Land Use Mismatches

Conservation is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea is credited to American forester Gifford Pinchot, but many have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservation is thus, a resource allocation challenge and among our many resources, land is the most finite.

We have a little over 35 million acres of land in Iowa and 82% of it is in production agriculture. In a state with world-class agricultural land values, most of those acres are living up to their potential, growing food and energy, or housing the people that make the system work. The challenge for conservation is to find acres that aren’t living up to their potential—land use mismatches.

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underperforming cropland

We could debate for a lifetime what the highest and best use of an individual parcel is. However, we can more swiftly agree on a lowest common denominator of land use. That calculus settles at the answer to the following question: Is land functioning as a place to either 1) produce a product, 2) make memories, or 3) carry out natural processes?

Some may balk at the implication that we have places failing on all three fronts. These are areas where the current land use is such that the land doesn’t produce some product, like livestock or another commodity, it fails to provide a place for friends and families to gather and make memories, and it falls short of contributing to important natural processes like purifying water or providing habitats for pheasants and bees. However, close inspection of our current landscape reveals otherwise.

Here are a few examples:

Parking Lots
In many cities, parking lots can satisfy two parts of our decision tree by promoting the sale of products and helping create memories. But many city designers get swept up in anticipation of large crowds and have thus paved thousands of acres that are rarely used, often degrading water quality and city environments.

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Parking lot in West Des Moines, Iowa. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Lawns
Studies have estimated that nearly a quarter of urban areas (as well as the areas around farm houses) are lawns. Take a drive across the state and you’ll find neatly manicured lawns spanning the horizon, often taking 20 acres at a time at substantial cost for maintenance without any return of crops, memories, or natural function. Sure, countless memories are made in the lawn, but the first two whole football fields would suffice, while the rest could be reallocated for higher uses like habitat, fruits, or vegetables.


Underperforming Areas of Crop Fields
Mismatches occur in crop fields, too. Soils, topography, and prevailing climate patterns make some areas consistently underperform. Continued inputs create hot spots for water quality issues and fluxes of greenhouse gasses while failing to yield any products in most years.

Wet areas

Barring annexation by Minnesota, Iowa’s 35 million acres are here to stay. Let’s work together to make sure they’re used to their greatest societal (and environmental) potential. That should ensure future generations still find places to grow crops, make memories, and live in a healthy environment.

Adam Janke

Adam Janke is an Iowa Learning Farms team member, Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Program Specialist at Iowa State University.

Starting the Conservation Conversation

Land rental relationships can vary, but many face similar challenges of discussing new conservation practices with your tenant or landlord.  To help begin the conversation, Iowa Learning Farms created a new publication series with talking points and relevant research findings about a variety of conservation practices.

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“A large number of Iowa cropland acres are rented every year; nearly 50% according to recent surveys. These rented acres are greatly influenced by the tenant who farms them,” stated Mark Licht, Iowa State University assistant professor of agronomy and Iowa Learning Farms advisor, who cultivated the idea of the series.

“Landowners are integral in the decision-making process: from leasing structure and understanding farming practices, to being considerate of practice costs and profitability.  With emphasis being placed on nutrient loss reduction and practices ranging from in-field to land use changes, it’s imperative for landowners and tenants to have conversations about reaching production, profitability, and environmental goals,” said Licht. “These conversations can lead to improvements of soil health and water quality, along with meeting productivity and profitability goals.”

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Examples of leasing structures that can be used when adding cover crops included in the series.

As land is passed from one generation to another, or is sold, it can lead to uncertainty for tenants and landowners alike.

strip tillage benefits.png“We developed this series in response to questions we heard from landowners. They wanted to understand how conservation practices such as strip-tillage and cover crops would affect both their land and the tenant’s bottom line before asking them to add these practices to their management plans,” explained Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director.

“While the name of the series is ‘Talking to Your Tenant,’ the reverse is also true. We think tenants will find the series also helpful as they educate their landowners on implementing these important practices,” adds Comito.

The series addresses in-field practices like cover crops, no-tillage and strip-tillage, and edge-of-field practices such as denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands.

If you have ideas for future topics for this series, contact Liz Juchems at ilf@iastate.edu or call 515-294-5429.  The four-part series, along with other print and video resources, are available online. Copies will also be available at field days and workshops, or mailed to you upon request.

Liz Juchems

PEWI: Sandbox for Creativity, Tool for Real Change

Have you ever wondered how changes in land use could affect nutrient reduction, habitat for pollinators or soil health? In this month’s webinar, Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore showed us how to use a new tool, People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI).

Today, we face water quality issues related to soil erosion, nutrient loss, and water runoff in Iowa and beyond. Many of these problems stem from how our landscape has changed over the last two centuries. One way that we can begin to address these problems is to strategically target land use changes at the watershed scale.

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Left: real-world challenges like erosion and water runoff; Right: PEWI shows how land use changes pay off

Schulte Moore and her team created PEWI because they wanted a tool that could show people how changes in land use could affect the surrounding area without having to make risky or costly decisions. PEWI gives users a chance to test-drive changes in land use in a 6,000 acre watershed. Each cell in the simulation represents ten acres. Users can choose from 15 different land uses and can simulate crop rotations over a three year period.

Topography, soil drainage, and flood frequency can all be altered to the user’s preference. The tool also considers the impacts of weather and provides a random distribution of weather patterns based on 30 year averages of precipitation in Iowa.

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PEWI does not require any specific software licenses or computer skills. To use PEWI, all users need is the internet. Users can compare different landscape designs and learn about how different mixes of landscapes or even weather patterns might affect conditions in the real world. PEWI can provide estimates for nutrient runoff and erosion. The tool can also score landscapes and compare how different designs meet different goals.

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You can view an archived version of the webinar here. Other archived webinars from Iowa Learning Farms are available on our website.

For more information about PEWI, visit the PEWI website.  You can try PEWI for yourself here. Lesson plan ideas, user guides, and tutorials are all available at the PEWI website.

Julie Whitson