last summer was also a great experience. Seeing the energy and enthusiasm combined with thirst for information on sustainable practices was fantastic.

The other really fun part of working with ILF was having the opportunity to write and record a couple of songs with the Water Rocks! team.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
What makes Iowa really special is the quality of our agricultural soil and landscape. It’s imperative to the future of our state and our larger place in the world for Iowa to be doing a great job in building and conserving our agricultural soils and landscapes. Water bodies are a reflection of the landscape, and if we are not doing a good job taking care of the soil and land, the water bodies are going to reflect that failure.

I am passionate about my family, faith and the sustainable management of soil, water and other natural resources. Being able to make a difference in Iowa has given personal meaning to my career. This is wonderful work that we get to do, and I am delighted to be in a position to help work for the present and future quality of the environment, our state, our economy and our communities.

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 green landscape nine months of the year—green being the dominant color of the landscape when there isn’t snow on the ground. My hope for Iowa is that it will be a green place, not a brown place.

In closing…
Everyone should recognize what a great resource ILF is for the people of Iowa. Any citizen, whether farmer, nonfarmer, city or rural dweller that cares about what kind of world they live in, what kind of landscape we share and what kind of water flows through it, can benefit from the groups like ILF which help to build sustainability for Iowa.


 

Faces of Conservation: Elaine Ilvess

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 over the years.

Elaine Ilvess –Water Resources Bureau Program Planner (retired), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and Assistant Commissioner for the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District

Elaine Ilvess was a part of the Iowa Learning Farms story from the outset. In her role with IDALS, she was involved in seeking new ways to communicate to and educate the public about water quality and conservation. She played an active role in the planning and creation of ILF, continuing to consult and advise up through her retirement in 2010.


Elaine Ilvess (green/white shirt at right) teaches all ages about how water and soil move at the stream table.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I was involved in ILF before the foundation was poured and the ground floor existed. Being a part of the planning team and drawing on my career in water quality and conservation outreach, I was eager to help create something new for Iowa that could move awareness about these important topics forward. Once ILF was up and running, I served on the technical committee, in addition to managing funding, monitoring expenditures, and coordinating with other partner agencies to ensure compliance and help keep the program on track.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
It may not have been so much of a change as contributing to the formation and mission of ILF from the beginning. In the early 2000s there were specific funds available for new approaches to water quality education and outreach. I was instrumental in developing the ILF concept of a Culture of Conservation, spreading information to farmers through hands-on demonstrations that would facilitate farmer-to-farmer engagement

Being a part of ILF gave me the opportunity to learn from and work with some of the masters, including governors, agricultural leaders, forward-looking scientists and researchers, environmentalists and the strongest advocates for conservation and water quality who brought fresh and innovative ideas to the table. It also led me to become a champion of continued funding and support for programs such as ILF—programs that learn from farmers and peer groups, and that imbue the concepts of “Information, Education and Demonstration.”

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The conversations and interactions at field days—my own conversations, but also observing the engagements between the ISU professionals with farmers—listening, advising and working together.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Growing up on a farm, I learned the value of conservation at a young age through living within the farm and natural ecosystems and observing firsthand impacts. Our environment, soil and water are the basis of our existence as well as Iowa’s economy and livelihood. It’s critical that we improve and preserve these resources for current and future generations.

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 that the results of programs such as ILF have proven their significant worth to Iowa, leading to more secure funding. This would empower the further expansion of outreach and education programs delivering information that is relevant to farmers and non-farmers alike. In addition, establishing youth conservation education as an integral part of school curricula would be a wonderful step forward for Iowa and the nation.

In closing…
A small yet powerful program like ILF can have a big impact. The way they deliver information and facilitate conversations has had a multiplying effect which has been going on for 15 years. Starting out with small numbers and a few field days to thousands of Iowans becoming aware of what conservation means and how each individual plays an integral role has been a laudable achievement that can continue to contribute to Iowa’s future.


 

Faces of Conservation: Mark Licht

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.

Mark Licht has been involved with Iowa Learning Farms from its inception in 2004. As an ISU Extension program specialist, Extension field agronomist and now as faculty, Mark has continued to aid in the mission of ILF to increase awareness and promote conservation practices statewide.


How was Iowa Learning Farms established and what was its mission?
The real seed that grew into ILF was planted during casual conversations between Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi and I as we drove across Iowa visiting research sites. ISU Extension was already conducting field demonstrations and researchers were working with farmers and conservationists, but there was a need to knit these activities into a better way to deliver education and put resources in the hands of growers.

Moving from concept to reality took a lot of legwork and cooperation. Engaging partners that could help provide funding and expert advice was an initial step. We were fortunate to be able to work with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a host of dedicated individuals.

What were the early years at ILF like?
We were already doing field demonstrations through ISU Extension and this continued as ILF was formed. The outreach and education goals were well-formed by March 2004 when we were ready to start working with growers.

We were breaking new ground, and as a result some of the things we did were not as effective as we had hoped. But, we learned and adjusted. A key part of the longstanding success of ILF has been the team’s openness to new ideas about how to best engage audiences to help us achieve desired results. Another fundamental part of ILF’s success has been the comprehensive evaluation and feedback processes from field days and other public interactions. The processes have expanded and matured over time, but the data and results have been invaluable in demonstrating change in farming practices.

What is your role with the organization?
At the start, as an ISU Extension program specialist, I was the only ILF staff member. When Jackie Comito joined the team, she focused on starting the evaluation program and I continued to develop demonstrations and outreach events. In 2006 I left campus and ILF to work as an ISU Extension field agronomist. Upon returning to ISU in 2014 as an Extension cropping systems specialist, I re-engaged with ILF as a collaborator and adviser.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I was there at the start, so I was deeply involved in helping ILF get off the ground. We worked through the organizational details and established our mission to build a Culture of Conservation for Iowa. But to be successful I knew it was crucial to get farmers deeply involved, and particularly to have them share how and what they were doing, with ILF and other farmers.

The visual element is something that I pushed the organization to embrace in all interactions. Academics seem to like hefty detailed reports, but infographics and other visual media are much more effective in capturing interest and delivering messages to non-academic audiences. The first rainfall simulator was also key for demonstrating visually what is hard to see in the field.

On a professional level, as a corn and soybean production specialist I’m focused on efficiency and yield. Collaborating with ILF helps me think through the ramifications of production side decisions and balancing them with a nutrient reduction and conservation point of view.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One of my favorite things from the early years was working with the rainfall simulator. Watching the evolution from humble beginnings of a basic rainfall simulator trailer to the comprehensive Conservation Stations has been amazing and rewarding. What we have out around Iowa today is much more powerful and influential than I imagined when we started.

I also love working with the cooperating farmers. They have a passion for conservation and maintaining water quality. Their instantaneous and frank feedback really grounds what we are doing.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
For me, conservation is important for the same reasons it’s important for Iowa. I enjoy our natural resources for recreation such as spending time on a lake or fishing. These resources are threatened, and we need to pay attention to them for everyone’s sake.

For Iowa, we must look at how much of the state’s economy is tied to agriculture and understand that as we improve our soil and water health, we can continue to drive our agricultural economic growth. It does take years to turn around, but there is progress.

In closing…
ILF is a wonderful group and a great resource for Iowa. I hope they will continue to make an impact in Iowa for the next 15 years and beyond.


 

Faces of Conservation

Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) celebrates 15 years of service to Iowa in 2019. Building a Culture of Conservation is a team effort—farmers, landowners, researchers, and agency partners all working together to identify and implement best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.

As part of this year of celebration, we are launching a new Faces of Conservation blog series. Tune in on Tuesdays, when we will be sharing stories and profiles of key contributors to ILF over the years, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

The series kicks off tomorrow with a profile of our own cropping systems specialist Mark Licht.

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Conservation: Investing in the Land for Years to Come

Farmers and landowners pulled in to West Iowa Bank in Laurens earlier this week for a cover crop + conservation field day.  Wait, a field day at a bank?!  That’s not a typo.

A regular trip to the bank might involve a deposit transaction, reflecting how we invest our money.

This trip to the bank was all about how we invest in the future of our land—reflecting how conservation practices are an investment in our land and our water for generations to come.

Cover crops and no-till, in particular, were at the heart of the conversation during the field day. Out in the field, after lunch, we saw some nice fall growth of cereal rye, thanks to host farmer Dick Lund.

 

Back to thinking in terms of investments, that theme ran deep as area farmers shared the following thoughts in the farmer discussion panel:

 

Investing in conservation practices like no-till can mean saving money, too:

This field day was a collaboration of Soil Health Partnership, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Seed Association, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, and Iowa Learning Farms.

Iowa Learning Farms has a handful of additional field days still coming up this month, now that harvest is just about wrapped up. Visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

Ann Staudt