Your Personal Invite to the Soil and Water Conservation “Emmys” on July 17 & 18

Today’s guest post is by Clare Lindahl, Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa, a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.


It was July 15th last year and I stood before the National Association of Conservation District’s Executive Board, both nervous and excited. I knew I was prepared for the pitch I was about to deliver to bring the first National Soil and Water Conservation District event to Iowa. I had been working on it for months. I also knew I was about to embark on the biggest event planning endeavor our office of two staff at the time had ever experienced.

Iowa’s 100 Soil and Water Conservation Districts and 500 elected Commissioners are part of a national effort to protect and enhance natural resources. Just like Conservation Districts of Iowa represents and supports Iowa’s Districts and Commissioners, the National Association of Conservation Districts represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

After the pitch, I looked around the room and I knew I had landed it! One Executive Board member stated, “Heck, I might just move to Iowa!”  Full disclosure, he was from Oklahoma. : )

I felt in that moment I knew just a little how Hugh Hammond Bennett felt when he nailed his presentation 82 years ago, passing the conservation bill that established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency in the USDA. The bill authorized them to assist farmers to conserve soil and prevent erosion without a single dissenting vote. I said just a little!

In my pitch to come to Iowa, I touted Iowa Learning Farms and their award-winning, innovative conservation education programming. They have the ability to make conservation education and outreach a science, and to quantify the impacts they have after a farmer leaves one of their field days.

June_Summer-Meeting-Logo2017So on July 17-18, 2017, the National Association of Conservation Districts Summer Forum and Tour will be held in conjunction with the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners 71st Annual Conference.  Hundreds of Conservation District Commissioners and partners from across the state and nation will descend on Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona, Iowa, and participate in tours across the state.

The forum, which will start with lunch and Iowa awards after the Iowa and national business meetings, will include invited speakers Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue. We will follow up with an inspirational speaker and then break into simultaneous panels on public-private approaches to conservation planning and community and agriculture working together for clean water.

That evening, we will have an exhibitor social with hors d’oeuvre preceding our banquet with awards and a live auction with father-son auctioneer team Jeff and Dylan Webber. Leadership from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will deliver talks as well.

wqThe next morning, after breakfast and an Iowa Natural History Primer, we will divide up into two tours. The water quality tour will feature urban conservation practices in Ankeny, a visit to Iowa’s Land Improvement Contractors Farm to view conservation practices, a water quality monitoring demo, a driving tour of Iowa State University and a visit to Alluvial Brewing Company.

soilThe Soil Health Tour will feature the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, a talk on Palmer Amaranth, a drive by a Madison County Covered Bridge, lunch at historic Keller Brick Barn and a presentation from the Dallas County Soil and Water Conservation District and a demonstration of soil health – in town and on the farm.

If this sounds as fun to you as it does to me, consider this your personal invite to the Soil and Water Conservation event of the century – register here.

Clare Lindahl

Do Crop Insurance Rules Put a Chill on Soil Health Practices?

An opinion piece by authors Ryan Stockwell and Jim Moseley argues that inflexible crop insurance rules are slowing the adoption of conservation practices that build soil health such as cover crops.

Practices that can improve soil health such as no-till, cover crops or multi-year crop rotations can decrease erosion, decrease nutrient loss, improve water infiltration and even provide added value in the form of fewer field passes and increased forage value for livestock. The authors argue, however, that crop insurance rules could force farmers to choose between crop insurance coverage and adopting practices that could improve their soil health:

“Yet, a significant barrier stands in the way related to crop insurance, which has become an absolute necessity in today’s weather extremes. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers who use cover crops must meet specific management rules. No other agronomic practice includes such eligibility rules.”

While some rules have been changed in the past several years, confusion persists over rules and requirements. The article encourages policy to become more flexible by allowing local agronomic experts to guide best practices, as is the case with many other agricultural practices such as fertilizer application or weed management.

Read the article from Agri Pulse here. What do you think? Do you have a crop insurance question or story related to a soil health practice?

Julie Whitson

Soil Health: The Spark of a National Movement


Steven Rosenzweig, a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University, recently wrote an article titled, “How a new way of thinking about soil sparked a national movement in agriculture.” In the article, Rosenzweig details how Ray Archuleta and many others within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began thinking about how to change agriculture in a way that would allow farmers to avoid the “double squeeze” of rising inputs costs and declining returns. Thus, in the 1990’s, the soil health movement was born. Rosenzweig explains the movement below:

“Known as the soil health movement, it is a management philosophy centered around four simple principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximize diversity of plants and animals. Some immensely successful farmers have ascended to celebrity status in the agricultural community preaching these principles. They are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilizers, which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable.”

Ray Archuleta has now reached over 100,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. with his soil health message. Rosenzweig describes how Archuleta has been able to distill his message to farmers, captivating them with just a few clumps of soil that each tell a story about soil structure and its relationship to soil health:

“The implications of Archuleta’s demonstrations are obvious to food producers, who see the fate of their acres in those clumps of soil. The message is powerful, and producers drive home knowing that soil is alive, that it can be sick or healthy, and that healthy soil can do some pretty amazing things — like make a farm more resilient to drought, sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reduce erosion and support an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.”

Read Steven Rosenzweig’s article to learn more about the soil health movement and how it’s shaping the future of agriculture.

ILF_Badge_Multi_LGIf you are interested in implementing soil health practices, you can find more information about soil conservation, cover crops, and more at our website. Find an ILF Farmer Partner in your area who might have experience with a conservation practice you’re interested in trying, or attend an upcoming field day to learn more about conservation practices.

Julie Whitson

Welcome to Soil and Water Conservation Week!

Soil and Water Conservation Week
is April 30 – May 7, 2017. This week, we will be featuring stories and information about how healthy soils are full of life. To kick things off, check out our recent video, “Keep That Soil Alive.” The video explores our legacy and connection with the land, landowner-tenant relationships, and the many different conservation practices that help our soil stay alive and thrive – all woven together with a Johnny Cash-inspired tune and some good ol’ fashioned country line dancing!

Do you have your own story to tell about soil and water conservation? There are a few ways you can participate.

  1. Share your stories this week on social media using the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife.
  2. Participate in the Handful of Soil campaign by taking a photo of someone’s hands Healthy soilholding healthy soil with an Iowa plant (seedling, cover crop, corn, etc.) in it. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife!
  3. Nominate a farmer for an award! Nominations are currently being accepted for the Iowa Soil Conservation Awards Program (ISCAP) Conservation Farmer of the Year and the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award. Visit the Conservation Districts of Iowa’s website for details.

More information about Soil and Water Conservation Week is available at the websites of Conservation Districts of Iowa or the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Julie Whitson

Can Healthy Soil Feed the World?

A recent article written by David Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington, shares a provocative argument for why healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world. The article is a quick read, and it provides good food for thought to break through the Monday shuffle.


Montgomery recently wrote a book called, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life” where he traveled the world to interview innovative farmers. These
farmers had one thing in common: they were rebuilding the health of their soil with regenerative practices like no-till, cover crops and diverse crop rotations that brought in high yields while also increasing soil fertility. Seeing the potential in these varied practices, Montgomery wondered if these practices could change the very foundation of agriculture as we know it, both in the Corn Belt and beyond.

“Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.”


2013 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Kent Swanson farm in rural Red Oak

Beyond conventional versus organic, Montgomery posits that our future, and the future of our soil, relies on innovative farmers who are willing to adopt practices that put soil health and prolonged soil fertility first.

Read the article, “Healthy Soil is the Real Key to Feeding the World” and tell us what you think.

Julie Whitson

Extra! Extra! Field Day near Iowa City Planned for April 13

McNay Strips Field Day2In partnership with Rapid Creek Watershed Project, we are hosting a filter strips and soil health workshop on Thursday, April 13, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Morse Community Club near Iowa City.  We hope to see you there!

Field Day Agenda:

Tim Youngquist, discussing the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project where a small percentage of a field is planted into strips of perennial prairie plants to reduce soil erosion, water runoff, improve soil health and to create habitat for pollinators and wildlife.

Matt Berg, Johnson County Farm Service Agency Director, to lead a discussion on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist and newest ILF team member, will talk about ways to incorporate wildlife habitat on the farm.

Wren Almitra, Rapid Creek Watershed Coordinator, with a project update.

SoilScan360Attendees are encouraged to bring their own soil samples for a free SOILSCAN 360 analysis by Johnson County NRCS staff during the event.

The field day will be held at the Morse Community Club located at 2542 Putnam St NE, Iowa City, IA. The workshop is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or

Liz Juchems

Recent Article Looks at Soil Health from a Global Perspective

A recent article from Environmental Health News titled, “Is soil the great new integrator?” explores what farmers around the world are doing to counter threats to soil quality in an era where all farmers are facing global pressures to push soil to the max. Soil has different properties and challenges in different regions of the world. From Valle del Cauca in Colombia, to northern Punjab, India, to many areas in the United States, farmers are learning how to work with the soil they have and improve soil health to protect themselves from erosion, drought and extreme weather events.

The author, Lisa Palmer, says that farmers are “bucking the trend” and beginning to consider soil health as a business decision.

“Molina and other farmers I’ve met with over the years are bucking the trend. Their attention to soil has been a business decision, leading to increased production and yields, and has helped them withstand weather extremes.

It’s catching on: In a recent survey, insight from 2,020 farmers from across the United States reflected enthusiasm for cover crops to help improve soils—for the fourth year in a row—and found a yield boost in corn and soybeans following cover crops.”

Cereal rye cover crops start to green up in Spring 2017 near Nashua, Iowa

Not only is building soil a business decision, but it can also help farmers insulate themselves from extreme conditions like drought, windstorms and heavy rain events.

Read the article to learn more about what farmers are doing in different corners of the world to make soil health work for them.

Julie Whitson