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

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

ILF Director Jacqueline Comito to Deliver Prichard Lecture on Conservation Education at SWCS Conference

Lecture will highlight the importance of continuous education in continuing to build a culture of conservation in future generations

Jackie

 

Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms are pleased to announce that Jacqueline Comito, director of both programs, has been selected to deliver the prestigious Pritchard Lecture at the 73rd International Annual Conference of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Taking place July 29 through August 1, 2018 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the event is the premier gathering of conservation experts and advocates of building a better planet for the benefit of society.

The keynote, entitled “Building a Culture of Conservation”, takes place at 10:00 am on July 30th. Drawing on examples from Iowa Learning Farms outreach program, Comito will highlight ways to build an inclusive culture of conservation that inspires actions to preserve natural resources in our lives. In addition, she will discuss the application of youth educational programming which can lead to more sensitive stewardship of our cultural history and natural environment, thereby empowering another generation to embrace the fundamental value of simple conservation techniques which are open to everyone.

“Building a culture of conservation means that the preservation of our natural resources becomes the defining characteristic of our actions,” noted Comito. “In order to do this, our messages have to go beyond the science to engaging curiosity, creativity and compassion or we won’t succeed. We also need to be reaching out to everyone from youth to farmers, ranchers and landowners. I am honored to be selected to deliver the Prichard Lecture and share some of our successes and challenges in promoting conservation in Iowa.”

The Iowa Learning Farms programs provide educational outreach to farmers and participants in the agriculture industry through field days, webinars, podcasts, and seminars held throughout Iowa each year. Water Rocks! delivers youth conservation education through its classroom and school assembly programs. Both organizations utilize a fleet of Conservation Station trailers to engage and promote conversations about conservation technology advancements, demonstrations of effective runoff management and mitigation structures, and simple through complex best practices.

To learn more about Iowa Learning Farms outreach and education programs, please visit http://www.iowalearningfarms.org. To find out about Water Rocks!, please visit http://waterrocks.org/

Liz Juchems

We’re All In This Together

I grew up in Northeast Iowa on a family farm, where we grow corn, raise cattle and have horses. Growing up, I remember riding around in the tractor with my dad just for the fun of it. Today I still ride in the tractor with my dad, but now I do so having a greater depth of knowledge of farming and conservation as a whole.

As an Agricultural Studies student at Iowa State University, I run into so much diversity through my classes. I get to hear different perspectives on farming, land stewardship, natural resources, ranching, raising livestock, and so much more! I’ve learned a lot and gained new perspectives when it comes to using and managing the land.

I’ve also gained new perspectives through this summer internship with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!, focused on water quality. This summer I have been able to interact with rural and urban community members and teach them about soil and water quality. I visit with active community members who are curious as to what they can do to care for the land we live on.

This summer has really opened my eyes. This internship has motivated me to want to see a change in land management before our water quality gets worse, and I have learned more about how we can all work together to do that.

Consider what you would have seen walking in Iowa two hundred years ago. A pioneer would have walked on Iowa’s land through vast tallgrass prairie, dotted with abundant wetlands and intersected by rivers.

Today, the landscape is vastly different –  I walk around today surrounded by crop fields and larger urban areas. I find it hard to want to go swimming in the rivers today because of the pollutants we have in our waters today. I respect farming and its purpose, but we need to find that balance with farming and land stewardship.

In the last 200 years we have lost 90+% of our wetlands and 99.9% of our prairie in Iowa. Those prairies and wetlands have very important jobs that act as a habitat and a filter for getting rid of possible pollutants. Now, as an agricultural student I understand how chemicals are being used and how much soil is getting exposed. These are two of many pollutants that we find in our water bodies today. We all need to work together and try to eliminate the amount of pollutants that are getting into our water bodies.

This summer I have been able to learn about the multiple conservation solutions we have available to us. In both rural and urban areas we are trying to reach out to landowners and introduce them to practices that can eliminate some of the pollutants in our water. During this internship, we discuss how buffer strips, wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, cover crops and no till can lead to improvements in water quality. I have also learned that urban communities can help out by putting in permeable pavers and installing green roofs. These practices are great ways to start protecting our soil and water.However, one big challenge is that the improvements we want to see will not happen overnight because they take money and time. Not only that, but it takes everybody’s help to see a change. It is all of our responsibility to make sure we are doing what we can to prevent polluted water bodies and protect our great Iowa soil. We’re all in this together!

Taylor Kuehn

Taylor Kuehn, a New Hampton native, is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. In the fall, she will be starting her senior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Studies.