Learning Life Lessons as ISU Water Resources Interns

Both Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! owe a lot of their successes over the past decade to the energy and enthusiasm of student Water Resources Interns. Each summer the young people in these positions have become the faces and voices of water and land resource management, conservation, and agricultural practices which benefit Iowa’s environment. The programs are closely affiliated with the highly-regarded Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering which provides research opportunities as well as much foundational science for the outreach efforts.

Interns come from different degree programs, backgrounds and even states. (Know a college student who might be interested? Applications are open now through Jan. 31 for our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program!) The common thread among them is enthusiasm for engaging with members of the community through different learning and demonstration opportunities. Forty-five individuals have served in this important role over the years. We asked them to reflect on what they gained and learned from the experience, and were quite pleased with the responses.

Eleven Years and still going strong
From a relatively small beginning as student research assistantships in 2007, the internship program provided resources which enabled Iowa Learning Farms to respond to research needs, programming opportunities and expansions of outreach. From humble beginnings in 2007 with a single trailer-mounted rainfall simulator, to the addition of a second and the launch of the Conservation Station fleet in 2010, interns were integral to the program. Today there are three Conservation Stations in regular use, and the teams of interns go out with them for nearly every visit.

My favorite intern memories were taking the Conservation Station to field days. It was a neat experience to see communities bonding over conservation and their love of the land. –Emily Steinweg, 2011


Jumping in with both feet
As summer interns, there is no warmup period, the work starts on day one and keeps going throughout the ten-week term. Research projects are ready to go, Conservation Station events are booked, and since the university summer overlaps with the primary and secondary school spring semester, lending a hand with Water Rocks! school visits fills up the initial weeks.

Interns are expected to know some, learn a lot of new, and be able to put new knowledge and skills to work immediately. Flexibility and learning on your feet are fundamental requirements. Some interns have noted that it’s about learning how much you don’t know and having fun filling the gaps. Over the years many have contributed to the ILF blog sharing their experiences.

Intern duties include collecting water and soil samples, working under the direction of staff, faculty and graduate students, tabulating data, driving – and parking – trailers, participating in video projects, and staffing the Conservation Station. As representatives of Iowa Learning Farms in many venues, interns quickly become experts at listening, communicating and educating.

The Conservation Conversation
A common theme we heard from our former interns was their development of stronger public speaking and communications skills. Leading or participating in a public event, county fair, or field day would bring them face to face with people of different ages and backgrounds. The audience diversity kept them on their toes in shaping the information to make sure they connected with the audience.

The internship for me was a lot about public speaking and being able to interact with any age group or demographic. – Ryan Nelson, 2009, 2010

The biggest, perhaps most important, skill I developed was communication with the public. As a farmer myself, it’s relatively easy to communicate with other farmers. But with the public, one has to explain the basics in a way that a non-farmer can understand. –Mikayla Edwards, 2015

Working with ILF provided many of our interns with valuable experience that they continue to use in their careers – even in fields beyond conservation and water quality. From teachers to manufacturing engineers, being a part of a team and communicating information, ideas and solutions are universal skills.

I was exposed to people ranging from a farmer who thought cover crops were ridiculous to a sixth-grader learning about soil and water interactions. Understanding how the message needs to be tailored or modified to a specific audience has greatly benefited me in my career. –Brett McArtor, 2012

The majority of problems that I work on in my career necessitate a team to be involved; however, the expectation is that I will be able to problem solve and troubleshoot to contribute toward the solution. The combination of teamwork and independence that I exercised as a student intern for ILF prepared me well for this type of environment. –Patrick Kelly, 2012, 2013

The biggest benefits of being a part of ILF for me professionally would have to be the experience of giving short, informal presentations, and the importance of honestly saying, I don’t know. There is considerable skill in taking a message, condensing it into something manageable, wording it in such a way that others without background knowledge can understand, and presenting it in such a manner to grab and hold the attention of your listeners. This is something helpful for me as a software engineer as pitching ideas to clients or management needs to undergo this process in order to be effective. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017


Making a Connection
One thing we’ve repeatedly observed at Conservation Station stops is that many of our adult audience members will seek out the interns just to talk. They seem drawn to the enthusiasm shown by these young adults in sharing their stories and connecting to people through excitement and hopeful messages. Many of these folks have a genuine interest in learning about the interns’ backgrounds, how they are doing in school, and where they see themselves after graduation. In fact, older citizens seem to prefer watching the young people present than the ISU-based professionals. And the interns truly appreciate the conversations and audience interactions as well.

The knowledge I gained from community members teaching community members helped me make the decision to continue in the course of community education and engagement. –Megan Koppenhafer, 2015, 2016, and 2018 AmeriCorps Service Member

It always felt nice to have people come up and talk about their own experiences with conservation. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017

While visiting the Conservation Station one dad said to me, “I want my kids to know about this stuff; a lot of people don’t realize how important it is.” It was rewarding to make that connection. –Wyatt Kaldenberg, 2018

The other strong connection we see is with children in the audience. At field days and fairs young people are drawn to the goofy games and hands-on activities – but we see the parents and grandparents leaning in and learning along the way. And when they get into schools for Water Rocks! assemblies and outdoor classrooms, the interns have a chance to teach – and sometimes get stumped – by the next generation.

Teaching youth during outdoor classrooms opened my eyes to youth development and education. I loved seeing things click and watching their excitement grow as they understood how their actions could impact the environment either negatively or positively. –Brittney Carpio, 2012

I was caught off guard when a fifth-grade student asked, “What inspires you to do this?” After a long moment of panic, and a room full of fifth-graders staring up at me, I finally came up an answer. The experience made me think and quickly translate my passion for conservation into words I hope made an impact on another generation. –Kaleb Baber, 2017, 2018


Hands-on Research
When not on the road with the Conservation Stations, the interns also spend a good deal of time conducting hands-on research. Tasks range from taking water and soil samples to things such as counting earthworms. While these simple tasks are beneficial to ongoing research, there is also a lot of learning going on. Interns learn research techniques and gain an understanding of the importance of research processes and protocols to obtaining verifiable and repeatable results.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. – Donovan Wildman, 2018

Understanding the theory or research behind a process is an important first step, but a project is far from complete at this stage. Once the system is operating in the ‘real world’, such as the working bioreactors in the ILF program, there are many unpredictable factors that can arise. –Kate Sanocki, 2016

In addition to the field research, interns have also helped conduct various social science research through the years helping with survey mailings and data collection as well as event evaluations. The event evaluations, in particular, demonstrate to the interns the importance of documenting impact on an event by event basis.


A Bidirectional Impact
Water Resources Interns are crucial to the ongoing success of ILF and Water Rocks! outreach and education activities. Every year they infuse the team with new energy, perspectives and ideas. The interns are there to learn and gain valuable career experience, but their contributions over the years have also helped make the programming and content better and more impactful for all constituencies.

What does it take to become a Water Resources Intern?
In a word, Enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm to learn, enthusiasm to teach, and enthusiasm to engage with Iowans from all walks of life. We can teach them the content, but the spark and passion for sharing what they know and learning what they don’t is what makes for great interns and great experiences.

Interns will be challenged with new ideas, new tasks and some exhausting days. We seek people who are passionate about conservation, the environment, water or soil quality, and agriculture. To learn more about the Water Resources Internship program, and for application instructions, please visit our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program page — applications close this Thursday, Jan. 31!

__
This story was first published in Wallaces Farmer in December 2018.

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

Cover Crops on Tap at Nick Meier Field Day

ILFHeaderAs the weather gets colder and the days grow shorter, evening cover crop field days move indoors. Fortunately, the indoor atmosphere was perfect for an informal cover crop discussion.

The Nick Meier Field Day was hosted at Single Speed Brewery in Waterloo where attendees enjoyed several different varieties of flat bread pizza made from local ingredients. After dinner, the conversations turned toward cover crops, crop insurance, herbicide planning, soil health, earthworms and water sampling.

“Sampling your water is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to understand.” Theo Gunther, Iowa Soybean Association

There was particular interest in the earthworm study being done by the Iowa Learning Farms. Jamie Benning led the discussion and had some updates to share about the study.“Preliminary data determined that there was a 40% increase in earthworm middens found in fields with a cover crop versus without cover crops.”  Jamie Benning, Extension Water Quality Program Manager

The evening concluded with an excellent farmer panel where they discussed their experience using cover crops, planting into cover crops and tips for termination.

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

If you missed the field day and are interested in attending one this month, visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

 

~Nathan

Meet Our Newest Team Member

CLGHeaderIMG_3274Hi! I’m Hilary Pierce and I’m a new Extension Outreach Specialist at Iowa State University. I’ll be working with the Conservation Learning Group on their programs Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! and with Iowa Watershed Approach.

I have undergraduate degrees in English & History from Queen Mary, University of London and Environmental Science from Iowa State University. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania, I’ve been living in the Midwest for the past 7 years.

After graduating from Iowa State, I spent a year serving as an AmeriCorps*VISTA with an environmental education organization in northwest Michigan. It was a great program, where I got to teach students and members of the public about Lake Michigan and the importance of protecting the Great Lakes, and learn about sailing (we taught our programs on a traditionally rigged schooner).

I am nearly finished with a master’s degree (pending a successful thesis defense!) from the University of Minnesota in Natural Resources Science and Management, with a specialization in Forest Hydrology and Watershed Management. My thesis research looked at the effect of stream channel incision on the depth to shallow groundwater in riparian corridors throughout the Minnesota River Valley.

When I’m not working with ISU Extension or on finishing my thesis, I love hiking, traveling, watching movies and swimming. I’m looking forward to meeting you all at outreach events and WMA meetings – please come say hi to me if you see me around!

Hilary Pierce

Watkins Announced as Spencer Award Winner

We are thrilled to share the news that one of this year’s Spencer Awards for Sustainable Agriculture is being awarded to Clarinda-area farmer Seth Watkins, long-time farmer-partner and friend of Iowa Learning Farms!

The Spencer Award recognizes researchers, teachers and farmers who have contributed significantly to the environmental and economic stability of the Iowa farming community. Nominated by fellow farmer-partner Nathan Anderson, Seth Watkins is one of the most forward thinking, creative, and innovative farmers you’ll meet. He is dedicated to learning all he can about improving the water and land under his care. How he treats the land and how he gives of his time demonstrate both his conservation-focused stewardship and his incredible generosity.

Watkins’ crop and cattle enterprise, Pinhook Farm, is a little slice of paradise in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, featuring rotational grazing, restricted wildlife areas, riparian buffers, ponds, wetlands and shallow water habitats, integrated pest management, prescribed burning, windbreak restoration, no-till, cover crops, terraces, prairie restoration/CRP, late season calving, and prairie strips. He sees no conflict between profitability and environmental sustainability.

For Watkins, conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land around him– strategic placement is key. As Seth described to a group of Emerging Farmers he hosted on his land this past August, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.”

The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I do love cows, but I really love the land.”

Watkins is a big-time conservation and systems thinking advocate, sharing that message on the local, state, and national levels. In addition to hosting a two-day Emerging Farmers retreat on his land with Iowa Learning Farms, Seth has been willing to be interviewed by a dog for the “Adventures of the Conservation Pack” video series, participated in ILF Leadership Circles and hosted both farmer field days as well as elementary school field trips on his farm. Seth teaches through example and he is kind and patient regardless of his audience. His creativity, compassion and willingness to help others make him stand out in a crowd.

Read more about the Spencer Award and this year’s winners in the news release Leopold Center at Iowa State University Presents Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

Join us in congratulating Seth – we couldn’t think of a more humble and deserving farmer!

Ann Staudt

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt