Reaching out to farmers and landowners

In 2017, Iowa Learning Farms hosted 29 conservation field days and workshops across the state with the goal of reaching out to farmers/operators and landowners. Introduced this year was a new component of our evaluation process – the demographic card. The cards helped provide a snapshot of attendees in terms of their age, gender, role in agriculture and information about their farming operation. The cards also capture preferences on timing and topics of interest for future outreach events.

Midway through 2017, we started to use this information to help us plan better events for the second half of the year. We will continue to experiment with time of day and week for field days to see if we can’t get a better diversity of audience.  Total number of demographic cards collected in 2017 was 915.

Who attended ILF field days in 2017?

Eighty-three percent of the field day attendees identified themselves as either farmers/operators or landowners. Two percent of the attendees were new to farming and four percent would like to start farming. In 2018, we want to explore reaching out to those populations better.2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog_attendees

About half of respondents indicate they own over 75% of their land. However, when looking at respondents aged 50 and under, that changes dramatically to 57% of respondents reporting that they own 25% or less of their acres. Faced with many acres changing hands in the next five to ten years, it is important to continue to develop outreach materials and plan events accessible to both landowners and farmer/operators. To reach our goals of increasing conservation implementation, it will be a coordinated effort by both landowners and those who actively farm.

2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog-_ageThe average age of farmers/operators attending ILF field days was 55 years, which was slightly younger than the average age of a farmer in Iowa (57 years). This finding has been consistent in the four years that we have been tracking age information. The average age of landowners attending ILF field days was higher at 64 years.

In general, field day attendees indicated a preference for Wednesday field days that were held in the afternoon or after 5 pm.

What about younger farmers?

Seventeen percent of our field day attendees are 35 years or younger; 80% of attendees are men while 20% are women. On average, farmers in this age group farm 739 acres of row crop land (range of 40 – 3,500 acres) and own 25% of their farmland. Nearly 57% of respondents in this category reported that they did not own any of the acres that they currently farm.

Livestock is an early entry point for the next generation to begin or return to the farm. Nearly 60% of this group reported having livestock compared to 45% of respondents in all age groups who identified as farmer/landowner. These younger attendees indicated a preference for events held on Saturdays (48%) followed by Tuesday-Thursday (42%) after 5 pm (50%).

We in the process of updating the ILF Field Day Toolkit and add these findings to event planning best practices.

2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog-_younger

Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems

Watershed Management Authorities: Opening the Communication Line Between Cities and Farmers

Today’s guest post is by Mary Beth Stevenson, Eastern Basin Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

Can you think of the last time you sat around a table with farmers and representatives from multiple Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), counties and cities, and elected officials to discuss water quality and flood risk reduction in your watershed? If you live within an active Watershed Management Authority (WMA) region, then these opportunities may arise more than you realize.

WMA map

What exactly can a WMA do? The Iowa Code charges WMAs with assessing flood risk and water quality concerns, identifying conservation and water quality structures and practices that will minimize flood risk and improve water quality, monitoring federal flood risk programs, educating watershed residents and seeking funding for watershed work. The Iowa Legislature authorized the WMAs in 2010 as a response to the disastrous Flood of 2008.


Since 2012, when the first six WMAs were established, 23 have now been organized. Currently, 71 counties are covered by at least one WMA, encompassing over a third of the state. WMAs don’t have taxing authority or regulatory authority. In addition, the Iowa Code forbids WMA from condemning land through eminent domain.

The collaborative framework of WMAs is established through cooperative agreements. These agreements are common among cities, towns, counties and other local governments to share resources such as ambulance or fire services. WMAs do not create ‘new’ layers of government; instead, they facilitate more efficient government by allowing for shared resources and cooperation.

For example, a recent Middle Cedar WMA meeting in La Porte City exemplified how WMAs can open a critical line of communication among rural and urban stakeholders. Representatives from both small towns and larger cities gathered with staff and elected officials from several counties and SWCDs at the La Porte City community center.

Middle Cedar

Many of those sitting around the table were farmers. The chair of the Middle Cedar WMA is Todd Wiley, a Benton County Supervisor and successful farmer. It was powerful to observe farmers actively engaged in discussions with city and county officials, collectively making decisions about project funding and the future of the Middle Cedar watershed.

If no farmers had been present at the Middle Cedar WMA meeting, an essential perspective would have been missing. Farmers are an integral piece of the watershed jigsaw puzzle, and their voices are very much welcomed in any Watershed Management Authority.


If a WMA exists in your area, don’t be afraid to attend a meeting and be an active participant. After all, it is your watershed and your perspective is a valued and respected part of the conversation.

For more information about WMAs, go to the Iowa DNR’s website.

Mary Beth Stevenson

Farmers Must Come Together to Drive Farm Policy


A recent article written by Matthew Russell of the Drake University Agricultural Law Center provides some food for thought and discusses how farmers could benefit, both economically and politically, by adopting practices that address climate change. With a continued downturn in commodity prices that began in 2013, farmers might be more open to adding conservation practices to their operation to help their bottom line.

“Farmers are motivated by economic incentives to implement environmental practices. As an example, they recently enrolled nearly 400,000 acres in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program CP-42 which pays farmers to take land out of production and establish habitat for pollinators. Ironically, today we may need to embrace a source of revenue that just eight years ago seemed to many like regulatory overreach.”

Many of the conservation practices already being implemented in the U.S. such as cover crops, no-till, and extended crop rotations can increase soil carbon and address climate change. With higher adoption rates of these practices, and the exploration of new or improved practices designed to increase carbon in soils, farmers stand to profit. So, Russell inquires, will farmers rise to the challenge?

“Now American farmers face a choice. Do we want to explore ways of providing environmental services to fight climate change? Or will we sit back and allow farmers in other parts of the world to develop these agricultural solutions?”

Russell notes that The Paris Agreements and the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill are two opportunities for farmers to unite in support of policies that address climate change while also benefiting the individual farmer, especially as forward-thinking farmers are looking for creative ways to manage on-farm income.

Read the article here.

Julie Whitson

A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.


Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.


Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.


When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:


Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at

Brandy Case Haub

5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we’ve been working with cereal rye cover crops since 2008. That’s not nearly as long as our good friend and colleague Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS, but we can certainly say that, with our partners in the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, we’ve been exploring and promoting cover crops long before they were cool!

Our longest ongoing study involves the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop in on-farm trials within corn/soybean cropping systems across the state of Iowa. Over the years, twelve farmers have participated as partners in this project, with each demonstration site featuring field-length replicated strips with a cereal rye cover crop as well as replicated strips without a cereal rye cover crop.


In our eight years of on-farm cover crop demonstrations, what have we learned?  Here are our Top 5 takeaways regarding cereal rye cover crops:

1. Rye cover crops are largely yield neutral.
In the vast majority of this study (55 of 59 site-years), farmers found that a properly managed cereal rye cover crop had little to no negative effect on corn and soybean yields. Soybean yield actually increased in 7 site-years and corn yield increased in 2 site-years. There can be a learning curve up front, but in the long run, this study’s findings dispel the myth that rye negatively impacts crop yields (especially corn yields) in the following season.

2. Cover crops require active management.
Additional considerations/management factors when using a rye cover crop include seeding rate and method in the fall, and then cover crop termination and adjusting planter settings to accommodate additional residue in the spring. In the few cases of this study where crop yields were negatively impacted, farmers identified insufficient cover crop termination and improper planter settings as reasons for the few years where there were crop yield reductions.

3. Spring growth is key to realizing rye’s benefits.
Unlike winter wheat, oats, radishes and turnips, cereal rye survives over winter and continues its growth into the spring months. Large amounts of spring over crop biomass can be produced – variable to location and termination date.

4. Soil health is hard to define and even harder to measure.
Five years into the study, we found no measurable differences in soil health variables (soil organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, pH, infiltration and runoff) between the strips with and without the cereal rye cover crop at individual locations. A much greater intensity of sampling and additional time (years) may be required to quantify significant changes. Plus many of Iowa’s soils have relatively high levels of organic matter to begin with, so detecting very small changes can be challenging.

5. Earthworm numbers have increased with a cereal rye cover crop. Looking at the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), our 2016 midden count data indicate a statistically significant difference of 38% more earthworms with a cereal rye cover crop. Earthworms can serve as tangible, early biological indicators of soil health.

These findings and more will be highlighted at ISU’s Soil Health Conference coming up later this week. Stop by and see our poster, and let’s talk cover crops – we hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt


Additional information on our work with rye cover crops:

ILF Cover Crop Research webpage
Additional ILF Cover Crop Resources
Earthworms, Cover Crops and Soil Health

The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group is a collaboration of Iowa Learning Farms and the following organizations:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
  • USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
  • USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Midwest Cover Crops Council

Funding for this demonstration project has been provided by Iowa’s State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program, and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.

Clean Water Radio Recap


Dr. Jacqueline Comito co-hosted Friday morning’s episode of Clean Water Radio on KHOI 89.1FM.  The program was informative as well as entertaining, covering topics ranging from the voluntary nature of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to music videos to cover crops and bioreactors.  ILF farmer-partner Tim Smith of Eagle Grove was interviewed as part of the program as well.

Listen to the program in its entirety at KHOI’s Local Talk website.

Ann Staudt

ILF Celebrates Ten-Year Anniversary

NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Brandon Friederich, who is serving as a summer 2014 communications intern with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!.

One of Iowa’s leading organizations for the advocacy of conservation farming celebrated a huge milestone last week. Members of Iowa State University’s Iowa Learning Farms came together on the evening of June 24 to celebrate the organization’s ten-year anniversary. Attendees included Iowa Learning Farms staff as well as scientists, farmer partners, and agency partners who have worked together with ILF over the past decade to promote and research conservation farming techniques.

Jerry DeWitt, former Director of ILF and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, offers

Jerry DeWitt, former Director of the Iowa Learning Farms and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, offers words of congratulations at the ILF 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, June 24.

As reflected by the guest list, ILF’s approach to conservation is made with multiple groups of people in mind. Members of ILF hail from urban and rural settings, and bring different skill sets to the table. There are Iowa State researchers, farmers, and program specialists within the organization. But what’s interesting is that despite these very different backgrounds, members of ILF get along exceptionally well. The event itself looked more like a wedding reception than a research organization celebration. Some ILF members had never met before, but everyone was chatting like they were old friends.

This cohesion that exists between such different people is what makes ILF so effective. Researchers work to make improvements on farming techniques, and ILF team members organize outreach events to give different communities, especially farmers, access to the most current data. 139 field days, which are events that ILF holds specifically for members of farming communities, have been held since ILF’s inception, and 7,907 people have attended these events alone. But this number is only part of the puzzle – ILF has reached a total of 85,496 people through the 813 different outreach events that they’ve hosted over the past decade. These efforts provide a great service by bridging the gap between the science and practical application of the research findings.

The event was much more than a celebration of members’ decade-long service to ILF. It was a celebration of the success they’ve had in treading through uncharted territory as an organization that takes all opinions into account, whether the opinion is coming from the lab or the field. But their outlook is broad in another way as well. Throughout the night, speakers hammered home the message that the importance of their work pertains more to the future than to the present. The impact that the organization has had over the past ten years is huge, but the impact that ILF will have on the future has the potential to be profound.

– Brandon Friederich