Carrot vs Stick – Are farmers ready to change?

In a recent article from Civil Eats, author Virginia Gewin, features a couple familiar Iowa faces and asks the tough question – As farm runoff in U.S. Waters hits crisis levels, are farmers ready to change?

Addressing our water quality challenges in Iowa and across the U.S. is a serious undertaking that to-date has primarily used the voluntary approach.  Using incentives or cost share (carrots), there has been slow adoption of conservation practices like cover crops and edge of field practices.  This is where the author poses the question of whether it’s time to impose the ‘stick’ method of regulation.

In the article Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, discusses the innovative ways Iowa farmers are working with industry groups like Cargill, Pepsi, Unilever and more to implement cover crops through incentives and the challenges of providing a uniform message across sources to help producers successfully implement cover crops.  speaking_pfi-field-day-2016

ILF Farmer Partner, Nathan Anderson, shares how he transitioned cover crops in his area from a curiosity to a serious consideration among his farming neighbors.  “Farmers that I never thought would be asking me for cover crop advice are asking those questions,” said Anderson.

Be sure to check out the full article here! This story is part of a year-long series about the underreported agriculture stories in our rural communities.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Acres Grow But Rate of Growth Declines in 2017

According to the Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 22% to 760,000 total acres. While the positive growth with shrinking profit margins is notable, the rate of growth is ten percent less than the growth measured in 2016, and still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover Crop Acres 2017 (2)

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (69%) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ year-end evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only eleven percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last year. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 46% of their total row crop acres in cover crops—6% more than in 2016.

Cost Share Cover Crops 2017. (2)The overall percentage of farmers who are using cost share to seed cover crop acres has increased by seven percent over four years of Iowa Learning Farms evaluation data. Of the respondents seeding cover crops in 2017, 65% of them did so with the assistance of cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms sponsored 29 conservation field days and workshops in 2017 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 1,280 people, primarily farmers and landowners (89%). Twenty-seven percent of Iowa Learning Farms field day attendees were female.Eval Cover (2)

In January 2018, 580 farmers and landowners who attended Iowa Learning Farms field days were mailed an evaluation questionnaire to investigate whether they made changes to their farming practices. In a one-month period, 251 evaluation questionnaires were returned for a 42% response rate.

The Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report can be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Established in 2004, Iowa Learning Farms is building a Culture of Conservation by encouraging adoption of conservation practices. Farmers, researchers and team members are working together to identify and implement the best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable. Partners of Iowa Learning Farms include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA section 319).

Liz Juchems

Watershed Scale, Not Field Scale

If we hope to significantly improve water quality in Iowa and still farm profitably, we are going to need to change our mindset about our agricultural systems. We are going to need to start thinking in terms of watersheds.

Each spring I teach a graduate course for the Iowa State University Master of Science in Agronomy distance program called “Agronomic Systems Analysis.” The course is comprised of field-scale case studies that require students to consider how complex decisions must be made by taking into consideration agronomic, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decisions. This year, I incorporated a new lesson that goes beyond field scale but encourages the students to address the issues at the watershed scale.

shelbyemphemeral-e1506974374896The point of this lesson is to have students think not about a single farm or field but to think about where to target practices to be the most effective. And which practices will draw the most reduction of nutrients being lost. This is not rocket science. It has been well established that sloping land is prone to erosion. These are the areas where no-tillage and cover crops are going to be the most effective at keeping soil and phosphorus in place. It’s well understood that well drained soils with very little slope are prone to nitrate leaching. These are the areas where bioreactors, wetlands and cover crops will be most effective in reducing nitrate movement into flowing water.

For several years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have been talking about implementing conservation practices and the scale of conservation practice adoption that must occur to reach nutrient reduction goals. For instance, one scenario calls for statewide adoption of MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) rates along with 12 million acres of cover crops, 12 million acres of no-tillage, 6 million acres treated by bioreactors, and 7.5 million acres treated by wetlands. That effort to date has achieved approximately 625,000 acres of cover crops, 5 million acres of no-tillage, 950 acres treated by bioreactors and 42,200 acres treated by wetlands. We have a long way to go.

Cover crops

Reaching conservation practice goals will take everyone thinking about how his or her footprint impacts the watershed as a whole. It will take targeting practices for maximum effectiveness with minimal impact to the cost of production. Wetlands can be installed to treat water flowing from multiple fields. Prairie strips in strategic locations can minimize sediment and phosphorus loss. Saturated and riparian buffers will reduce nutrient movement and streambank sloughing of rivers and streams. It can even be as simple as installing a waterway to connect waterways from adjacent fields or no-tilling soybean into corn residue.

There can be watershed and community benefits that extend beyond the fence. Many practices can support efforts to provide habitat for pollinators, monarchs, song birds, game birds, waterfowl and deer.

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We cannot meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and improve habitat without changing our mindset about how we farm and the use of conservation. Conservation practices are most effective if they are targeted specifically in areas that will result in a continuous, complimentary system across the watershed.

How can we help you think on a watershed scale?

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

Incubating New Ideas at the Drainage Research Forum

Matt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University 

In my last column, I wrote about how we needed to scale up the human resources significantly in order to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This month, I would like to assert that it is also critical we continue efforts on new technology development and research on the performance of practices – specifically new practices.

05-17 Bioreactor

Bioreactor Installation in Monroe Co. Iowa

One outlet for developing new ideas is the Iowa-Minnesota Drainage Research Forum. While edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices such as controlled drainage, bioreactors, wetlands, and saturated buffers are now household names, they were first discussed at the Drainage Research Forums when they were just preliminary ideas with some preliminary data. This event serves as an incubator for innovation to help us get feedback about how these practices might work.

The Drainage Research Forum is in its seventeenth year and was held in Ames this year. I have been attending these forums since I stated at Iowa State. The Forum averages around 75 people, mainly engineers and researchers from across the Midwest. Basically, when we present the new idea or practice at this forum, we are asking our colleagues to give us input on whether they think it will work on a larger scale and to see if anyone in the room can point out our flaws or give us another way to approach it. They can be really engaging and important discussions.


You can download most of the past Forum presentations from the Drainage Outlet website through University of Minnesota Extension.


Much of the initial funding for these types of unknown practices were from state agencies and local centers such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. These groups could be nimble and see the need and understand that small initial investments could lead to great outcomes and larger research funding which has happened in almost all cases.

So while we continue working on implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continue with efforts to education farmers and other stakeholders about practices they can use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, we need to continue the behind the scenes efforts to develop new practices for nutrient reduction, conduct research to refine recommendations for practice implementation, and conduct research to enhance the performance of practices.

Drainage Forum 2017

Drainage Forum held in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2017

In order to do this, we need forums like the Drainage Research Forum to help develop the innovation needed to develop practices or different approaches to old ones. Forums that bring together smaller groups of people with initial ideas and data to help them see how that information will work on the land.

The Iowa Learning Farms team likes to tease me about how excited I get to attend the Drainage Research Forum. They are right. It is one of my favorite gatherings. Some or much of that excitement comes from knowing I will get to learn about cutting edge practices, technology or management approaches that are in their early stages. I look forward to hearing what new ideas are discussed at the next seventeen (or more!) Drainage Research Forums. You are welcome to join us in 2018.

Matt Helmers

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Past, Present and Future of Bioreactors

05-17 BioreactorAs substantial investments in drainage systems continue to be made across the U.S.- Midwest, the use of edge-of-field practices like woodchip bioreactors can help treat tile-drained water and help meet our water quality goals.

Dr. Laura Christianson, Professional Engineer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, will present on bioreactor basics, what we know about how bioreactors work and novel ideas to make bioreactors work better. Dr. Christianson has nine years of experience focused on agricultural drainage water quality and denitrification bioreactors for point and nonpoint nitrogen treatment.

DATE: Wednesday, November 15, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars

Julie Whitson

Watershed Academy: Training the Boots on the Ground in Iowa Watersheds

Last month, over 30 watershed coordinators from across the state came together to learn skills and share best practices about the science of watershed improvement and what it takes to get conservation practices on the ground where they work. Participants who attended the two-day training heard from agency representatives, university researchers and industry experts on a variety of topics.


Data Collection and Tools

Watershed coordinators perform many duties for their watershed projects. They are responsible for compiling and assessing data on water quality, land use, hydrology, stream bank conditions and more. Coordinators work with partners across the state as they assess available data and make decisions on how to best prioritize cost-share dollars in the watershed. The Watershed Academy provided coordinators with in-depth information on conservation planning, watershed planning, social assessments and available tools for data collection.

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Messaging and Communication

Coordinators are the boots on the ground in a watershed project area. They are responsible for building relationships with producers and becoming a trusted source of information in their watershed. Trainings like these are great places for coordinators to share their approach, messages and tools that they’ve used to get the job done. Speakers presented on the One Water approach, ArcGIS Story Maps, conservation sales and the newly-unveiled Conservation Station On the Edge trailer.

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Trends and Topics

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Stefan Gailans of Practical Farmers of Iowa shares research on using tea bags to measure indicators of soil health.

Coordinators need a well-rounded understanding of emerging trends and the latest research in the state. Speakers presented on cover crop acre trends in Iowa, measuring soil health using tea bags, sourcewater protection and the conservation infrastructure that will be needed to reach the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

On behalf of the Watershed Academy planning committee, I would like to thank all of our participants, presenters and sponsors! To view presentations and additional resources from the 2017 Fall Iowa Watershed Academy, visit the Watershed Academy website. If you are a watershed coordinator or a person who works directly on similar projects, please join us for the next Watershed Academy!

Julie Whitson and Jamie Benning

For more information about the Watershed Academy, contact Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program Manager.

The Watershed Academy was sponsored by the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Fly the “W”

blog-header-cubsI love October especially when the Cubs are still playing baseball. Of course as I write this, the series is tied 1-1 and so by the time this is published, the Cubs might not still be playing baseball. But for right now, it is October and the Cubs are in the playoffs and life is good!

Along with postseason baseball, October also brings the fall colors. The other day I was walking through Ames’ largest cemetery and enjoying the beauty of all the trees. Cemeteries are havens of peace and good places to think. My ILF E-News column was due soon and I had no good ideas. I was hoping this walk might shake something loose.

I asked myself, can I tie the Cubs, cemeteries and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) together for my column?

cubsgameAs I walked, I noticed a half a dozen graves that were flying the blue “W” near the headstones. For those of you who are not Cubs fans and were in a foreign country last year when they finally won the World Series, the blue “W” represents a Cubs’ win. Now I didn’t check the tombstones for year of death but I am guessing that a few of them died before November of last year and this was the family’s way of acknowledging how important the win would have been for them.

As I walked, I called fellow Cubs fan Jamie Benning and shared with her my observation about the “W” in the cemetery. Did she think I could link the nutrient reduction strategy and Cubs for my column? Jamie suggested exploring if there was anything to learn from the road to the Cubs 2016 World Series victory and the power of a symbol such as the “W” that could apply to NRS implementation.

Of course, we both thought that was a good idea so I went home and gave it some thought. In order for the Cubs to have a chance at a national championship, several things had to happen.

JCq

Most of this work happened in the off-season and most national championships are won by what happens during the periods when the team is not playing ball.

If we want to have greater success in implementing Iowa’s NRS, I think we have some valuable lessons to take from the Cubs’ success.

ILFq

It is October. The growing season is over (if you haven’t planted cover crops) and the cash crops are being harvested. The next several months could be considered the “off-season” for those who don’t have livestock. There is a lot of work to do right now to lay the groundwork for greater success in implementing the NRS in the years to come. ‘Cause just like in baseball, next year begins right now.

Jacqueline Comito