4-H Day Camp Adventure

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.

Friday April 19 was truly an adventure. Jack and I were helping out with the Outdoor Adventure Day Camp down by Chariton, put on by ISU Extension and Outreach and the AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach Program.

Our day of adventures started bright and early. We had around a 2 hour drive ahead of us and that may seem long to most but we were used to it. As we started our journey I turned on some music to help make the drive more enjoyable. This drive consisted of going south along the interstate, some other major highways and even some back roads. After the 2 hours had come to an end, we had finally arrived at our first destination of the day, Pin Oak Marsh, which is right outside of Chariton. Now we were a little bit early, so after we hauled our things inside we had time to look around the nature center and see all that it had to offer. There were turtles and fish but there were also plenty of different taxidermied animals. Also along the wall were many different fur pelts.

The Outdoor Adventure campers were in 3rd-5th grades. When all the students arrived on site, the program commenced and we started out with some ice breaker games to help everyone get to know one another. After the ice breakers, the students were shown the stream table. The stream table shows how a stream moves based off of the landscape that is around it. The students then went on a nature walk while Jack and I set up the materials for our “We All Live in a Watershed” presentation.

When the students returned from their hike, we started our watershed presentation where we went over the importance of watersheds and how it’s what we do on the land that affects our water. By the end of the presentation the students understood that many of Iowa’s rivers are heavily polluted because of all of our human development. We also explained to them different things that we can all do to help hopefully clean up some of our rivers.

Now that Jack and I had finished our presentation, we had to pack up all our materials and head to our second location of the day, which was Stephens State Forest (about 20 minutes from Pin Oak Marsh). As we got to the forest, we ended up getting lost and had no idea where we were at or where we were going (despite following Google maps for directions). This day was an adventure in many ways! So as we were parked for a few minutes trying to figure out what we were going to do, I pulled up a map of the park. The map did not help initially, but we did know that we had to turn around because we were at a dead end! As we made our way back from where we came, we came across someone who was able to tell us where we were and how to get to where we needed to be. So we finally made it to our destination, AND we were still on time!

The students at the Stephens State Forest Day Camp were in 6th-12th grades, with their camp focused on state parks, nature exploration, art, and photography. While Jack and I were setting up our materials, the group that we were going to be teaching went on a nature hike to take photos. The group was super late getting back – yet another adventure! — so we had to shorten our presentation down a lot. Water Rocks! folks are really good at being flexible and adapting. Even with the shorter time, we could tell that the students still had fun and got a lot of information from our presentation. After wrapping up, we packed up all of our materials and put them back in our van. We then started our 2 hour journey back to Ames where our day of adventure began. This just goes to show that every day is a new adventure with youth outreach and Water Rocks!.

Joshua Harms

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.


 

Faces of Conservation

Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) celebrates 15 years of service to Iowa in 2019. Building a Culture of Conservation is a team effort—farmers, landowners, researchers, and agency partners all working together to identify and implement best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.

As part of this year of celebration, we are launching a new Faces of Conservation blog series. Tune in on Tuesdays, when we will be sharing stories and profiles of key contributors to ILF over the years, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

The series kicks off tomorrow with a profile of our own cropping systems specialist Mark Licht.

Water Rocks! Refreshes and Streamlines Online Presence

New county map feature, simplified calendar of events, and a fresh navigation experience optimized for mobile devices and tablets, highlight website updates

Water Rocks!, a unique, award-winning, statewide water education program, recently revealed its updated website at www.waterrocks.org. The site contains a wealth of resources regarding environmental programs, farm and agriculture outreach, conservation efforts across Iowa, and interactive learning activities. The update includes more intuitive navigation and the addition of an interactive county map, calendar of appearances and events, and optimization to ensure compatibility with mobile devices, tablets, and popular web browsers.

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“After six years, and considering feedback from users ranging from elementary school students to retirees, we decided it was time to take advantage of the latest in web technology to redo the website from the ground up,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The new navigation buttons on the home page make it simpler for different constituent groups to find what they want, while continuing to provide the resources, videos, games, and music Water Rocks! is known for.”

With the help of Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm based in Urbandale, Iowa, Water Rocks! addressed navigation challenges that had been observed – particularly with young users – by organizing all information and resources for teachers and students under high-visibility banners at the top of the home page.

Visitors to www.waterrocks.org will still find award-winning videos, music, games, and activities geared for all ages. There is also an area of the site dedicated to the fleet of Conservation Station trailers used by Water Rocks! for outreach and education.

The new site also sports an interactive county map feature which enables visitors to click on any county in the state of Iowa to see what Water Rocks! and Conservation Station activities have taken place over the past several years.

In addition, the website provides a single calendar for all Water Rocks! and Conservation Station appearances at schools, fairs, and special events throughout the year. Teachers and administrators are encouraged to review the calendar to see where Water Rocks! will be, and to use the simple online visit request to plan for a visit to their campus.

“The Water Rocks! team is excited about this new portal which makes it easy for visitors to learn about conservation, environmental issues, water quality, and choices that make a difference for all Iowans,” concluded Staudt.

Check it out today at www.waterrocks.org/!

Hanging Up the Name Tag

All things must come to an end, and AmeriCorps service is no different. In the middle of the winter, going to classrooms on the daily, it never seems that it will end. But, that’s not a bad thing. You continue teaching students many lessons: we all live in a watershed; keep the soil covered; wetlands provide a pitstop for migratory animals; just one block could cause the tower of biodiversity to collapse; pollinators are a really big deal.

And then, you look at the calendar. August. Your last days of service are here. How did it come so fast? You don’t know. What you do know is that the familiarity of your classroom visits, assemblies, and day camps is gone. It’s time to be thrust back out into another unfamiliar experience, not unlike your first day a year ago. But, this time is different. This time, you have the lessons you have learned on your AmeriCorps journey to guide you.

These are the thoughts I had as I came to the full realization that my service was about to end. Over this last year, I have learned so much about conservation, Iowa, responsibility, and communication from my service time in Ames. These are some of the most important I learned throughout my journey.

Own the Problem – Don’t Blame
or Make Excuses

I and the rest of the Water Rocks! team had the privilege to read Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out: The Nine Communication Rules You Need to Succeed by Loretta Malandro, a book that teaches different guidelines to improve your communication, whether it be in the workplace or even in your day-to-day life. While all nine rules are important, this is the one that stood out to me the most. We tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, either by blaming someone else or making an excuse about the circumstances. The solution is simple in concept – just own the problem and accept when you made a mistake – but it’s hard for us to take responsibility for our actions. This chapter struck a chord with me as I, like many other people, got defensive whenever I made a mistake, and I took a lot from this chapter with me into my day-to-day life.

Sometimes, you Just Have to Say “Oh, Well.”

This lesson did not come from a book, but from my coworker Todd. In the hectic life that is travelling to schools and assemblies, sometimes things don’t work out how you planned. A wrong turn is taken en route, the contact person tells you the wrong school building, an iPad is left behind. It can be easy to stress out over these things as they come up. However, stressing out after the fact does little to fix the situation. The best thing to do is take a breath and say “Oh, well.” I always admired Todd’s ability to keep himself relaxed and away from stress, and I aspire to have that ability.

Cedar Rapids is in the East

This is something I did not know for certain before travelling all over the state with Water Rocks!. Before AmeriCorps, I lived the stereotypical midwestern life where I only knew my county and the counties around me, not knowing where anything else in the state was. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t know what quadrant of the state most areas were! AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to travel all over the state, and even into South Dakota for assemblies twice.

This is a map showing all the locations I travelled to throughout the year. I went all over the state, from Decorah, to Sioux City, to Council Bluffs (many times!). Travelling my home state gave me the chance to become more familiar with it than I’d ever been, and I’m glad I got the chance.

AmeriCorps may be ending, but a new journey is beginning. I am now starting my first semester at DMACC in Ankeny to begin my Video Production Diploma. It is a good fit for me and I hope to meet many new friends when I get there. Even with my completed service, I will take everything I learned with me. And blow people away when I tell them Cedar Rapids is, in fact, in the East.

Jack Schilling

Jack Schilling is now completing his year of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since September 2017. Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan (who you’ll be hearing from soon) — many thanks!

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt