In the midst of the Iowa State Fair last week, three of our team members – Jackie Comito, Liz Juchems, and Ann Staudt — traveled out to Bozeman, Montana for a collaborative project with USDA-FSA (Farm Service Agency). In collaboration with extension colleagues at five other universities across the country,* our Iowa Learning Farms team members have been tasked with training USDA-FSA field staff nationwide on wetlands!
What is the point of this project?
When a farmer/landowner approaches USDA-FSA to request a farm loan, whether that be to put in an access road or a grain bin, the area of land to be developed must first be evaluated for potential wetland impacts.
How exactly do we know if an area of land could potentially be a wetland?
Wetlands are characterized by having unique soils, unique hydrology, and unique vegetation living there.
So, in a nutshell, our national project team was tasked with developing a multi-faceted training program to help USDA-FSA staff get more comfortable with identifying potential wetlands and also understanding the many environmental benefits of these vibrant ecosystems.
The first part of the training was an online training course (delivered through AgLearn) that was developed collaboratively by the six university partners across the country, although our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin deserve a big shoutout for their outstanding efforts here.
After the FSA staff members have completed the online training, it’s time for the in-person training, which is what we piloted out in Bozeman last week! We presented the pilot training session to USDA-FSA field staff from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as several FSA leaders from Washington, DC and across the country.
Our Iowa Learning Farms team started out the morning with a recap of what wetlands are, why they are important, and FSA’s role in protecting them. However, this was not just a dry, boring lecture (e.g. death by PowerPoint) … we kicked things off by turning it into a quiz game show, bringing the signature energy and enthusiasm that the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! teams are known for! Yes, for those who are wondering, I even packed markerboards, erasers, and dry erase markers in my luggage just so the participants could all experience the TRUE game show feel.
We were particularly pleased (and entertained) by how receptive the FSA staffers were to this interactive game show format … they were super competitive, which got everyone engaged right from the start!
After reviewing the wetlands basics, our colleagues from the other universities moved into more details about the FSA-858 wetland screening form and the full process involved. Students then reviewed two online tools, Wetlands Mapper and Web Soil Survey, to evaluate the possible presence of inventoried wetlands and hydric soils, respectively. The classroom portion continued with a discussion of hydrology indicators and vegetative (plant) indicators – then everyone grabbed snacks and we prepared to hit the road!
The second half of the course was spent out in the field, giving participants the opportunity to practice identifying both hydrology indicators (things like debris lines, sedimentation, and squishy soils where your footprints fill in with water) and well as vegetative indicators. We were given a field guide of common wetlands plants, and the plant experts on the collaborative team taught us all the basics of plant identification!
The first site we visited was clearly a wetland based on both the hydrology and plant indicators – this gave us all the opportunity to practice our plant ID skills and identify a good number of plant species under ideal conditions.
The second site we visited was unclear whether or not it could potentially be a wetland – it was an irrigated pasture area where the landowner was considering putting in an access road. This was a good practice run for all involved, as this is exactly the situation many of the FSA staffers will be in, not knowing a definite yes or no in terms of whether it could be a wetland. This gave us all a chance walk through all of the steps of the FSA-858 process to really determine whether or not the potential was there for this to be a wetland.
The participants divided into groups of 2-3, and together we looked for hydrology indicators and then practiced our plant ID skills. Coming into this with no background knowledge of the vegetative indicators, Liz and I teamed up, and we were very proud to find both a sedge and a rush, both positive plant indicators of a potential wetland!
By this point, it was late afternoon, and time to wrap up the day’s training. The group returned to the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, upon which the classroom and field training sessions were evaluated thoroughly by the FSA participants and leaders.
Overall, the wetlands training session that we collectively developed was very well-received! We will continue to work with the other university partners over the coming months to refine the training. Then come spring, all of us will begin delivering these trainings to FSA staff across the country! Our Iowa State University team will be leading the training sessions across the Midwest – Iowa and surrounding states.
Thank you to Brian Adams and Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin-Extension, for the photographs included with this blog post!
*University partners on this project include: University of Wisconsin, Penn State University, University of Georgia, University of Arizona, Montana State University, and Iowa State University.