Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.

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Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:

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The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at  http://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Water-Quality/Watershed-Improvement.

Steve Hopkins

 

A Conservation Chat with the 2016 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year, Susan Kuennen Massman

Susan Kuennen Massman describes herself as having “a lot of irons in the fire.” Massman’s many roles include farm manager, nurse, professor, Master Gardener, artist, award-winning basket weaver, conservationist and volunteer. Recently added to this list is 2016 winner of the Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year Award, presented by the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners at their 70th Annual Conference in August.

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Iowa Learning Farms Director Jacqueline Comito sat down with Massman at her home in northeast Iowa, where she manages 160 acres of farmland. During this most recent Conservation Chat, Massman describes her last six years of living and working on a farm as living out a life-long dream. Massman waited forty years to be able to break into farming before she and her late husband purchased their Fayette County land in 2010.

Massman sought to educate herself about modern farming practices, and participated in Annie’s Project to help her achieve that goal (Annie’s Project is a nonprofit that seeks to educate farm women and strengthen their roles in modern farm enterprises). Conservation has long been on her mind when it came to being a steward of her land. Massman attributes her motivation and commitment to conservation to a book by Rachel Carson entitled “Silent Spring,” where the author says, “It is not half so important to know as it is to feel when teaching children about nature.” Massman builds on this to say:

We need to teach children how important the land is, and how important our plants and flowers are, [how they] benefit us, and the whole world. You know, the spider web effect; like one thing connects to another. So it’s teaching- not only children, but my own children, how important this land is to us.

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Massman now manages her land to include a corn/soybean/alfalfa rotation in an effort to keep from depleting the soil. About her choice to plant alfalfa, she says:

Alfalfa has one of the deepest root systems of any green vegetation out there, and I knew that was going to hold the topsoil. So to me, it was a win-win: that I could plant something that was productive, that I could earn some money from, and to conserve as much topsoil as possible. There was a definite impact there. In places in the field where I saw that there were deep ditches and gullies, they weren’t there anymore. So I knew that I was doing something right.

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To hear more about the admirable efforts to farm in a conservation-minded way, check out this Conservation Chat with Susan Kuennen Massman!

Brandy Case Haub

 

River Stomping with ILF

As Dr. Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, tells his students,

“You can’t understand the health of our rivers by driving by in a car. You have to get down to the bank. Better still, get in the river…”

So we partnered with Tom this week to do just that with a group of our farmer leaders on a section of the Skunk River north of Ames.

The dozen farmer leaders from across the state were joined by members of our Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee and our summer college interns. Tom divided the group into four teams, upon which they donned boots and waders and got to work looking for the biological indicators of river health.

SouthSkunkRiverThe group was told to explore under branches along the bank, stir up the bottom, and capture the insects that might call that location home…

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… pick up rocks and search the moss for insects…

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Participants like southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins were not afraid of getting wet and going to deeper sections of the river where the little creatures would make their home.

SethIowa doesn’t get any prettier than the Skunk River was that day as intern Kate Sanocki and farmer leaders Craig Fleishman and Tim Smith would tell you. The water was clear and the bottom was rocky. Rumor has it that there are good smallmouth bass to be found here!

CraigTimKateParticipants were told to put their finds in insect collection receptacles (i.e. ice cube trays).

TrayJakeJim Gillespie, Director of IDALS-Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, was heard to comment that he hadn’t done something like this since he was in college — that was a long time ago!

MattJimAfter about 45 minutes, it was with big smiles that the group left the river with their finds. Their job was not yet done.

SteveHTom put them to work identifying the insects using tools from IOWATER.

InsectIDThe group was happy to learn that they found macroinvertebrates such as caddisfly and stonefly that are pollution intolerant. Their presence suggested that this section of the South Skunk River is fairly healthy.

RickNathanThe crawdads they found belong in the “somewhat pollution tolerant” category. Tom pointed out that they make good smallmouth bass bait.

CrawdadsThis damselfly was as curious about us as we were about her. Damselflies belong to the somewhat pollution tolerant group and are good to find at our rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

DamselflyTom told the group that the health of a stream or river fluctuates by season and rainfall. During times of drought and floods, life on the river can be stressed. The Iowa DNR has put a lot of resources into making the Skunk River a healthier body of water.

While the group would have been content to stay at this beautiful stretch of the South Skunk River for the day, we headed on to our next stop at one of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands where Dr. Matt Helmers discussed the use of these wetlands as part of our new Conservation Learning Labs project (stay tuned to the blog for further information).

WetlandWe ended at the site of the very first saturated buffer in Iowa (possibly the world) along Bear Creek. Here the group asked Tom many detailed questions about how the buffers worked.

SaturatedBufferAll in all, the group had fun and asked great questions at every stop of the field day. The participants went away with a better understanding of river ecosystems and its relationship to our land management choices. Everyone returned to Ames grateful for the quality time spent near (and in) an Iowa river!

Jacqueline Comito

 

 

Chatting with Seth Watkins: Curiosity, Creativity and Happy Cows

The latest episode in the Conservation Chat podcast series features an engaging interview with Seth Watkins of Pinhook Farm, near Clarinda in southwest Iowa. Watkins has a 600-head cow-calf enterprise and takes a whole farm approach to conservation: rotational grazing, wetlands, late season calving, and row crops integrated with prairie strips and cover crops.

Program Director Jacqueline Comito interviewed Watkins earlier in May after we had completed a farm tour-slash-field trip with a small group of Corning Elementary students (read more about it in our blog post ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip).

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This Conservation Chat episode is enjoyable and thought-provoking throughout– it’s a fascinating discussion about agricultural production, sustainability, curiosity, continual learning, and striving to make rural Iowa a better place to live.

“When you invest in the land, your community prospers.”

What really stood out to me is Seth’s spirit of innovation, determination, and constant learning. Grandson of Jessie Field Shambaugh, widely known as the Mother of 4-H, Seth is truly a modern-day Renaissance man!

“So much of what I’ve learned, and I continue to love to read different aspects of history, economics, things about art, about thinking… those are what have really driven the success of my farm business.”

Listen to the full interview with Seth Watkins on the Conservation Chat website, ILF website, or iTunes.

And for another fun perspective on Seth’s farming operation, check out Episode 23 in the Adventures of the Conservation Pack! Conservation dog Charlie gets to go on an adventure exploring Seth’s pond and learning about how it reduces erosion, filters water, and provides habitat.

Ann Staudt

ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip

On Wednesday of this week, we had the pleasure of traveling down to our friend Seth Watkins’ farm in southwest Iowa to help out with a special field trip. A small group of 3rd grade students in the Corning schools, working with TAG Instructor and STEM Coordinator Tabatha Klopp, have been studying water quality, pollution, animal waste, nutrients, and more, and she was looking for field trip ideas to engage this great group of kids.

The Iowa Learning Farms program works with farmer-partners across the state, so we called upon Seth Watkins, near Clarinda, to help out and serve as host – a great opportunity for these 3rd grade students to see a wide variety of good conservation practices all in one place!  We brought the Conservation Station trailer down, as well, and had an awesome morning touring Seth’s farm, talking about water quality, and doing some water quality monitoring. Continue reading for the highlights!

The rain had been pretty relentless across southwest Iowa over the past week, so when the skies cleared on Wednesday morning, we immediately hopped on Seth’s hayrack for the farm tour first.  After the recent deluge of rain, one might be leery to be out driving through any field. But thanks to cover crops and perennial cover such as alfalfa, it was no problem at all!

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First we stopped to check out Seth’s grassed waterway. The students were in awe when Seth told us that the water moving down his grassed waterway eventually ends up at the Gulf of Mexico!  We worked together to trace the entire path of those raindrops, from Seth’s waterway, to the stream, to the 102 River near Bedford, to the Missouri River, to the Mississippi River, and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Before moving on, they collected water samples.

As the tour continued, we got to see several different types of cover crops, both living as well as recently terminated. We looked at the extensive roots of the cover crops and talked about how they make “tunnels” or pathways for water to move. As if on cue, an earthworm crawled out of the root bundle just as we were talking about soil structure!

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We also got to visit Seth’s pond; while we didn’t get to see the beavers that have taken up residency there, we did see other creatures like birds, frogs, and fish. Seth emphasized the importance of providing habitat for these creatures out on the landscape, whether it’s in a filter strip or around the pond, and how each one is an important part of our ecosystem.

Finally, Seth shared his golden rule of agronomy, which is if you take something from the land, you have to put something back – e.g. protecting the soil however we can, growing cover crops and perennials that put nutrients back in the soil, grazing livestock, etc.

Back at the shop, we gathered around the Conservation Station’s rainfall simulator, giving students the opportunity to see up close how different land management practices affect where water flows and how clean or dirty it is. The 3rd graders saw erosion happening right before their eyes and learned how long it takes new soil to form – 500 years for just 1 inch.

One of the students replied, “500 years?!  I wouldn’t even be alive!”

We wrapped up the morning by trying out some water quality monitoring. We tested different water samples for nitrate, pesticides, copper, iron, and transparency.  Several of the tests required dissolving a tablet and then shaking for 5 minutes, which quickly turned into a Taylor Swift dance party (Shake It Off!) …

To wrap things up, here are the 3rd grade students’ take home messages from the field tour and the Conservation Station trailer:

Water from here ends up in the ocean
Soil can get into water and make it dirty
Water can get polluted pretty fast
Don’t till the land
And you should plant cover crops!

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Thanks to Seth, Tabatha, and the Corning 3rd grade group for letting us spend part of the day with you. We had a great time!

Check out more photos on the Corning ELP & STEM Facebook page.

-Ann Staudt

A friendly face of conservation

Congratulations to Iowa Learning Farms farmer-partner Tim Palmer of Truro (Madison County). He was recently featured on the cover of the August issue of Wallaces Farmer along with four of his grandsons, while helping out at the Conservation Station during last year’s Iowa State Fair.

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Tim is one of those guys that’s always hard at work promoting conservation, whether it be hosting a field day on his farm, working with fellow Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, or helping out at the Iowa State Fair – now he has the 15 minutes of fame on Wallaces Farmer to really show for it!

Keep up the great work, Tim!

Ann Staudt