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

A Conservation Chat with the 2016 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year, Susan Kuennen Massman

Susan Kuennen Massman describes herself as having “a lot of irons in the fire.” Massman’s many roles include farm manager, nurse, professor, Master Gardener, artist, award-winning basket weaver, conservationist and volunteer. Recently added to this list is 2016 winner of the Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year Award, presented by the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners at their 70th Annual Conference in August.

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Iowa Learning Farms Director Jacqueline Comito sat down with Massman at her home in northeast Iowa, where she manages 160 acres of farmland. During this most recent Conservation Chat, Massman describes her last six years of living and working on a farm as living out a life-long dream. Massman waited forty years to be able to break into farming before she and her late husband purchased their Fayette County land in 2010.

Massman sought to educate herself about modern farming practices, and participated in Annie’s Project to help her achieve that goal (Annie’s Project is a nonprofit that seeks to educate farm women and strengthen their roles in modern farm enterprises). Conservation has long been on her mind when it came to being a steward of her land. Massman attributes her motivation and commitment to conservation to a book by Rachel Carson entitled “Silent Spring,” where the author says, “It is not half so important to know as it is to feel when teaching children about nature.” Massman builds on this to say:

We need to teach children how important the land is, and how important our plants and flowers are, [how they] benefit us, and the whole world. You know, the spider web effect; like one thing connects to another. So it’s teaching- not only children, but my own children, how important this land is to us.

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Massman now manages her land to include a corn/soybean/alfalfa rotation in an effort to keep from depleting the soil. About her choice to plant alfalfa, she says:

Alfalfa has one of the deepest root systems of any green vegetation out there, and I knew that was going to hold the topsoil. So to me, it was a win-win: that I could plant something that was productive, that I could earn some money from, and to conserve as much topsoil as possible. There was a definite impact there. In places in the field where I saw that there were deep ditches and gullies, they weren’t there anymore. So I knew that I was doing something right.

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To hear more about the admirable efforts to farm in a conservation-minded way, check out this Conservation Chat with Susan Kuennen Massman!

Brandy Case Haub