Navigating the return of the next generation to the family farm

Chris and Kristi BlogThe most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast provides a candid look at how one father/daughter duo is navigating the addition of another household to the farm business, the joys and challenges that come with working with family, and the mutual goals of caring for the land. In Episode 34, host Jacqueline Comito met with Chris Foss and Kristi Heffelmeier at their farm in Northeast Iowa to chat about their whole farm approach to conservation.

The farm has been in the family for many generations, with Chris first farming with his father.  Kristi grew up on the farm and now lives with her husband at her grandparents place nearby. However, her path to farming was a winding one – first a degree in art education, then a Masters in Business and working in the corporate business world, next up was teaching middle school art in Texas before returning home to the family farm in 2013.

When she returned to Iowa, Kristi understood she had a lot to learn and wasn’t ready to take on a large financial stake in the farm.  Through open communication, she and Chris landed on an hourly payment rate arrangement that helped support the addition of another household. This agreement allows them flexibility to grow and learn from each other while utilizing the skills and passions each of them bring to the partnership.

Together they have a worked with the local watershed projects in Black Hawk and Tama Counties to maintain and add new conservation practices to the operation.  They are nearly 100% strip-tillage (corn), no-tillage (soybeans), and cover crops on 850 of their 2,200 acres to help protect the soil. They have also installed and maintained waterways and a bioreactor that treats about 80 acres along Miller Creek. The bioreactor is being monitored by Shane Wulf as part of Miller Creek Watershed Project that was featured in Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat.

Kristi and Puppy BlogKristi’s return to the farm, also meant the return of livestock – although not the variety we may be used to!  She and her husband breed competition Labrador dogs and sell them all over the country.  And although Chris had gotten used to the quiet without livestock, he has taken a shining to Hogan, Kristi’s indoor pet.

Be sure to tune into this episode to learn more about how they are managing the transition of a child’s return to the farm and the benefits of working together to care for our natural resources. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Liz Juchems

Working Within Our Current System: A Conservation Chat with Eileen Kladivko

Cover kladivko_creditHost Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Eileen Kladivko, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University and founding member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), for the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast.

Eileen Kladivko’s chat covered many issues areas that she has studied for decades surrounding soil health, cover crops, earthworms and drainage. To start the chat off, Eileen wanted to make something clear: drainage is essential.

“I like to remind people that we wouldn’t be growing crops at all on some of our most productive lands in the Midwest if we didn’t have tile drainage.”

Tile drainage is essential if we want to farm much of the land that we currently farm – especially in Iowa. While there are benefits to tile drainage, a drawback of the system is the movement of nitrate with water that flows out of tile lines and into the surface water. How can we begin to solve this challenge? Mimic nature and the system that we replaced, Eileen suggested.

We’ve got agriculture, we’ve got lots of human beings here, and we want to be productive. We want to mimic nature where we can, but we’re not going back to pre-settlement conditions. That’s impossible. But let’s see if there are some things we can learn from what the vegetation cycles were, and the hydrology cycles, that can help us with our current system.”

Adding cover crops to our current system is one way to address our nitrate challenge and to mimic the natural vegetation cycle that once existed on the land. Cover crops have seen a steady increase in popularity, and for some farmers, the desire to grow something comes naturally.

A subject that Eileen Kladivko is most passionate about is soil health. Soil health is a popular topic because we want our soil to function to full capacity for crop production, but we understand relatively little about the soil biology that can shape the physical and chemical properties of soil. In recent years, the soil health conversation is shifting to research about soil biology. The downside is that soil health research takes time.

“That’s one of the challenges with the whole soil health thing . . . we’re trying to look at some of the commercial soil health tests that are available right now and see which of those might actually be able to detect changes with time in some of our Indiana sites. It’s quite challenging because the tests are quite variable. Soil health does take time to improve, and sometimes those tests just don’t show it over the short term.”

Without lab tests to show short-term gains in soil health, there is one indicator that can give farmers a short-term pat on the back: earthworms! Earthworm populations are highest in systems with limited tillage and high levels of crop residue. Eileen has spent much of her career counting earthworms.

“I didn’t think that was going to be a long-term commitment of mine,” said Eileen. Decades later, Eileen has developed a foundation for research on the physical and chemical properties of soil as they relate to soil health and good soil biology.

What are your chances of having a high earthworm population within a system that includes tillage? Not likely. Switching to no-till and adding a cover crop will increase your chances to see early signs of soil health and good soil biology before other commercial soil health tests are able to show results. Iowa Learning Farms has seen similar results when counting earthworms under different tillage and cover crop systems here in Iowa.

Listen to the full Conservation Chat episode! If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson

Podcast spotlights a pioneer of precision conservation

Precision agriculture is a unique, emerging field, and it is certainly one that is rapidly evolving before our very eyes. The complex world of remote sensing, big data, ag informatics, statistics, and on-the-ground farm management means there’s a whole lot of data out there … how do we make sense of it all?

Meet Dr. Amy Kaleita. High energy, eternal optimist. Agricultural engineer. Lover of learning. Passionate teacher and researcher. Soil Whisperer (or some might say Soil Listener).

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Kaleita’s work at Iowa State University is truly at the intersection of conservation, information technology, and the world of precision agriculture. While precision ag technology is commonly used by farmers and crop consultants across the state of Iowa today in such applications as nutrient management (variable rate technology) and precision seed placement, Kaleita is on the forefront of the next generation of precision ag – precision conservation. Kaleita’s research efforts range from studying different sensor technologies, including both embedded [contact] sensors, such as in-the-ground soil moisture sensors, as well as non-contact sensors [data collected from drones], to optimizing the layering of those different technologies to obtain the best data sets possible.

However, collecting the data is just the start —  the real challenge emerges in sorting through huge amounts of data and trying to make sense of it all!  Which is just where Kaleita comes into play, evaluating and analyzing the vast amounts of data collected in the field. She strives to identify patterns and linkages that can help us better understand the relationships between such factors as crop yield variability, precipitation, soil moisture, hydrology, transport of dissolved contaminants (such as nitrate-nitrogen), and on-the-ground conservation practices. As Kaleita puts it, a big part of her job is trying to “understand uncertainty.”

She goes on to explain, “In an agricultural context, there are so many sources of unexplained variability … things that you do on the landscape that cause results, but they cause different responses under different conditions, and so how do those conditions change over time and space?

“The soil is very different, and it changes over time, and it certainly changes over space. The rain, and the air temperature, and the wind speed, and all of that stuff cause responses in the crop and they cause the interaction between the crop and the soil to change. And so [we’re] trying to understand all of the things that cause those differences, and then trying to design systems that can be responsive to that variability.”

Tune in to Episode 27 of the Conservation Chat for more of this fascinating conversation with Dr. Amy Kaleita!  You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.

Ann Staudt

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

 

Chatting about river ecology, restoration, and policy

Labor Day weekend is just around the corner… planning to spend any time out on one of Iowa’s rivers?  The latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast features an interview with Molly Hanson, Executive Director of the nonprofit river advocacy group Iowa Rivers Revival.

Listening to this podcast, you will quickly hear how Hanson’s energy and enthusiasm runneth over – she is extremely passionate about the environment, ecology, and education … oh, and turtles, too!

ConservationChat-Hanson(angle)Iowa Rivers Revival is a statewide advocacy group, working to restore Iowa’s river ecosystems to a healthier state of functioning. That may be through streambank stabilization work, in-stream work, and/or dam modification/mitigation. River restoration also involves working with citizens across the state – talking with farmers and landowners about in-field conservation practices, and working with urban residents to build awareness of issues like stormwater.

“Rivers are conveyor belts of water and soil – that’s what they are, and they’re constantly moving both of those things.”

Hanson comes to IRR from the naturalist/county conservation world, and it’s clear that education also continues to be a passion of hers.

“The education, especially of kids, is such a key piece. They’ve gotta get out there and see it for themselves and have their ‘aha’ moment … then they’re way more likely to care and to take care of it. Science teachers, mentors, family, grandparents: we’ve got to get kids outside!”

So I mentioned turtles earlier …  One of Hanson’s other projects has involved working with IRR and other conservation groups to push for new legislation to protect four different species of aquatic turtles (snappers, spiny softshell, smooth softshell, and painted turtles).  Many of these turtles are being commercially harvested and sent overseas, with no protected seasons or catch limits in our state. Hanson helped to champion a bill that will put regulations in place to help protect these species – every species has an important role to play in terms of biodiversity and overall ecosystem health!

Tune in to Episode 23 of the Conservation Chat to hear more of this engaging conversation with Molly Hanson! Download or play this podcast and others at www.conservationchat.org.

Ann Staudt

Chatting with Seth Watkins: Curiosity, Creativity and Happy Cows

The latest episode in the Conservation Chat podcast series features an engaging interview with Seth Watkins of Pinhook Farm, near Clarinda in southwest Iowa. Watkins has a 600-head cow-calf enterprise and takes a whole farm approach to conservation: rotational grazing, wetlands, late season calving, and row crops integrated with prairie strips and cover crops.

Program Director Jacqueline Comito interviewed Watkins earlier in May after we had completed a farm tour-slash-field trip with a small group of Corning Elementary students (read more about it in our blog post ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip).

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This Conservation Chat episode is enjoyable and thought-provoking throughout– it’s a fascinating discussion about agricultural production, sustainability, curiosity, continual learning, and striving to make rural Iowa a better place to live.

“When you invest in the land, your community prospers.”

What really stood out to me is Seth’s spirit of innovation, determination, and constant learning. Grandson of Jessie Field Shambaugh, widely known as the Mother of 4-H, Seth is truly a modern-day Renaissance man!

“So much of what I’ve learned, and I continue to love to read different aspects of history, economics, things about art, about thinking… those are what have really driven the success of my farm business.”

Listen to the full interview with Seth Watkins on the Conservation Chat website, ILF website, or iTunes.

And for another fun perspective on Seth’s farming operation, check out Episode 23 in the Adventures of the Conservation Pack! Conservation dog Charlie gets to go on an adventure exploring Seth’s pond and learning about how it reduces erosion, filters water, and provides habitat.

Ann Staudt

Chatting about conservation and clean water with Laura Krouse

Laura Krouse is passionate about clean water. Perhaps passionate is even an understatement!

Growing up along Otter Creek in northern Linn County, IA, Laura gained firsthand experience of truly clean water at a young age …

“I think the fact that I grew up by a very clean stream, and I know what a very clean stream can be like, how beautiful it is and how much biodiversity it can support, and how you don’t see dirt in it – that really inspires me.”

This experience from her youth was clearly instrumental in forming Laura’s deep appreciation and respect for clean water and what can be done on the land to protect it. Today, Laura operates Abbe Hills Farm, a 72 acre farming operation near Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where she raises a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, alfalfa, oats, and other small grains. Conservation practices on her farm include contouring, cover crops of all kinds, crop rotations, native prairie, and a restored wetland. Laura is also a long-time Linn Co. SWCD commissioner.

In early 2015, motivated by the “really huge goals” of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (reducing nitrogen and phosphorus export loads by 45%), Laura contacted ILF/WR! program director Jacqueline Comito with a big idea. The heart of this big idea was to launch a public campaign that encourages everyone across the state – urban residents, rural residents, business owners, farmers, young and old alike – to do 1 New Thing for Water. As Laura put it best, the only way we get there is if everyone jumps in and does something!  And thus, the #1NewThingForWater campaign was born.

Tune in to the latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast series as host Jacqueline Comito visits with Laura Krouse about the 1 New Thing for Water campaign, thoughts on motivating others to do their part as we collectively strive towards cleaner water and the reduced soil + nutrient export, the ever-growing need to work with women landowners on conservation issues (and allocate resources accordingly), and Laura’s wish list for conservation across the state of Iowa. You can tune in on the Conservation Chat websiteILF website, or iTunes.

In terms of motivating others towards clean water and improved conservation, Laura is also especially passionate in reaching out to youth. As she puts it, “Kids are easy to motivate!” Laura actually helped us out a few years back, hosting several episodes of the Adventures of the Conservation Pack video series on her farm. For an entertaining (and educational) tour of Abbe Hills Farm, check out Episode 5, Episode 7, Episode 9, and Episode 10 in the Conservation Pack series.

Ann Staudt