Edge of Field Practices Steal the Show

Participants at the August 9th field day in Spirit Lake were treated to burgers, information and one spectacular view.

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Over 50 people attended the Wetland, Saturated Buffer and Bioreactor Field Day hosted by Prairie Lakes Conference and Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District. They came to learn how edge of field practices like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors are key to reducing nitrate loss from agricultural land in Iowa. However, they stuck around long after to take pictures and to discuss about how beautiful the project had turned out.

Chris LaRue of the Iowa DNR, and Heather Jobst of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation explained, “This is a perfect example of what happens when many partners come together with a shared vision, and stay unified.”

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Golfers can be seen in the distance playing a round at the Okoboji View Golf Course.

One key stakeholder who participated in the wetland restoration project was the Okoboji View Golf Course, which sits right behind the project.  Staff from the golf course led a discussion about their experience and the economic upside to the project.

“We have actually seen an increase in our business as a direct result of the project. It is very beautiful to be out here,” explained a staff member.

The Spirit Lake restoration project really is the perfect example of public and private stakeholders coming together with a shared goal. It is also a great example of a project bringing urban and rural issues together.

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, especially the lake.

~Nathan Stevenson

 

 

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Incorporating Prairie on the Farm – Field Day June 21st

ISU STRIPS and the UNI Tallgrass Prairie Center will demonstrate the practical use of prairie on a working farm at a field day that will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 near Elkader.

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Prairie Strips At Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge

Hosted by Roverud Family Farm, the field day will focus on integrating prairie into row crop fields for sediment and nutrient reduction.  The farm is located at 19575 Sandpit Rd, Elkader.

Other discussion topics include:

  • How to plant prairie on farms
  • Landowner insights
  • Maintenance and weed control
  • Water quality improvement
  • Benefits of prairie on the landscape

There will also be an opportunity to view infield prairie strips and take a field walk following the program.

There is no cost to attend this field day, which includes a complimentary meal with registration. Technical service providers, landowners, farm managers, conservation professionals, and those interested in learning more about the benefits of native vegetation are strongly encouraged to attend.

This event will be held rain or shine. Registration in advance is preferred for meal planning purposes and to be informed of location change in the event of inclement weather. To pre-register, contact Staci Mueller at (319) 273-3866 or staci.mueller@uni.edu by June 18.

For more information, go to www.prairiestrips.org or https:// tallgrassprairiecenter.org/ .

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Thinking Like a Watershed

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

I had the privilege of visiting the legendary Aldo Leopold farm and shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin last August while attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s annual conference.  Although I had completed my master’s degree just down the road at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had never before visited the Leopold farm. It was in many ways a pilgrimage to a sacred place.Oct2017_1Leopold Shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

While standing in awe in front of the Leopold shack, amidst the towering pines and deep-rooted prairie plants that the Leopold family had planted back in the 1930s, I was struck with the meaning behind Leopold’s concept of “Thinking Like a Mountain” in his 1944 essay bearing that name.

Leopold came up with the concept after watching a wolf die that he had shot, and seeing the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Although he had previously been a staunch proponent of killing wolves with the idea of increasing the number of deer (which he and others wanted more of for hunting), he later realized that removing wolves resulted in an overpopulation of deer. Too many deer meant overgrazing and over-browsing of vegetation on the mountain, and the eventual destruction of the mountain from erosion.  Watching the wolf die was a pivotal event for Leopold—one that deeply affected his thinking about the value of predators to keep ecosystems in balance, and reinforced his understanding that removing even a single species can have serious negative consequences on the environment.

As Leopold wrote in 1944 in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (from Flader, 1974, p. 1)¹:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

“Thinking Like a Mountain”, therefore, means we need to consider the importance of ecological balance—including the value of a single species of predator—in our land use decision-making and actions. When we remove even one single species from the ecosystem, it can have dire consequences. It means we need to see things from the mountain’s perspective before acting.

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Oct2017_2World’s 2nd oldest restored prairie, Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Likewise, for those of us working to improve the health of watersheds, we need to be thinking like a watershed.”  This means we need to consider the consequences of even a single action on the health of a watershed before acting.

Healthy watersheds are those that act like a sponge to soak in rainfall, enabling the watershed to minimize flooding and reduce runoff that carries pollutants to our lakes, rivers, and streams. Every time a single action takes place that adds more runoff in a watershed, such as adding more paved areas or converting land from soil-covering, deep-rooted perennials to tilled row crops, it reduces the watershed’s ability to act like a sponge and soak in rainfall. When this happens, a watershed “catches” less and “sheds” more. When multiple “single actions” take place in a watershed, it results in flooding and water quality problems. Our primary course of action after that point is to invest lots of time, money, and energy to fixing the flooding and water quality problems that we did not prevent in the first place.

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Many of us are already very well aware of the many practices that are available to soak in, trap, or store rainfall before it runs off our watersheds in Iowa. Many are also working to develop detailed watershed improvement plans to help fix flooding and water quality problems across the state. Just as Aldo Leopold advised us to incorporate “thinking like a mountain” into our actions to improve ecosystems, we would be wise to incorporate thinking like a watershed into each of our plans and actions to improve watersheds. I suspect Leopold would agree.

Steve Hopkins

Reference:
¹Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).

Oct2017_3Leopold benches at the Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?

As a wildlife biologist, I admittedly have a less mainstream attitude towards weeds. For me, keeping those less obtrusive but often disgraced varieties of flowering and seed-producing plants on field edges and in barn lots is a good deal for the birds and the butterflies. But, as a wildlife biologist and a conservationist, I know that anything that affects efficiency in crop production affects conservation. So when I heard about the weed called Palmer Amaranth being found across Iowa last summer, I read the headline articles, watched the top stories, followed the unanimous senate vote, and learned how to identify the new pigweed to see where I could help.

Palmer, as it’s called, is a major challenge in cropping systems in the southern U.S. and until 2016 had only been found in five Iowa counties. Then, during the 2016 growing season, that list grew to at least 48  and experts predict that number could be higher.

The culprit? Seed mixes shipped to Iowa from southern dealers to meet burgeoning demand for high-diversity native plantings contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP fields where Palmer was rearing its ugly, thousands-of-seed-bearing head were the same fields lauded by conservationists as the best practice ever conceived under the CRP for addressing the plight of economically and ecologically important insects and many declining wildlife populations.

And, just as Palmer had entered the lexicon seemingly overnight, something else became apparent: “conservation plantings” had become synonymous with “Palmer.”

In the last year, I’ve seen this phenomena play out everywhere from professional meetings to farmsteads. I’ve heard stories from across the state about inquiries on CRP contract termination. I’ve talked with landowners that have dismissed high-diversity plantings out of fear for being the source of a new Palmer infestation. I’ve read gloom-and-doom articles implicating CRP in fueling the spread of Palmer on pages of periodicals from across the Midwest.

Vigilance and education are unequivocally important. My concern though is not with the messaging in educational efforts on this emerging threat, but rather the implicit deduction often drawn. That is, if Palmer is the effect and conservation plantings the cause, won’t less of the latter preclude more of the former?

I don’t have any data to support the veracity my concerns. Only my own experiences and anecdotes, which of course is shaky ground as a scientist. Dr. Bob Hartzler, the respected authority and defacto leader of the important response to the Palmer outbreak in 2016, recently told Iowa Learning Farms in his Conservation Chat podcast interview that he didn’t think concerns over Palmer were driving people away from conservation. I hope he’s right.

Professional educators and everyone in the agriculture and conservation community need to continue to address this emerging threat. But, we need to do so while retaining and building on progress for conservation of pollinators, soil, water, and wildlife that are fundamental to our quality of life and the sustainability of rural landscapes in Iowa. We need to be careful to not lose sight of the original goal of the high-diversity conservation plantings. We need to push a uniform message that less conservation isn’t the solution but rather that more vigilance is. Palmer is a huge deal. But I hope we don’t forget, conservation is a huge deal, too.

Adam Janke

Thank you to Adam Janke, Bob Hartzler, and Meaghan Anderson for their willingness to share photographs for this article!

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 Big Boost for Pollinators

Over the past few weeks, the City of Cedar Rapids has received a great deal of positive press for their plans to convert 1,000 acres into prairie/pollinator habitat! Their new 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative will begin taking root this spring as acres and acres of diverse prairie are seeded throughout the city, in large part to restore habitat for native pollinators – birds, bees, and the iconic monarch butterfly.

Where exactly do you fit 1,000 acres of perennial vegetation inside the City of Cedar Rapids?  Anywhere and everywhere!  They are starting this spring by seeding 188 acres of diverse prairie throughout the city. Numerous unused public land areas have been identified, including within community parks, select areas of golf courses, roadway medians, along trails, as well as in some less glamorous areas such as sewage ditches and water retention basins.

Future plans in the five year project also include working with homeowners to voluntarily convert 10% of traditional mowed lawn areas to perennial vegetation for pollinator habitat. They are also partnerships happening beyond the city limits to include Linn Co. Conservation and the Eastern Iowa Airport (who is already on the forefront of numerous conservation practices – read more about the field day ILF held there last fall).

It’s a truly fascinating project, and an excellent example of unique collaborations coming together to “make things happen” in the conservation world. Funding to date has come from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources-REAP Grant and the nonprofit Monarch Research Project. While the City is certainly a key partner in this work, the 1,000 Acres initiative has been fully funded outside of city and county budgets.

Learn more about the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative on the Cedar Rapids Pollinator and Natural Resources Initiatives page, as well as an article in Popular Science: A small city in Iowa is devoting 1,000 acres of land to America’s vanishing bees.

Ann Staudt