We’re All In This Together

I grew up in Northeast Iowa on a family farm, where we grow corn, raise cattle and have horses. Growing up, I remember riding around in the tractor with my dad just for the fun of it. Today I still ride in the tractor with my dad, but now I do so having a greater depth of knowledge of farming and conservation as a whole.

As an Agricultural Studies student at Iowa State University, I run into so much diversity through my classes. I get to hear different perspectives on farming, land stewardship, natural resources, ranching, raising livestock, and so much more! I’ve learned a lot and gained new perspectives when it comes to using and managing the land.

I’ve also gained new perspectives through this summer internship with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!, focused on water quality. This summer I have been able to interact with rural and urban community members and teach them about soil and water quality. I visit with active community members who are curious as to what they can do to care for the land we live on.

This summer has really opened my eyes. This internship has motivated me to want to see a change in land management before our water quality gets worse, and I have learned more about how we can all work together to do that.

Consider what you would have seen walking in Iowa two hundred years ago. A pioneer would have walked on Iowa’s land through vast tallgrass prairie, dotted with abundant wetlands and intersected by rivers.

Today, the landscape is vastly different –  I walk around today surrounded by crop fields and larger urban areas. I find it hard to want to go swimming in the rivers today because of the pollutants we have in our waters today. I respect farming and its purpose, but we need to find that balance with farming and land stewardship.

In the last 200 years we have lost 90+% of our wetlands and 99.9% of our prairie in Iowa. Those prairies and wetlands have very important jobs that act as a habitat and a filter for getting rid of possible pollutants. Now, as an agricultural student I understand how chemicals are being used and how much soil is getting exposed. These are two of many pollutants that we find in our water bodies today. We all need to work together and try to eliminate the amount of pollutants that are getting into our water bodies.

This summer I have been able to learn about the multiple conservation solutions we have available to us. In both rural and urban areas we are trying to reach out to landowners and introduce them to practices that can eliminate some of the pollutants in our water. During this internship, we discuss how buffer strips, wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, cover crops and no till can lead to improvements in water quality. I have also learned that urban communities can help out by putting in permeable pavers and installing green roofs. These practices are great ways to start protecting our soil and water.However, one big challenge is that the improvements we want to see will not happen overnight because they take money and time. Not only that, but it takes everybody’s help to see a change. It is all of our responsibility to make sure we are doing what we can to prevent polluted water bodies and protect our great Iowa soil. We’re all in this together!

Taylor Kuehn

Taylor Kuehn, a New Hampton native, is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. In the fall, she will be starting her senior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Studies.

Every Little Bit Counts

What do you know about earthworms? Before this internship, I knew a few basics: they’re useful for fishing and they live underground. But, what do these small creatures have to do with water quality and soil health? It turns out that they are very good indicators. Today I’m going to touch more on our most recent project for this summer, earthworm counting, and how it has shown me that every little bit of information counts.

Before we start each research project, the other interns and I all sit down with our supervisors and discuss what the projects are and how we’re supposed to go about them. When this project was presented to us, I was more than a bit skeptical about how this could help us. So far, through the two weeks of earthworm counting that we have completed, that skepticism I originally had has faded away.

LEFT: I am looking for the middens within the area of our research point. RIGHT: Cutting the cover crop and removing residue to find the middens.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to take a look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. We count the middens, the tops of the worms’ holes where the organic matter is pulled into the tunnel, closely examining the soil surface looking for the mounds they leave behind. When we think we found one, we dig with a pair of scissors to look at the underside of the midden and find the tunnel. The main variable that we look at is cover crops – are there observable differences in the number of earthworms between strips with cover crops and those without? Earthworms are very good for our soil and the more we have, the better the soil health of that area is.

One of our other interns, Kaleb, found a midden while we were at a farm in southwest Iowa.

The last time that I went home, my cousin, who is in 6th grade, asked me what some of the projects were that I was working on and I told her that I was doing earthworm counting. She didn’t sound very impressed when that’s what I told her, so I decided to have her complete the experiment herself at home. After about a week of testing the fields at home I had my cousin tell me any conclusions that she came up with. She told me that in the places with cover crops, the number of earthworms was higher than places with no cover crops — which is the same exact results we have been getting in the research plots across the state. But, that wasn’t all. To me, the best part about all of this was that I allowed a 6th grader to conduct an experiment that can provide important information about soil health in about 30 minutes of instructions.

Research can come from anywhere and anything and the impact it can have is limitless. It also appeals to me in that it allows for all generations to be involved with the same issues. You can have a 6th grader counting earthworms to find out more about soil health while at the same time you can have a farmer taking core samples to test for the same thing. Research is a big part of my internship, but it’s also a big part of the future. When understanding complex issues such as soil health, every little bit of information counts, and I’m super excited that I get to experience all of this research firsthand this summer!

Donovan Wildman

Donovan Wildman is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wildman grew up near West Branch, IA (Clear Creek Amana High School). In the fall, he will be starting his sophomore year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering with an emphasis in Land and Water Resources.

Inspiration through Exploration

Today’s guest blog post comes from student intern Kaleb Baber, majoring in Agronomy and minoring in Geology at Iowa State University. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO, where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’re thrilled to have Kaleb back for a second summer in the Water Resources Internship Program!

For every classroom visit, the Water Rocks! team makes sure to leave time for students to ask us questions. On a visit near the beginning of my internship this summer, we had just finished presenting a lesson on watersheds when a student posed a question that caught me off guard. He asked, “What inspires you to do this?”

My coworkers and I all stared at each other like deer in headlights. It was a simple question, but one none of us had given much thought to. What did inspire me? Why did I care so much about water resources? Panic began to set in. I wanted to give a thoughtful answer to the student, but my mind was drawing a blank. With a room full of fifth graders starting up at me, I finally came up with something.

When I think about water, some of my favorite memories come to mind. I love being outdoors, so naturally I am outside whenever I have the chance. Growing up, it was a summer tradition for my family to go fishing in Ontario. I did not realize it at the time, but looking back now I realize that those family vacations when I was little helped shape my interests going forward.

Since those fishing trips, I have been fortunate enough to travel to some truly amazing places. In some places, like Yosemite Valley, the role of water in the landscape is obvious as waterfalls tumble over the towering walls of granite forged by massive glaciers. In other places, like the endless red sandstone of southern Utah, water is rarely seen. However, its effects have made a lasting impression by sculpting incredible rock formations through weathering and erosion.

From the secluded lakes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the powerful Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon, water and its influences are all around us. Water is one of our most important natural resources, and I firmly believe that the best way to understand that is to go experience it firsthand. I am so grateful to have had these adventures, and I know for a fact that my passion for the outdoors began as a child on my family’s fishing trips to Ontario.

So to answer the student’s question, what inspires me to intern for Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms is the memories I have made thanks to our water resources. Those memories inspire me to go outside and get up close and personal with nature. They inspire me to do my part in conserving our natural resources. And most of all, they inspire me to share the importance of clean, healthy water with others in hopes that they will make memories of their own.

Kaleb Baber

 

Pollinator Power

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Megan Koppenhafer, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Lawn care consumes many families as the weather warms and things start to green up. This year as you foster your lawn we would like to encourage responsible lawn care to support our precious pollinators. Pollinators help keep our crops and gardens growing. You may have heard a lot of conversation about planting pollinator gardens to provide habitat and food for these little critters. These gardens are a great solution for protecting our pollinators, but a more holistic approach is even better.

Lawn mowing frequency was explored in a study titled To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards by Susannah B. Lerman, Alexandra R. Contosta, Joan Milam, and Christofer Bang.

The researchers found that mowing the lawn less frequently, every two or three weeks as opposed to every week, provided more grass biomass and flower abundance for the bees in an herbicide free yard. Three weeks provide a more ideal diversity in bee species, while two week mowing regimens led to the highest overall abundance of bees.

What does all this mean for the average lawn grower? Well, it shows that there is a low cost alternative for those lawn mowers looking to preserve bee habitat. Not applying herbicides or insecticides will benefit those bees by preserving the habitat and by directly removing a pollinator exterminator. Here’s your excuse to mow a little less often and enjoy the spontaneous lawn flowers a little more!

Example of a typical yard from the Lerman, et al. study. The minimal landscaping and bare patches in the lawns were common. The yard sign explained project objectives and informed neighbors about their role in improving the sustainability of their neighborhoods.

For more information please check out the full article, To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards, by Lerman et. al. Also, check out this Proper Lawn Mowing guide by ISU Extension and Outreach to keep your yard looking green when you do go to mow it!

Megan Koppenhafer

Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling

Deepening the Conversation around Conservation

Here at Water Rocks! we are always looking for new ways to reach the youth in Iowa, striving to deepen the conversation around conservation in new and exciting ways. Summer camp is an experience that provides youth a chance to connect to nature in a new way. When I was a camper and later a camp counselor, I saw first hand how camp changes interactions and respect for nature in a positive way. Water Rocks! day camps provide our team an opportunity to partner with extension youth coordinators, naturalists, and other environmental educators to offer the camp experience with a Water Rocks! twist!

We kicked things off with our first Water Rocks! day camp in March at the beautiful McFarland Park Nature Center. Students from Ames and the surrounding area arrived bright and early on March 8th and kicked off the day getting to know each other and getting acquainted with the concept of a watershed. We had students as young as 8 and as old as 12 join us. From the classroom we moved into nature to experience a watershed in real life. This is just one advantage to a full day camp: a way to turn the 2D into 3D.

Students designing their watershed!

Students did a great job transferring what they had learned to the landscape. They were able to determine where the water would flow at different points on the landscape. We were lucky to be surrounded by a small stream and a pond which gave them a visual of the bodies of water that the runoff could drain or shed to.

Jack and students walking the ridgeline between two small watersheds.

The highlight of the day was seeing the students work together on their service project. The Ames Smart Watersheds program donated a rain barrel for us to paint. It was on display at the Ames Eco-Fair on April 21st. Being able to participate in a real life solution to some of our watershed management concerns, such as flooding, helped to make our conversation about conservation relevant to their impact on the land.

At the end of the day the students had the opportunity to see if they could clean the water after it had been polluted. They got to choose what they polluted the water with and then were challenged with how to clean it up. Students noted how difficult it was to clean the water totally. Many filtered the water through several types of filters. We even set up a sand filter to mimic how nature filters our water as it moves through the soil profiles. The students recognized the importance of keeping our water clean to begin with, given how difficult the cleanup job was after the water had gotten dirty.

Students attempt to filter out the pollutants using coffee filters, panty hose, sand and other tools.

In all, students had a blast getting dirty and learning, too! Here at Water Rocks! we are looking forward to our next day camps coming up this summer, where we will get to partner with awesome county naturalists and educators with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach!

Megan Koppenhafer

Studio Magic

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Megan Koppenhafer, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

When I was young, I dreamed of being a singer. My friends and I would play “American Idol” for hours. As I became more interested in science I realized I wanted to teach people about science through music. This direction was largely inspired by Bill Nye the Science Guy; he had it all, it seemed, between the music and the education.

As I went through my school years I focused on science more and more. Finally, I decided to go to school for Environmental Science but I still wanted to be in that recording studio! Who knew after two college degrees, neither in music, I would end up getting to live a little bit of that childhood dream when I joined the Water Rocks! team as an AmeriCorps service member! In my position I help with Water Rocks! Assemblies and we use music to help teach science across the state of Iowa. We were in the process of developing the new pollinator-themed assembly when I got the opportunity to come out to the studio to record.

Me singing in the studio — trying to hit the right notes and keep tempo, oh my!

When you walk up to the small chicken coop studio in the middle of a cornfield you imagine it will be quaint and, well, Iowan. Junior’s Motel, the studio, is anything but. When you step through the door you are transported to an Elvis recording room type atmosphere.

Todd rocking out in the eclectic sound proof instrumental room. Note the “A Christmas Story” style lamp in the right corner.

There are moments of history covering the walls as you stare, face to face, at The Beatles and other rock group album covers. The legendary Kirk Kaufman, of Hawks: a rock group from the early 80s, runs the studio and records most of the songs for Water Rocks!. He says his inspiration for his studio came from recording sessions he did all over the country with his band.

I shook hands with Kirk and “fangirled” a bit about how cool the studio was and how exciting it was to finally meet the legend himself. Kirk is a conversational but quiet fellow who is definitely a music nerd to his core. Listening to him and Todd talk about old gigs and bass woes made me feel like I was a part of a band, which I guess I kind of am now!

Kirk at the soundboard marking which track would hold which part.

The recording process involves several steps. First, the instrumental tracks were laid. I listened intently, trying to get my part perfect before it was my turn to record. When it came time to lay the vocal tracks down, I was intrigued that we all had to be in separate spaces. Todd explained this was so each mic could be adjusted to pick up our voices in the best way possible. Rarely had I sung with such a short time between practice and performance, and I was definitely a little nervous.

Luckily, in the recording studio, you have an opportunity to fix mistakes. All of the different parts were recorded on different tracks so it would be easy to manipulate a mistake in one track while leaving the other good ones intact. The tracks are all recorded on a big role of tape which runs through a magnet while you are recording. The magnet arranges tiny metal particles as it goes, which is then output as music.

The recording tape on the left and the soundboard on the right with the tracks identified in dry erase marker.

After recording all three of our new songs, Todd made sure we had a vocal and an instrumental copy of each so that we could use them in our new Water Rocks! Pollinator Assembly. The process of creating music with a message I care very deeply about was an incredibly rewarding experience. Six year old Megan felt very much like an American Idol.

Be sure to follow us on Soundcloud to hear some of our new Pollinator Assembly songs. For more songs created in “Junior’s Motel” studio check out www.waterrocks.org and go to the Music Videos tab, or check out our YouTube channel WaterRocksISU to see full music videos as they are released.

Megan Koppenhafer