This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.
Mark Licht has been involved with Iowa Learning Farms from its inception in 2004. As an ISU Extension program specialist, Extension field agronomist and now as faculty, Mark has continued to aid in the mission of ILF to increase awareness and promote conservation practices statewide.
How was Iowa Learning Farms established and what was its mission?
The real seed that grew into ILF was planted during casual conversations between Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi and I as we drove across Iowa visiting research sites. ISU Extension was already conducting field demonstrations and researchers were working with farmers and conservationists, but there was a need to knit these activities into a better way to deliver education and put resources in the hands of growers.
Moving from concept to reality took a lot of legwork and cooperation. Engaging partners that could help provide funding and expert advice was an initial step. We were fortunate to be able to work with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a host of dedicated individuals.
What were the early years at ILF like?
We were already doing field demonstrations through ISU Extension and this continued as ILF was formed. The outreach and education goals were well-formed by March 2004 when we were ready to start working with growers.
We were breaking new ground, and as a result some of the things we did were not as effective as we had hoped. But, we learned and adjusted. A key part of the longstanding success of ILF has been the team’s openness to new ideas about how to best engage audiences to help us achieve desired results. Another fundamental part of ILF’s success has been the comprehensive evaluation and feedback processes from field days and other public interactions. The processes have expanded and matured over time, but the data and results have been invaluable in demonstrating change in farming practices.
What is your role with the organization?
At the start, as an ISU Extension program specialist, I was the only ILF staff member. When Jackie Comito joined the team, she focused on starting the evaluation program and I continued to develop demonstrations and outreach events. In 2006 I left campus and ILF to work as an ISU Extension field agronomist. Upon returning to ISU in 2014 as an Extension cropping systems specialist, I re-engaged with ILF as a collaborator and adviser.
How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I was there at the start, so I was deeply involved in helping ILF get off the ground. We worked through the organizational details and established our mission to build a Culture of Conservation for Iowa. But to be successful I knew it was crucial to get farmers deeply involved, and particularly to have them share how and what they were doing, with ILF and other farmers.
The visual element is something that I pushed the organization to embrace in all interactions. Academics seem to like hefty detailed reports, but infographics and other visual media are much more effective in capturing interest and delivering messages to non-academic audiences. The first rainfall simulator was also key for demonstrating visually what is hard to see in the field.
On a professional level, as a corn and soybean production specialist I’m focused on efficiency and yield. Collaborating with ILF helps me think through the ramifications of production side decisions and balancing them with a nutrient reduction and conservation point of view.
What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One of my favorite things from the early years was working with the rainfall simulator. Watching the evolution from humble beginnings of a basic rainfall simulator trailer to the comprehensive Conservation Stations has been amazing and rewarding. What we have out around Iowa today is much more powerful and influential than I imagined when we started.
I also love working with the cooperating farmers. They have a passion for conservation and maintaining water quality. Their instantaneous and frank feedback really grounds what we are doing.
Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
For me, conservation is important for the same reasons it’s important for Iowa. I enjoy our natural resources for recreation such as spending time on a lake or fishing. These resources are threatened, and we need to pay attention to them for everyone’s sake.
For Iowa, we must look at how much of the state’s economy is tied to agriculture and understand that as we improve our soil and water health, we can continue to drive our agricultural economic growth. It does take years to turn around, but there is progress.
ILF is a wonderful group and a great resource for Iowa. I hope they will continue to make an impact in Iowa for the next 15 years and beyond.