Faces of Conservation: Jacqueline Comito

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


JACQUELINE COMITO
Director, Iowa Learning Farms

Jacqueline Comito joined Iowa Learning Farms in April 2005, soon after it was formed, and has been a key leader and contributor to the program ever since. She brings a strong background in social science that influenced the development and growth of the program’s highly successful evaluation and feedback initiatives.

As Director of ILF, how do you see your role with the organization?
As ILF has grown over the past 15 years, my roles and responsibilities have changed, but fundamentally, I like to think the most important part of my job is to help ensure the organization stays true to what has made us successful—an emphasis on farmer-to-farmer outreach to put information and best practices in front of those that can make the best use of them.

Sometimes I’m a cheerleader and coach, other times I facilitate brainstorming and conversations among team members to continue to develop and expand the vision for ILF. I want to make sure we are effectively and efficiently reaching as many farmers as we can. As an organization we need to continue to grow and improve how we support farmer conservation implementation. This is where a robust evaluation program really helps; it provides a positive feedback loop that fosters ideas and energy for our efforts to help build a Culture of Conservation in tangible ways.

 

Evaluation and feedback are priorities for ILF. How do you see this part of the program evolving in the years ahead?
Evaluation is an organic thing. It must come out of what you are doing with programming. If it’s an integral part of the planning process, programming and evaluation are seamless elements that support each other. For example, when we were building our recently launched Emerging Farmers program, we included evaluation and feedback in the mix from the beginning. We used these tools to fine-tune the program to the unanticipated and evolving needs of participants. This approach helps us deliver more value to our participants more quickly.


How important is youth outreach—such as the Water Rocks! program—to Iowa making progress on conservation, water quality improvement and the nutrient reduction goals for Iowa?
It’s incredibly important! With youth we are playing the long game. We are planting seeds with these young people about conservation, water quality, and what they can do individually to have an impact. When they become decision-making adults, our hope is that they will have a solid framework and environmental ethic that puts natural resources challenges and solutions in the forefront of their thoughts and actions.

In addressing today’s youth, we are speaking with the future scientists and inventors. Not only are we providing education, we feel as though we are modeling career opportunities in science and research.

 

If you had to choose two, what are the most impactful achievements or lessons-learned from the first 15 years of ILF, and how do they inform the path going forward?
Field days. We’ve developed an excellent process for organizing, promoting, and operating field days that works for everyone involved, and takes a lot of pressure off the host farmer or organization. Field day programs are crucial to facilitating farmer-to-farmer conversations.

The Conservation Station trailers have also been a significant achievement for ILF. Designing and redesigning these mobile classrooms across the years have kept materials fresh, enabled us to respond to feedback, and drawn audiences to learn about conservation, farming practices and water quality. Utilizing the trailers at county fairs, farmers markets and community gatherings, we’ve been incredibly successful in taking the conservation message to the public.


How do you see the next five years of ILF evolving?
ILF will continue to be a strong voice providing education and advocacy for conservation practices at venues from field days to classroom programs. There is no end in sight for the need to continually reinforce the challenges facing Iowa and provide information and education through outreach programs such as ILF.

 

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The relationships I’ve formed with colleagues and people throughout the state are very special to me. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know many farmers and learning about farming processes, challenges and their conservation efforts. Even if there are long periods between meetings, when I do get a chance to see them it’s like seeing an old friend. Relationships and community are essential to the success of ILF, and we are striving to make the most of advocates across Iowa to help build a Culture of Conservation that will benefit all.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?

My hope for the future of Iowa includes a substantial increase in the number of wetlands. I would love to be a part of finding a solution and resources to make a reality of the goal to take three-to-four percent of cropland out of production and return it to prairie and wetlands. We would also like to build a fourth Conservation Station trailer with an emphasis on wetlands education.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Rick Juchems


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


RICK JUCHEMS
Conservationist and Farmer
Rick Juchems operates a family farm raising beans, corn, cover crops and hogs near Plainfield, Iowa. He has a long history with conservation practices and has been a cooperating farmer in Iowa Learning Farms programs and studies since the organization was formed in 2004. He is committed to running a successful agricultural enterprise while keeping a focus on conservation efforts that keep the productive soil in place and maintaining a better environment on the farm and downstream.

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
My first exposure to ILF occurred when they came to speak at a Conservation Districts of Iowa board meeting, seeking farmers to participate in some early studies. At the time, my farm was in a classical corn/soybean rotation and it made sense to see what I could learn and gain from participating in the studies. Since those early days, I’ve participated in multiple studies, hosted field days, and continued to both learn and share my knowledge.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
My purpose in participating with ILF was, and is, to learn how to improve the soil and production on my farm. I think a critical part of the ILF approach is that they want me and other farmers to help educate and influence each other.

Promoting this farmer-to-farmer interaction is probably the most important thing ILF has done to make headway on their mission of creating a culture of conservation in Iowa. It’s easy for a farmer to latch onto what has worked for them in the past, and sometimes it takes someone who’s facing the same challenges and situations to get them to consider doing something different.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I have participated in the ILF Leadership Circle meetings and multiple surveys. ILF is hungry for information and they are always eager to hear my ideas and feedback. Maybe I’ve changed things from behind the scenes through this involvement.

ILF changed the way I look at my farm and the soil on it, and what I do to preserve and improve the soil. Conservation has always been important to me but working with ILF on things such as cover crops, I’ve seen the benefits to my soil structure indicated by better water infiltration and more night crawlers.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Getting to meet and work with a great group of people from around the state. I regularly get to know new like-minded people concerned about conservation as well as people looking for information. I’ve really enjoyed speaking at events and field days and am frequently stopped by people who saw me speak looking for information and advice. I hope I am making a difference with a few people and contributing to building a more sustainable ecosystem in Iowa.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
From a business point of view, working to improve water quality is important because it means my soil is staying where it belongs – in the fields. This has been a very challenging year in Iowa with lots of rain and flooding at inopportune times. The resulting erosion of river and stream banks was bad, but for farms without cover crops to help hold the soil, the problems were much worse.

As Iowa continues to work on its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers need to understand the potential ramifications. We must be proactive in changing practices to stay ahead of the plan, or we risk having regulatory mandates that will likely not be to our liking.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I’d like to see that the education programs from ILF and Water Rocks! have helped bring about a generational change in Iowans regarding water quality and conservation. I would like caring about the environment and understanding the responsibility each person, community, and farm has in maintaining water quality to be natural for every Iowan.

In closing…
ILF has taken the bull by the horns to get people involved and increase knowledge about conservation. The farmer-to-farmer outreach approach has been a critical and successful part of the program that should help it continue to flourish.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

A Conservation Chat with Matt Russell

Conservation Chat Header

The Conservation Chat podcast was back this week with a brand new episode! On this week’s Chat, host Jacqueline Comito sat down to discuss climate change and faith with Matt Russell, the Executive Director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light and a fifth generation Iowa farmer. Russell travels the state of Iowa to have faith-based conversations with fellow farmers about the the role agriculture can play in developing strategies to combat climate change.

Iowa Interfaith Power & Light is a faith-based organization that works statewide with people of all religious faiths, and people who don’t particularly have a religious faith, to develop values-based solutions to the climate crisis. Russell’s appointment as Executive Director has shifted the organization’s focus from being primarily on energy to also include agriculture. He stated that there is a huge opportunity for Iowa farmers and rural communities to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis.

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Matt Russell, photo credit: Iowa Interfaith Power & Light

During his chat with Comito, Russell discussed  how the engagement of farmers and rural community members as innovators and problem solvers would be key in developing solutions to climate change that would have global impacts. Russell pointed out that farmers love stewarding their land and they are constantly solving problems that arise on their farms. By embracing that “problem solver” identity, which is important to many farmers, they can help develop innovative solutions.

Russell also discussed the importance of farmers and rural communities being able to retain the benefits of these innovative solutions. He described moving from an era of scarcity, which he said defines the fossil fuel era, to an era of abundance, where everyone has access to wind and solar energy sources. According to Russell, what we will need to do to solve the climate change crisis will be disruptive, but that disruption will be positive for both farmers and rural communities and will in turn positively impact the entire world.

To hear more about Russell’s faith-based work connecting agriculture to the solution of the climate crisis, listen to the podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

 

Faces of Conservation: Rob Stout

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.


ROB STOUT
Farmer-Partner with Iowa Learning Farms

Rob Stout has been farming near West Chester, Iowa, since graduating from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1978. Rob has demonstrated high levels of interest in conservation and water quality and has gotten involved in a variety of efforts to advocate for improvements. This has extended to his own farming choices which have included no-till for many years as well as participation in multiple research studies with ISU.

What has been your involvement and role with ILF?
I started working with the Iowa Learning Farms team in 2006. The ILF commitment to creating a Culture of Conservation resonated with my own interest in achieving water quality improvement through agricultural practices.

We got in on the first year of the long-term cover crop study and I’m proud to say we recently reported our tenth year of data. But it didn’t take me 10 years to see the benefits. The only parts of my farm fields not in cover crops now are the four test strips I keep for comparison in the ILF study.

The farmer-to-farmer communications element of the ILF outreach is very effective, and I’ve hosted field days, invited friends and neighbors to learn about conservation techniques, and volunteered to speak at ILF-sponsored events and meetings.

Why did you get involved with ILF?
Previously, I had been involved in several ISU research projects to help learn and improve farming techniques. I was also already involved in water quality initiatives. I saw working with ILF as an opportunity to learn more and work with others interested in water quality improvement.

The Culture of Conservation concept captured my interest. The ILF approach to research and outreach fit well with my own passion for learning and doing more to protect and promote the natural ecosystem through better agricultural practices.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t think I individually changed the ILF program, but I’ve always been pleased with the genuine interest they’ve shown in learning from farmers through listening to – and acting upon – feedback and ideas from the farmers. Through hosting and participating in field days, showing others the application of conservation practices, and joining in farmer-to-farmer interactions, I think I’ve provided valuable feedback and helped open new ears to the messages of ILF.

I’ve learned a lot from my involvement with ILF. I loved doing research when I was at ISU, and participating with ILF gives me a chance to continue learning while staying involved in research efforts.

I’ve also grown in my understanding of conservation and water quality issues. In 1983 I was doing no-till and thought I was doing everything I could. I initially thought of conservation simply as erosion control. The ILF cover crop study helped broaden my perspective and knowledge about practices that have changed the way I approach farming and conservation. ILF helped me to become an advocate and a voice of experience for farmers who may be interested in learning about the research from someone who has done it.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
A favorite memory is of a field day we were hosting for ILF. As often happens in Iowa, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, and we had torrential rains dropping some 3.5 inches on the morning of the event. We quickly cleared the shop to make room for the participants and were able to have a great experience. However, I think the rainfall simulator in the Conservation Station trailer didn’t need to use its own water supply that day!

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I care about the environment and the future of our agricultural-based economy. Everyone, including farmers, must take responsibility and do their part to help reduce nitrates in our water. I think the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy‘s goals are critical for the future of the state.

I’ve been learning about watersheds and water quality since the early 2000s when I joined a farmer-led watershed group working to restore a local impaired creek. We secured grants to install bioreactors and a saturated buffer, implemented buffer strips along creeks, and took other positive steps to improve the watershed. To me, this kind of on-the-ground action is a core element to creating the Culture of Conservation which will benefit all Iowans.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Jerry DeWitt

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.


JERRY DeWITT
Former Director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
When Iowa Learning Farms first started, I was officed next door to Mahdi Al-Kaisi and thought the ILF approach was quite creative and a great idea for improving conservation outreach and education. In 2006 I became directly involved as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (continuing in that role until 2010). Although I wasn’t part of the initial formation of ILF, I was there during the time when things really took off and the team developed a range of programs and components that took things well beyond the traditional extension-type methodology.

What things did you find to be unique about ILF?
As a seasoned administrator, I’ve always liked to take the approach of providing an organization with structure and foundation, but letting the experts drive the outcomes. With ILF this worked out really well. The team included faculty and staff from different departments, yet when we all gathered to talk about program ideas and goals, the typical hierarchy was left at the door and everyone was encouraged to contribute as a peer. This collegial working environment was not just effective and productive, it was a lot of fun.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
ILF was, and continues to be, an innovative and effective conservation outreach program. Promoting farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities and putting actionable information and practices into the hands of those that will use them, have proven to be very effective in working toward the ILF goal of Building a Culture of Conservation.

After a decade of extension budget-tightening, which brought about changes in the ability to deliver services, and damaged our relationship with farmers, ILF helped reaffirm my belief in the important role extension plays in Iowa. ILF is a great example of how interdisciplinary organizations can function and succeed.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
Certainly, ILF’s association with the Leopold Center contributed early credibility to the program within the university as well as with partners in Des Moines and around the state. But in very short order, ILF built its own reputation as a strong partner that consistently progressed toward and beyond its goals.

Working with ILF helped to re-establish my belief in the value of farmer-led one-on-one education in the field. Building these interactive conversations with all stakeholders through direct ‘hands in the soil’ efforts is what extension should be all about.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
There are many, but two favorites come to mind. The first was watching a farmer lead a discussion about soil with a group of farmers using nothing more than two buckets of soil and a spade. He awed the audience with his knowledge and his presentation on soil quality in the words of a working farmer.

The second was the weekly ILF meetings. The meetings were efficient, but more importantly they were fun. The sense of energy and passion was palpable and infectious. They were always eager to make a difference. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself when working with such a group.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I co-own a farm that’s been in production for over 100 years. It’s imperative to protect the soil and environment so that my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy and benefit from a productive farm as well.

Iowa has some of the best and most fertile soil in the world. If we lose the advantage of this incredible resource, we’ve effectively lost Iowa. It’s crucial to protect and maintain our collective resources or we will find we’re no longer in the Iowa we love.

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 a totally different landscape in Iowa. USDA-NRCS published a booklet titled “Lines on the Land” which provides a great description of what a diverse and healthy farming landscape can look like: a landscape developed for soil protection, biodiversity, structure, enhanced productivity and cleaner water. If we can make progress toward that ideal, I will be delighted.

In closing…
ILF is showing the people of Iowa and an extension program that’s over 100 years old, how outreach and extension has worked in the distant past and how it should work today—hands-on and farmer-to-farmer.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Ann Staudt

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.

Ann Staudt – Assistant Manager, Iowa Learning Farms and Director, Water Rocks!


What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with Iowa Learning Farms has evolved and grown since I started with the program in 2009. Immediately after joining the team, I was tasked with “doing something exciting with this new trailer”. It was truly a blank slate! From this broad plan, I applied my background in science, engineering, art, and education to help create the Conservation Stations. As the team brainstormed new ideas and suggested different elements, I coordinated the many moving parts, helping to shape things from proverbial lumps of clay into what I think is a pretty effective, unique and visually engaging learning and teaching tool for natural resources and water quality education.

As a part of the ILF management team, I’ve worn a lot of hats, from coordinating our internship and AmeriCorps programs and field data collection, to producing visually engaging infographic-style publications and serving as fiscal officer for our outreach programs. You’ll also find me out and about speaking at conservation field days across the state, covering topics ranging from bioreactors to cover crops and earthworms (I’ve been dubbed “The Worm Whisperer” on more than one occasion).

What is the mission of ILF?
ILF provides a structure and mechanism to create and curate conversations on-the-ground with and between farmers and landowners, bringing key parties together to build bridges between technical approaches, scientific research and farmers operating their businesses. Our field days and workshops provide an excellent opportunity for farmers and landowners to learn from one another about the best ways to integrate soil health and water quality practices into their day-to-day farming operations.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I like to bring creative out-of-the-box approaches to how we communicate issues, practices and solutions. The Conservation Stations are a key example of developing a comprehensive approach to communicating conservation topics and issues. Integrating visual arts and music into projects has afforded me the opportunity to bring my love of these media into our work as well.

One of my favorite contributions to ILF was the idea for The Conservation Pack – using dogs to tell conservation stories. Through The Conservation Pack, we deliver messages about conservation and water quality in a way that’s fun and accessible for kids, to get the next generation excited about the amazing natural resources around us!

I like to think my enthusiasm for teaching and learning comes through in all our efforts, whether that be with farmers at a field day, or with fifth-graders in the classroom. Between 2009 and 2012, ILF received a growing number of requests for youth programming—school presentations and outdoor classrooms—while at the same time, Iowa’s soil and water conservation district commissioners were asking, “Who is educating the next generation on these issues?” The plan for Water Rocks! was hatched, funded and executed at this time, and is now Iowa’s premier youth water education program, in great demand across the state!

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an amazing group of farmers, partners and experts, learning about what they are doing and why. Learning and seeing others learn has been a great inspiration that I attribute to being a part of ILF – this work has definitely had an impact on my life and career, and helped me reconnect with my family farm roots.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Every day could bring a new favorite, but there are several exciting milestones that stand out.

Launching each of the three Conservation Stations have been significant points of pride for me and the program. With the launch of the Conservation Station On the Edge in 2018, I felt we took a huge step forward in diversifying our educational reach in direct response to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the push for specific practices to address nitrate loads and water quality.

I also learned so much and loved working with Cecilia Comito on the Hope for Iowa mixed media murals and messaging in the relaunch of the Big Conservation Station in 2018.

Something that refuels my energy each year is seeing the growth and transformation of our summer interns. Watching these college students learn –witnessing the lightbulb come on in their eyes – and seeing their ability to communicate their knowledge grow with each encounter fills me with hope for the future.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Outreach is critical because we can’t change hearts and minds with science alone. Outreach puts a human face on the science and helps people absorb the message and understand their role in promoting and driving change.

Iowa has amazing natural resources and it’s important to help every person –rural or urban– understand they can have a positive impact on the environment. The state must also continue to nurture and maintain its natural resources to attract and retain Iowa’s human capital. Parks, rivers and streams, and clean water are key contributors to quality of life in both urban and rural communities.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Liz Juchems

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.


Liz Juchems – Conservation Outreach Specialist
Liz Juchems has been part of the Iowa Learning Farms staff since 2013, but her original involvement dates back to 2008 when she first worked as an intern. With multiple ILF internships under her belt, Liz left ISU to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before returning to Ames and ILF.

What is your role with the organization?
ILF has grown over 15 years and my roles and responsibilities have likewise grown and evolved through my years here. As the team’s conservation outreach specialist, my days are filled with planning and delivering field days and workshops for farmers and landowners, coordinating school visits and Conservation Station events, and lots of scheduling and logistics planning!

I’m also deeply involved in ILF’s long-term cover crop research, data collection, and working with farmers and ISU farm managers to establish research plots. Other research related activities include performing economic analysis of cover crops and assessing soil erosion reduction benefits of using cover crops across Iowa. I recently helped author materials for the Emerging Farmers program which includes business planning tools as well as the Talking with Your Landlord publication series.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
My father, Rick Juchems, was one of the early farmer partners with ILF, so I saw the program in its infancy and from the farmer’s perspective. I’ve seen the programming evolve to what it is today and note that ILF has stayed true to its original mission to engage farmers and communities in creating a culture of conservation throughout the state of Iowa. An important part of the program has been face-to-face involvement with farmers through field days and workshops. Not only has this helped build the impact and reputation of ILF, but has also affected how farmers speak with and influence other farmers.

ILF is successful because we engage with multiple communities and constituencies with facts, science, and solutions. Partnering with farmers, service agencies, non-profits, schools, and others helps ILF continuously promote practices and actions that can deliver positive outcomes for all.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I’ve got a “get it done” personality, whether it be planning the fine details for each of the 180 school visits per year that we do with Water Rocks!, hand seeding cover crop research plots, or bringing fresh ideas to how we approach field days and outreach events that have improved quality and impact.

Involvement with ILF definitely helped me choose my education and career paths. I have also learned a lot about problem solving, gained confidence in speaking one-on-one and in front of groups, and deepened my understanding of soil and water conservation practices to help better inform Iowans – farmers, landowners, students, and urban citizens alike.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I grew up on a farm and my parents continue to farm and employ conservation practices in Butler County. My brother and I are future landowners and have a personal stake in preserving the land that our family has worked to care for and create a legacy. I also enjoy outdoor recreation, be it floating down a river or walking through state and city parks, so having clean and healthy public places to enjoy is very important to me.

Iowa’s economy relies heavily on agricultural production. But there are also robust water and wildlife recreation opportunities that contribute to making Iowa a great place to live. Conservation plays a huge role for every Iowan whether they are landowners and ag producers or not.

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 a quarter of Iowa’s crop acres seeded with cover crops. That would mean 6 million acres of cover crops, compared to today’s 880,000 acres of cover crops. While this is still well below the goals proposed in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, it would make a real impact on water quality in Iowa.

I’d also hope that we will have made a mental shift in thinking about conservation, making it a normal way of doing business. And that crop diversity and conservation will have become norms, not afterthoughts that are only considered when time and money are ample.

In closing…
ILF is a trusted resource that’s been around for 15 years. We have tons of expertise in water quality, conservation and agricultural practices. We’re also connected to partners with even more experience and expertise. So, if someone has a question, we can explore and reach out to our network of experts to find an answer.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series: