Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Learn How to Add Cover Crops to Your Farm Lease: Watch the Webinar on May 16

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Watch the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on May 16 at 12:00 p.m. to learn more about how cover crops can be incorporated into a farm lease arrangement. Cover crops are an important tool to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient losses while also improving soil health.

On rented land, adding a conservation practice like cover crops involves the cooperation of both the landowner and tenant. Common questions arise in this situation, including who pays for the practice, how the agreement should be documented and long-term benefits to consider.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, will share best practices for adding cover crops to a farm lease arrangement. Don’t miss it!

DATE: Wednesday, May 16, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Julie Winter

Reaching out to farmers and landowners

In 2017, Iowa Learning Farms hosted 29 conservation field days and workshops across the state with the goal of reaching out to farmers/operators and landowners. Introduced this year was a new component of our evaluation process – the demographic card. The cards helped provide a snapshot of attendees in terms of their age, gender, role in agriculture and information about their farming operation. The cards also capture preferences on timing and topics of interest for future outreach events.

Midway through 2017, we started to use this information to help us plan better events for the second half of the year. We will continue to experiment with time of day and week for field days to see if we can’t get a better diversity of audience.  Total number of demographic cards collected in 2017 was 915.

Who attended ILF field days in 2017?

Eighty-three percent of the field day attendees identified themselves as either farmers/operators or landowners. Two percent of the attendees were new to farming and four percent would like to start farming. In 2018, we want to explore reaching out to those populations better.2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog_attendees

About half of respondents indicate they own over 75% of their land. However, when looking at respondents aged 50 and under, that changes dramatically to 57% of respondents reporting that they own 25% or less of their acres. Faced with many acres changing hands in the next five to ten years, it is important to continue to develop outreach materials and plan events accessible to both landowners and farmer/operators. To reach our goals of increasing conservation implementation, it will be a coordinated effort by both landowners and those who actively farm.

2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog-_ageThe average age of farmers/operators attending ILF field days was 55 years, which was slightly younger than the average age of a farmer in Iowa (57 years). This finding has been consistent in the four years that we have been tracking age information. The average age of landowners attending ILF field days was higher at 64 years.

In general, field day attendees indicated a preference for Wednesday field days that were held in the afternoon or after 5 pm.


What about younger farmers?

Seventeen percent of our field day attendees are 35 years or younger; 80% of attendees are men while 20% are women. On average, farmers in this age group farm 739 acres of row crop land (range of 40 – 3,500 acres) and own 25% of their farmland. Nearly 57% of respondents in this category reported that they did not own any of the acres that they currently farm.

Livestock is an early entry point for the next generation to begin or return to the farm. Nearly 60% of this group reported having livestock compared to 45% of respondents in all age groups who identified as farmer/landowner. These younger attendees indicated a preference for events held on Saturdays (48%) followed by Tuesday-Thursday (42%) after 5 pm (50%).

We in the process of updating the ILF Field Day Toolkit and add these findings to event planning best practices.

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Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems

Webinar Recap: Engaging More Landowners in Conservation Decisions

How do we better engage landowners in conservation decisions if they are not the operator? Our March webinar featured Stan Buman and Amy Dreith of Agren, Inc. Agren has piloted a project called “Conservation Connect” since 2011 in the Raccoon River watershed in Calhoun, Carroll, Sac and Buena Vista counties in Iowa. The outreach campaign featured the “Your Land Report Card.”

“Perhaps the most important product of our recent outreach campaign was the implementation of the ‘Your Land Report Card.’ Just like a report card to gauge performance in school, landowners who requested an assessment received a report card with a letter grade for their property.”       -Amy Drieth, Agren, Inc.

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The project used an “AIDA” pyramid approach – awareness, interest, desire and then action. The stages of AIDA are like rungs of a ladder. The project worked to first build awareness about a potential issue before an action step could be considered.

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Agren initially contacted 2,375 landowners using mailings and phone calls; 7% of those landowners contacted had interest in attending a public meeting, talking over the phone or having a windshield assessment completed for their land. After this step, interested parties had in-person contact with a landowner advisor and then installed or improved a practice.

Watch the webinar to learn more about the Conservation Connect project and how you can get a “conservation check-up” for your land or how you can adapt this project for your own watershed. This model could easily be adapted to work in other watersheds.

To learn more about the project, visit www.absenteelandowners.org. To request an Excel sheet that can be used to generate a “Your Land Report Card” contact Amy Drieth, Agren Marketing  Manager, at amy@agreninc.com.

Watch the webinar here!

Julie Winter

Learn More About Non-Operator Landowner Roles in Conservation: ILF Webinar on March 21

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Conservation Connect, managed by Agren, has initiated direct marketing campaigns to non-operator landowners to build awareness and encourage implementation of conservation practices. Tom Buman, Chief Executive Officer of Agren, and Amy Dreith, Marketing Manager, will co-present about outreach strategies that Agren has used to engage non-operator landowners in natural resources conservation. Part of their outreach to landowners includes the “Your Land Report Card” assessment.

“Report cards are a great tool to use with non-operator landowners who want a check-up, but don’t have the understanding or ability to understand all the detailed metrics,” said Amy Dreith, Marketing Manager for Agren. “It is imperative to demonstrate that there is a problem before there’s interest in a solution.”

DATE: Wednesday, March 21, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Julie Winter

Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.

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Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.

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Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.

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When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:

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Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at casehaub@iastate.edu.

Brandy Case Haub