Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?

As a wildlife biologist, I admittedly have a less mainstream attitude towards weeds. For me, keeping those less obtrusive but often disgraced varieties of flowering and seed-producing plants on field edges and in barn lots is a good deal for the birds and the butterflies. But, as a wildlife biologist and a conservationist, I know that anything that affects efficiency in crop production affects conservation. So when I heard about the weed called Palmer Amaranth being found across Iowa last summer, I read the headline articles, watched the top stories, followed the unanimous senate vote, and learned how to identify the new pigweed to see where I could help.

Palmer, as it’s called, is a major challenge in cropping systems in the southern U.S. and until 2016 had only been found in five Iowa counties. Then, during the 2016 growing season, that list grew to at least 48  and experts predict that number could be higher.

The culprit? Seed mixes shipped to Iowa from southern dealers to meet burgeoning demand for high-diversity native plantings contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP fields where Palmer was rearing its ugly, thousands-of-seed-bearing head were the same fields lauded by conservationists as the best practice ever conceived under the CRP for addressing the plight of economically and ecologically important insects and many declining wildlife populations.

And, just as Palmer had entered the lexicon seemingly overnight, something else became apparent: “conservation plantings” had become synonymous with “Palmer.”

In the last year, I’ve seen this phenomena play out everywhere from professional meetings to farmsteads. I’ve heard stories from across the state about inquiries on CRP contract termination. I’ve talked with landowners that have dismissed high-diversity plantings out of fear for being the source of a new Palmer infestation. I’ve read gloom-and-doom articles implicating CRP in fueling the spread of Palmer on pages of periodicals from across the Midwest.

Vigilance and education are unequivocally important. My concern though is not with the messaging in educational efforts on this emerging threat, but rather the implicit deduction often drawn. That is, if Palmer is the effect and conservation plantings the cause, won’t less of the latter preclude more of the former?

I don’t have any data to support the veracity my concerns. Only my own experiences and anecdotes, which of course is shaky ground as a scientist. Dr. Bob Hartzler, the respected authority and defacto leader of the important response to the Palmer outbreak in 2016, recently told Iowa Learning Farms in his Conservation Chat podcast interview that he didn’t think concerns over Palmer were driving people away from conservation. I hope he’s right.

Professional educators and everyone in the agriculture and conservation community need to continue to address this emerging threat. But, we need to do so while retaining and building on progress for conservation of pollinators, soil, water, and wildlife that are fundamental to our quality of life and the sustainability of rural landscapes in Iowa. We need to be careful to not lose sight of the original goal of the high-diversity conservation plantings. We need to push a uniform message that less conservation isn’t the solution but rather that more vigilance is. Palmer is a huge deal. But I hope we don’t forget, conservation is a huge deal, too.

Adam Janke

Thank you to Adam Janke, Bob Hartzler, and Meaghan Anderson for their willingness to share photographs for this article!

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito

A Big Boost for Pollinators

Over the past few weeks, the City of Cedar Rapids has received a great deal of positive press for their plans to convert 1,000 acres into prairie/pollinator habitat! Their new 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative will begin taking root this spring as acres and acres of diverse prairie are seeded throughout the city, in large part to restore habitat for native pollinators – birds, bees, and the iconic monarch butterfly.

Where exactly do you fit 1,000 acres of perennial vegetation inside the City of Cedar Rapids?  Anywhere and everywhere!  They are starting this spring by seeding 188 acres of diverse prairie throughout the city. Numerous unused public land areas have been identified, including within community parks, select areas of golf courses, roadway medians, along trails, as well as in some less glamorous areas such as sewage ditches and water retention basins.

Future plans in the five year project also include working with homeowners to voluntarily convert 10% of traditional mowed lawn areas to perennial vegetation for pollinator habitat. They are also partnerships happening beyond the city limits to include Linn Co. Conservation and the Eastern Iowa Airport (who is already on the forefront of numerous conservation practices – read more about the field day ILF held there last fall).

It’s a truly fascinating project, and an excellent example of unique collaborations coming together to “make things happen” in the conservation world. Funding to date has come from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources-REAP Grant and the nonprofit Monarch Research Project. While the City is certainly a key partner in this work, the 1,000 Acres initiative has been fully funded outside of city and county budgets.

Learn more about the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative on the Cedar Rapids Pollinator and Natural Resources Initiatives page, as well as an article in Popular Science: A small city in Iowa is devoting 1,000 acres of land to America’s vanishing bees.

Ann Staudt

 

 

From the Director: A Faith-Based Approach to Conservation

fromthedirectorBack in November 2015, Drake University hosted a conference called Sustaining Our Iowa Land (SOIL), focused on the past, present and future of Iowa’s soil and water conservation policy. Jamie, Ann and I attended the conference. On the first day, a couple of the panelists asserted that a faith-based approach to increased conservation might be an added tool in our outreach and education strategy. Everyone was buzzing about this idea. It seemed to capture imagination. I think we are always looking for that approach that can bring better success. Perhaps it is also an acknowledgment that we need to appeal to folks’ “higher angels” if we hope to make the kind of change needed for a sustainable future.

My mind had already been considering the faith-based approach. Not many of you know that my environmental work started back in 2004 when I coordinated a symposium called “Caring for Creation.” I brought together religious and environmental leaders from across Iowa to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge for a discussion on the environment and religion. I led the effort to craft a series of proposals on energy usage that were later given to the Governor. In summer 2007, I was asked to be a speaker at a religious-based young adult workshop in Boston that was focused on the environment. As a result of that, I was asked to be a speaker at Union College in Kentucky to give a talk on weaving faith and my work. By that time, I was working for the Iowa Learning Farms.

raindropripples2toneSo, this idea of a faith-based approach was not new to me. Nonetheless, the faith side of my environmental work was put on the back burner as I embarked on a secular journey to motivating change in my position at Iowa State University.

In 2015, when Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical (letter) Laudato Si’, I started wondering how I might be a part of motivating Catholics and other people of faith toward the ecological conversion the Pope calls for in this document. I knew whatever I did would need to be on my own time. I met with Tom Chapman at the Iowa Catholic Conference and we started brainstorming ways that we might help spread Pope Francis’s message in Iowa.

iowalanduseThen the Drake SOIL conference happened and the call for a faith-based approach. Jamie, Ann and I met to discuss this. All three of us are practicing Catholics. One of us — Ann or Jamie — suggested that we create a Lenten reflection booklet that taught the science of Iowa’s ecology framed by the Pope’s Catholic teaching. Lenten reflection booklets generally provide daily content each of the 40 days of Lent to help in your spiritual renewal journeying to Easter. Booklets like this usually build on the Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We met with Tom Chapman and agreed to partner with him and Susie Tierney of the Center for Social Ministry to create the booklet. We wanted it ready for Lent 2017.

Jamie, Ann and I would supply the science as a part of our positions at Iowa State. Let me be very clear here: Iowa State University, Iowa Learning Farms, and Water Rocks! are not promoting or endorsing the views of the Catholic Church or any other faith-based organization. Our jobs were to ensure that the science was represented accurately and explained clearly. Outside of work, Ann and I volunteered the rest of our time to help Tom and Susie finish the booklet.

It was a labor of love. My team can tell you that I often take on projects that are a lot more work in the end. This was certainly true of this booklet. We needed to come up with the format that would work. We knew we wanted the science juxtaposed with information from the Pope’s work. We also knew we wanted some kind of daily “action.” The encyclical gave us a natural form: See, Reflect and Act. “See” would be the science. “Reflect” would be a section from the Pope’s encyclical. “Act” would be their daily action – that one’s pretty self-explanatory.

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We decided to link each week of Lent to one of the videos from the award-winning Culture of Conservation video series, offering this as a supplemental resource to help deepen people’s knowledge of the interwoven connections between agriculture and the environment, soil and water, and our dynamic, ever-changing rural and urban populations here in the state of Iowa. Jamie and Ann got their parts completed and that left me to do the editing, write my sections and weave these in with the Pope’s words. I spent my June vacation on Rainy Lake, MN, reading the Pope’s letter and highlighting parts that really struck me. Don’t let the idea of a “letter” fool you — this encyclical is 184 pages!

leaveswitharrowAfter we completed the first draft, we sent it to Tom and Susie to supply the “action” statements. When they finished their part, Ann took over and used her design skills to create the booklet layout. Again, Ann volunteered her time outside of work at that point to complete the booklet.

A year later and the Lenten reflection booklet is available to the public. To obtain copies of Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, contact the Iowa Catholic Conference at 515.243.6256. Booklets cost $4.75 each. The full booklet can also be downloaded as a free PDF from the Iowa Catholic Conference’s website at http://www.iowacatholicconference.org.

We know that this approach is not for everyone. It is available to those who want it. It is another way of reaching people. As The Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines, writes in his forward to the booklet, “This resource, Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, is a way to re-imagine our place in the created order and put us in touch with Iowa’s bounty and the world’s needs….In this resource, we are called to be mindful of how actions can have consequences for our land, water, air, all creatures and especially humankind.”

Jacqueline Comito

Field day highlights cover crops & soil health

Well, the groundhog indeed saw his shadow yesterday, so we are in for six more weeks of cold weather. While the temperatures outside were certainly brisk, it was a great day to be inside learning some new perspectives on cover crop management, soil health, and even earthworms!

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I was invited to be a part of a Cover Crop & Soil Health Field Day in Houghton yesterday, put on by the Lower Skunk River Watershed & Soil Health Initiative. Approximately 55 farmers, landowners, crop advisors, and NRCS staff from across southeastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri gathered together to spend the morning digging in with cover crops and soil health issues.

Dave Otte, of Green Valley Seed (Kahoka, MO) kicked things off by sharing his experiences with cover crops over the years, both in corn/soybean farming systems and as a “cattle guy.” He explained the many different benefits that he’s seen with cover crops, including soil health and quality (feeding the biology under the ground surface), water control (promoting infiltration), erosion control, moderating soil temperatures, nutrient management (creating, capturing, holding, and releasing fertility), weed suppression, and forage. He was also very open in discussing the challenges with cover crops, but emphasized that the benefits are well worth it. We were quite entertained by his analogy that cover crops are a lot like marriage. As he put it, “I’ve been married 40 years, and there have certainly been ups and downs. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives!” I liked how he emphasized that going with cover crops will make you THINK more – rethinking your farm management in a positive way.

Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension field agronomist in south central Iowa, was up next, helping the attendees think ahead to creating a game plan for cover crop termination in advance of planting in the spring. She shared a number of different termination options, ranging from mechanical means (like mowing, rolling, or roller-crimping) to chemical means (herbicide). It was very interesting to hear her discuss data from the University of Missouri Weed Science program regarding the effectiveness of different herbicides on different cover crops, and how much that effectiveness can vary with termination date. Lots of food for thought!

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After a short break, NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele shared his wealth of knowledge on all things soil health, offering perspectives on what exactly soil health is, improvements in soil organic matter that can be realized with practices like no-till and cover crops, and the benefits of increasing water infiltration across our landscape. He also performed the Slake test, demonstrating aggregate stability and how healthy soils are “glued together” biologically.

Steele also offered some great analogies about how cover crops fit into our farming operations … “Cover crops are a lot like small children. For those of you that have small children (or have raised kids), you know that it takes patience and it takes time.”

And regarding earthworms and soil health, “It’s a lot like the movie Field of Dreams … ‘If you build it, they will come’ …  well, with earthworms, they’re probably close by in your fencerows. If you make them a home, they will come!”

That was a great transition, because I concluded the learning portion of the field day by sharing findings from our  ILF study of earthworm populations related to cover crops!  I highlighted the fact that we found 38% more nightcrawlers in corn/soybean fields with a cereal rye cover crop compared to those without, and how earthworms can serve as a tangible, early biological indicator of soil health. There were also questions earlier in the day about tenant/landowner relationships regarding the implementation of cover crops, so I also promoted our new Talking With Your Tenant publication series which offers tips for starting that conversation, as well as ways to potentially share the cost of implementing a conservation practice like this.

While we are certainly still very much in the throes of winter, take a look at these beautiful cover crops that I spotted while journeying through southeastern Iowa yesterday (Feb. 2)!  I’ll leave you with a few photographs from just south of Swedesburg in Henry County.

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Ann Staudt

Announcing the 2017 Water Resources Internship Program!

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We are looking for a great group of college interns that are passionate about conservation and natural resources, and eager to learn more about the many water and soil issues here in the state of Iowa. This competitive internship program is not just limited to ISU students – it’s open to undergraduate college students from any institution across the country.

Read on for full details of our 2017 Water Resources Summer Internship Program.  Applications are being accepted through this Thursday, January 26, at 5:00pm! Perhaps you know a college student who might be interested. Please pass this information along to them!

2017 Water Resources Summer Internship Program

Position Description:
Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality? We are seeking undergraduate student interns for summer 2017 who are self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun!
Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around environmental issues and challenges in Iowa. Summer interns will have the opportunity to:

• Work with two exciting Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
Water Rocks!, focused on youth outreach, and
Iowa Learning Farms, focused on adult/community outreach
• Help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
• Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of three Conservation Station trailers
• Develop strong oral communication skills
• Contribute to water and soil quality research projects in ISU’s top-ranked Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
• Gain technical skills related to environmental science, soil and water quality through both field and lab research

The program is based on campus at Iowa State University and will involve travel to research sites and various outreach events around the state, which includes some scheduled night and weekend events. This is a paid internship, with students working up to 40 hours/week. The internship program begins Wednesday, May 10 and runs through Friday, July 28, 2017.

The Iowa State University water resources internship program serves as an outstanding springboard for careers in agriculture, engineering, the environment, and/or further studies. Past participants in our internship program have gone on to such careers as project engineer, watershed coordinator, environmental educator, field research specialist, and USDA-FSA program technician, while others have pursued graduate school opportunities.

Job Skills and Requirements:
• Currently enrolled undergraduate student (open to all majors)
• Demonstrated interest and/or background in environmental science, natural resources, conservation, soil and water quality, agriculture, and/or education
• Evidence of strong communication skills
• Ability to learn new tasks quickly
• Teamwork skills
• Self-motivated
• Detail-oriented
• Time management skills

Additional internship requirements:
• Participation in 5-week spring training course for internship (one night per week, beginning week of March 27)
• Possession of valid driver’s license
• Background check with ISU Risk Management for working with youth

How to Apply:
Required application materials include:
• Resume (Include your GPA, major, related coursework, and previous work experience)
• Cover Letter (Tell us what interests you about this internship and why you’d be a great fit!)

Internship application deadline is 5:00pm on Thursday, January 26, 2017. Please submit your complete application package to Ann Staudt via email – astaudt@iastate.edu. We will conduct interviews with qualified students in early February.

Ann Staudt