Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.

 

Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.

 

Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!

 

Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”

 

Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.

 

Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?

 

Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt

The Poetry of Water

Have you heard the news? The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest it has ever been this summer. More than half of Iowa’s waterways remain impaired. Iowa’s legislators can’t seem to agree on means for funding practices that would help.  It hasn’t been a great year for water quality so far.

It isn’t that we don’t understand the problems or the solutions. There is plenty of information out there. Lots of smart people are speaking about the science of water quality, studying the impacts of agriculture, discussing economics issues, and monitoring water. This information is important and necessary.

It’s more that we still lack the will to create lasting changes to allow for cleaner water, more habitat and healthier soil. Perhaps we need to move beyond the technical and economic talk and express the poetry of water.  Throughout our history it has often been a well-turned phrase, public speech or essay that has motivated action in others.

Back in 2008, when Jerry DeWitt was first appointed as director of the Iowa Learning Farms, he and I went on a tour of the ILF partners who were hit hardest by heavy rains and flooding. When he got back to his office, he wrote an essay that began, “Yesterday I cried for the land. Today I must speak for the land.” You can read the full text on p.3 of the archived Leopold Letter newsletter: http://publications.iowa.gov/18617/1/LeopoldLetter2008Summer.pdf

What followed was a poetic expression of Jerry’s emotions in seeing fields eroded down to bedrock—not your typical academic writing. For several weeks after that essay was published, it was brought up in meetings, including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings, and during random conversations. It became a call to action.

Who is writing poetry for water?

Jerry showed that aptly expressed words get things done. Words make us uniquely human but poetry is what speaks to our higher angels. Writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold put language to good use on behalf of lasting, life-altering environmental change.

Who among us isn’t familiar with Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that moved us with its craft and motivated us as a nation to change our use of pesticides? Or think of all the folks who became conservationists or wildlife specialists inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949) with his essays on the land stirring a conservation ethic. I was only seven years old when my older brother read me Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Lorax (1971), and nurtured in me a life-long desire to speak for the trees. The poetry of these authors and so many others have inspired generations to think and live in the world differently.

We don’t need any more ordinary prose. We are bloated with words today. Everyone seems to be “expressing” themselves on social media and other online outlets. Could a Carson or Seuss or Leopold get through all of the word pollution today?

Our lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers need more poetry in the tradition of Carson, Seuss and Leopold—writing that expresses feelings and ideas that allow you to see beyond what is right in front of you to get at a deeper truth or beauty.

Only the best among us are brave enough to write poetry for poetry is too important to be left to professionals.

Two Black Hawk County watershed projects, in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa’s Environmental Literature class during the spring of 2017, brought us poetic stories of people in their watersheds. The work is called “Beauty Outside Our Doors” and is available as a free PDF download.  The essays are personal and purposeful and speak to a greater truth about the state of our environment in Iowa.

It would be great if every watershed improvement project in Iowa could take Black Hawk County’s lead and do a similar project with the residents in their watersheds.  It would be inspiring to see similar books written across the state.

BUT, you don’t need to live where there is an active watershed project in order to speak for water. Each one of us is called to find the poet inside of us and let people know the truth about our waterways. We are water and water is life. Clean water is essential to our existence. We ignore this at our eventual peril. After you write your piece, share it with whoever will listen. It is time for life-altering change. The water (and all of life) is counting on us.

Jacqueline Comito

Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Who Owns Any Creek?

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

That is a line from one of my favorite films, Cross Creek. Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book The Yearling. The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann about our winter workshops. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or everyone is responsible?

Let’s face it: when it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As Marty Adkins points out in his previous blog post (Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy), generally the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It is difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality (The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa). That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, Navigating Environmental Attitudes, social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do—i.e., what shapes the status quo. Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I am not saying that farmers are deliberating doing wrong—they are following the norms within our current agricultural system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it is the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use (Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water).

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

As we try to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension and Outreach’s Agriculture and Natural Resources spring inservice training earlier this year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question:

“Who owns Cross Creek?

The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time…”

Jacqueline Comito