Faces of Conservation: Matt Helmers

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.


Matt Helmers – Iowa Learning Farms Faculty Co-adviser and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I started working with Iowa Learning Farms in 2004 as a member of the initial team working on the water quality programming. As I got more involved in the program, I also became more energized with the potential of a small group such as ILF to make a big impact on water quality in Iowa. I moved into a faculty advisory position and have become active in helping the team implement the group’s vision through closely collaborating with program director Jacqueline Comito.

Aside from my administrative role as liaison to the university, I provide technical and engineering contributions to the water quality programming. For example, when ILF was looking to create the Conservation Station trailers back in 2009-2010, we all pitched in to come up with a better rainfall simulator than the model used previously. We felt there must be a better way to show both surface and subsurface water flow, and to simulate true field conditions. I tossed out the idea of cutting undisturbed soil blocks from fields to provide a true model of soil conditions. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the authenticity of the soil samples providing more credible results. See the Rainfall Simulator in action on our YouTube channel!

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t know whether I’ve changed the program. I love working with the team and seeing the vision turn to reality, but I mostly feel that I’ve been given a great opportunity to ride along with some amazing people.

Being a part of ILF has changed my outlook a great deal. My engineering background trained me to approach things from a technical point of view, analyzing impacts using a pragmatic and practical approach and assessing economic effects in a very strict sense. What I’ve learned in working and speaking with farmers, and listening to their concerns and questions, is that there are social and emotional issues at play that don’t fit neatly into formulae or spreadsheets.

I’ve continued to learn from team members and from farmers across the state. Field days help me to gain insight into farmers’ thought processes, broaden my understanding of farm practices and how we can better communicate best practices for improvements.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Among the many fond memories and fun adventures with ILF, I think being a part of the field days is a favorite. Time spent with teammates traveling to and from the field days is often filled with wide-ranging conversations that both entertained and helped everyone gain understanding and knowledge. And at the field days, learning from the farmers through talking with them – and listening to them – about getting practices implemented in working fields has been incredibly insightful.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
As a native Iowan who grew up around agriculture, I would like Iowa to continue to have a vibrant agricultural ecosystem, but one that includes the health and stewardship of our natural resources. This is critical. We are a heavy agricultural state with a water quality problem, and the only way to address the problem is to get conservation practices implemented.

There is a need for better communication and efforts to facilitate conversations that will help farmers and others learn about what is working and how practices will have an impact for the entire state. These conversations can be one-on-one, in groups, electronic or in person, and should involve farmers, researchers and conservation professionals. Iowans need to work whole heartedly on improving our water quality.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see much more diversity across Iowa’s landscape. The diversity may come in small pieces and may be comprised of different plant varieties and farming techniques that aren’t common today, but with an eye toward sustainability and conservation, the results should help keep our natural resources in good shape.

In closing…
It is amazing that ILF has been around for 15 years and has continued to evolve. We should recognize that the program’s growth and maturity have emerged out of adapting and developing dynamic programming, actively responding to the needs of stakeholders. ILF is a world class organization driven by a creative and focused leader in Dr. Comito. We are lucky to have this team at ISU and in Iowa.


Previous Posts in Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Elaine Ilvess

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program over the years.

Elaine Ilvess –Water Resources Bureau Program Planner (retired), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and Assistant Commissioner for the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District

Elaine Ilvess was a part of the Iowa Learning Farms story from the outset. In her role with IDALS, she was involved in seeking new ways to communicate to and educate the public about water quality and conservation. She played an active role in the planning and creation of ILF, continuing to consult and advise up through her retirement in 2010.


Elaine Ilvess (green/white shirt at right) teaches all ages about how water and soil move at the stream table.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I was involved in ILF before the foundation was poured and the ground floor existed. Being a part of the planning team and drawing on my career in water quality and conservation outreach, I was eager to help create something new for Iowa that could move awareness about these important topics forward. Once ILF was up and running, I served on the technical committee, in addition to managing funding, monitoring expenditures, and coordinating with other partner agencies to ensure compliance and help keep the program on track.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
It may not have been so much of a change as contributing to the formation and mission of ILF from the beginning. In the early 2000s there were specific funds available for new approaches to water quality education and outreach. I was instrumental in developing the ILF concept of a Culture of Conservation, spreading information to farmers through hands-on demonstrations that would facilitate farmer-to-farmer engagement

Being a part of ILF gave me the opportunity to learn from and work with some of the masters, including governors, agricultural leaders, forward-looking scientists and researchers, environmentalists and the strongest advocates for conservation and water quality who brought fresh and innovative ideas to the table. It also led me to become a champion of continued funding and support for programs such as ILF—programs that learn from farmers and peer groups, and that imbue the concepts of “Information, Education and Demonstration.”

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The conversations and interactions at field days—my own conversations, but also observing the engagements between the ISU professionals with farmers—listening, advising and working together.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Growing up on a farm, I learned the value of conservation at a young age through living within the farm and natural ecosystems and observing firsthand impacts. Our environment, soil and water are the basis of our existence as well as Iowa’s economy and livelihood. It’s critical that we improve and preserve these resources for current and future generations.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see that the results of programs such as ILF have proven their significant worth to Iowa, leading to more secure funding. This would empower the further expansion of outreach and education programs delivering information that is relevant to farmers and non-farmers alike. In addition, establishing youth conservation education as an integral part of school curricula would be a wonderful step forward for Iowa and the nation.

In closing…
A small yet powerful program like ILF can have a big impact. The way they deliver information and facilitate conversations has had a multiplying effect which has been going on for 15 years. Starting out with small numbers and a few field days to thousands of Iowans becoming aware of what conservation means and how each individual plays an integral role has been a laudable achievement that can continue to contribute to Iowa’s future.


 

Faces of Conservation: Mark Licht

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Mark Licht has been involved with Iowa Learning Farms from its inception in 2004. As an ISU Extension program specialist, Extension field agronomist and now as faculty, Mark has continued to aid in the mission of ILF to increase awareness and promote conservation practices statewide.


How was Iowa Learning Farms established and what was its mission?
The real seed that grew into ILF was planted during casual conversations between Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi and I as we drove across Iowa visiting research sites. ISU Extension was already conducting field demonstrations and researchers were working with farmers and conservationists, but there was a need to knit these activities into a better way to deliver education and put resources in the hands of growers.

Moving from concept to reality took a lot of legwork and cooperation. Engaging partners that could help provide funding and expert advice was an initial step. We were fortunate to be able to work with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a host of dedicated individuals.

What were the early years at ILF like?
We were already doing field demonstrations through ISU Extension and this continued as ILF was formed. The outreach and education goals were well-formed by March 2004 when we were ready to start working with growers.

We were breaking new ground, and as a result some of the things we did were not as effective as we had hoped. But, we learned and adjusted. A key part of the longstanding success of ILF has been the team’s openness to new ideas about how to best engage audiences to help us achieve desired results. Another fundamental part of ILF’s success has been the comprehensive evaluation and feedback processes from field days and other public interactions. The processes have expanded and matured over time, but the data and results have been invaluable in demonstrating change in farming practices.

What is your role with the organization?
At the start, as an ISU Extension program specialist, I was the only ILF staff member. When Jackie Comito joined the team, she focused on starting the evaluation program and I continued to develop demonstrations and outreach events. In 2006 I left campus and ILF to work as an ISU Extension field agronomist. Upon returning to ISU in 2014 as an Extension cropping systems specialist, I re-engaged with ILF as a collaborator and adviser.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I was there at the start, so I was deeply involved in helping ILF get off the ground. We worked through the organizational details and established our mission to build a Culture of Conservation for Iowa. But to be successful I knew it was crucial to get farmers deeply involved, and particularly to have them share how and what they were doing, with ILF and other farmers.

The visual element is something that I pushed the organization to embrace in all interactions. Academics seem to like hefty detailed reports, but infographics and other visual media are much more effective in capturing interest and delivering messages to non-academic audiences. The first rainfall simulator was also key for demonstrating visually what is hard to see in the field.

On a professional level, as a corn and soybean production specialist I’m focused on efficiency and yield. Collaborating with ILF helps me think through the ramifications of production side decisions and balancing them with a nutrient reduction and conservation point of view.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One of my favorite things from the early years was working with the rainfall simulator. Watching the evolution from humble beginnings of a basic rainfall simulator trailer to the comprehensive Conservation Stations has been amazing and rewarding. What we have out around Iowa today is much more powerful and influential than I imagined when we started.

I also love working with the cooperating farmers. They have a passion for conservation and maintaining water quality. Their instantaneous and frank feedback really grounds what we are doing.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
For me, conservation is important for the same reasons it’s important for Iowa. I enjoy our natural resources for recreation such as spending time on a lake or fishing. These resources are threatened, and we need to pay attention to them for everyone’s sake.

For Iowa, we must look at how much of the state’s economy is tied to agriculture and understand that as we improve our soil and water health, we can continue to drive our agricultural economic growth. It does take years to turn around, but there is progress.

In closing…
ILF is a wonderful group and a great resource for Iowa. I hope they will continue to make an impact in Iowa for the next 15 years and beyond.


 

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Rockin’ Carroll County with Water Rocks! Days

It’s always exciting to see the Water Rocks! messages and lessons create a ripple effect to reach well beyond the direct activities of our small team. In Carroll County, under the guidance and creative leadership of Anjanette Treadway, human services program coordinator in the Carroll County Extension Office, the ripples are gaining momentum and turning into a tidal wave of activities for elementary and middle school students across the county.

Anjanette is responsible for supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for kindergarten through third grade in county schools. She is also the “conservation education” champion for all students up through the sixth grade.

She uses the Water Rocks! programming and materials to make waves in classrooms and beyond. Two major events that she produces in Carroll schools are a field day for third-graders, and a sixth-grade environmental field day.

During the summer of 2018, Anjanette also coordinated a six-hour day camp program open to all fourth- through sixth-grade students in Carroll County. She anticipates continuing this in future summers to provide education and outreach to students regarding the importance of environmental awareness and conservation.

Anjanette learned about Water Rocks! from a colleague in 2015. “My co-worker brought me some of the materials from the program and encouraged me to get involved with Water Rocks! to learn more,” said Anjanette. “I’m certainly glad I did. Water Rocks! provides an expansive set of activities and content which is applicable for all elementary and middle-school grades.”

She continued, “The Water Rocks! team has done an excellent job of aligning programming and educational resources with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and statewide curriculum requirements for STEM advancement. And the materials provided in the workshops and summits are ready to use in the classroom – something that is very helpful for teachers who are time-stressed and in need of creative and innovative ways to engage students.”

The third-grade conservation field day has become Water Rocks! Day, comprising hands-on outdoor activities and games as well as participation from key specialists and teachers. The next Water Rocks! Day will be held in May 2019.

Before Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette visits the classrooms and provides introduction to the Water Rocks! conservation lessons and plants some seeds with the students. “The students and the teachers get very excited about the music and the lessons from Water Rocks!,” she noted. “One teacher loved the musical element enough to provide copies to the school’s music teacher to suggest they explore using it in the music classroom as well.”

The introductory lessons get students up and moving as well. The students are outside, running, getting dirty, investigating such things as where water will run off from the playground and other tangible lessons which tie in to the classroom instruction.

On Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette sets up many of the fun Water Rocks! activities including Biodiversity Jenga, Creature Cache, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands Bingo and the Poo Relay. The Water Rocks! team presents its We All Live in a Watershed module, and other specialists present related material. In addition, the students participate in nature walks to extend the lessons beyond the classroom to incorporate their own observations.

For the sixth-grade Environmental Field Day, the lessons are more intensive, incorporate water quality topics as well as the core conservation message and involve guest presenters. At the most recent event, presenters included the naturalist from the Carroll County Conservation District, a speaker from Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a raptor rehabilitation center, the Water Rocks! team from Iowa State University, and teachers – who were delighted to get a chance to step out of the classroom and teach in a different style.

Starting in 2018, the Environmental Field Day now also includes a Water Rocks! Assembly program with live music and skits. “The field day started with different presentations and lessons, leading to the capstone of the day, a ‘rock concert’ assembly program. Of course, it’s not all rock music, but the atmosphere among the performers, kids and teachers sure made it feel that way,” she commented.

Ann Staudt
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Looking to book a Water Rocks! Assembly in your neck of the woods? Limited openings remain for May, and we are also booking for the summer months!

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Biodiversity Bonanza

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Biodiversity Bonanza is another one of our awesome classroom presentations with Water Rocks!. As we start all of our presentations, we introduce ourselves and then we ask the students a (pre-assessment) multiple choice trivia question: “What is biodiversity?”  After everyone has answered the question, we then explore the term biodiversity, asking the students to break the word into two parts, bio- and diversity. When the students define what bio- and diversity are, we then put the full word back together, explaining that biodiversity is all the different living things in a certain area.

We then transition to another important science term, ecosystem, which is a community of living organisms and their environment. At this point, it’s time for another game, our ecosystem guessing game, where students identify ecosystems from around the world.

After the game, we define the next amazing science term which is niche, defined as the specific job that each creature does within the ecosystem. We then continue by asking the students what it would be like if everybody in their school did the same job. The answers are usually like it would be boring or maybe a bit crazy. A diversity of niches keeps a school operating properly, and the same holds true for ecosystems! Then we play another guessing game where we show them a poster with a zoomed-in picture of an airplane wing. Students must try to guess what they’re seeing. After they eventually guess it, we then ask them what would happen if each of the rivets were a different species and what would happen if the rivets were to be pulled out one by one. The wing would eventually collapse, which ultimately represents the collapse of the ecosystem.

Next we use a banner to show the students the trophic level pyramid. After we explain the pyramid, we play a game of Biodiversity Jenga. In this competitive game, the Jenga blocks are painted in different colors that match the colors of the previously seen trophic level pyramid. We then pull situations out of a jar that determine which blocks are to be pulled out each round. It’s survival of the fittest – which team can keep their ecosystem standing the longest? We continue the game until one of the Jenga towers has fallen. We then recap some of the situations that took place during the game.

We want to be sure that students are thinking about biodiversity right here in Iowa, not just faraway places like the Amazon Rainforest, so we like to bring local species and examples into the conversation. In particular, we focus on the Topeka Shiner, a native fish (endangered species) whose habitat has been altered. They prefer to live in oxbows, with slow-moving water and surrounded by trees and other plants that keep the water temperature cool. Yet many of the oxbows have gone through a process called channel straightening, which makes the living conditions much harder for the Topeka Shiner.

So to allow the students to walk a mile in the Shiners’ shoes, we play a game called Musical Oxbows. This game is very similar to musical chairs except instead of using chairs we use carpet squares, painted to represent the meandering bends in rivers. This game also has situations that affect the available habitat for the Topeka Shiner – each round, a new situation is read which means 3-4 habitat spaces are removed. When the music stops, Topeka Shiners must find a spot in the oxbow or they are eliminated! As this game continues, eventually there will only be a couple Topeka Shiners remaining and then the game is complete. Again, we ask the students to recap the different situations that affected the Topeka Shiner, to help solidify those concepts in their minds.

The last few things that we talk about are few different solutions/ideas of what we can all do to protect nature around us. Lastly, we have them answer the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of the presentation, which helps us to evaluate our effectiveness in the classroom. We then send the students on their way and reorganize our posters, rebuild each Jenga tower, pick up Musical Oxbows, and more — resetting for the next class which usually starts in just 3-5 minutes!

Joshua Harms