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
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.
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: