Faces of Conservation: Jacqueline Comito

This blog post is part of our ongoing Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.


JACQUELINE COMITO
Director, Iowa Learning Farms

Jacqueline Comito joined Iowa Learning Farms in April 2005, soon after it was formed, and has been a key leader and contributor to the program ever since. She brings a strong background in social science that influenced the development and growth of the program’s highly successful evaluation and feedback initiatives.

As Director of ILF, how do you see your role with the organization?
As ILF has grown over the past 15 years, my roles and responsibilities have changed, but fundamentally, I like to think the most important part of my job is to help ensure the organization stays true to what has made us successful—an emphasis on farmer-to-farmer outreach to put information and best practices in front of those that can make the best use of them.

Sometimes I’m a cheerleader and coach, other times I facilitate brainstorming and conversations among team members to continue to develop and expand the vision for ILF. I want to make sure we are effectively and efficiently reaching as many farmers as we can. As an organization we need to continue to grow and improve how we support farmer conservation implementation. This is where a robust evaluation program really helps; it provides a positive feedback loop that fosters ideas and energy for our efforts to help build a Culture of Conservation in tangible ways.

 

Evaluation and feedback are priorities for ILF. How do you see this part of the program evolving in the years ahead?
Evaluation is an organic thing. It must come out of what you are doing with programming. If it’s an integral part of the planning process, programming and evaluation are seamless elements that support each other. For example, when we were building our recently launched Emerging Farmers program, we included evaluation and feedback in the mix from the beginning. We used these tools to fine-tune the program to the unanticipated and evolving needs of participants. This approach helps us deliver more value to our participants more quickly.


How important is youth outreach—such as the Water Rocks! program—to Iowa making progress on conservation, water quality improvement and the nutrient reduction goals for Iowa?
It’s incredibly important! With youth we are playing the long game. We are planting seeds with these young people about conservation, water quality, and what they can do individually to have an impact. When they become decision-making adults, our hope is that they will have a solid framework and environmental ethic that puts natural resources challenges and solutions in the forefront of their thoughts and actions.

In addressing today’s youth, we are speaking with the future scientists and inventors. Not only are we providing education, we feel as though we are modeling career opportunities in science and research.

 

If you had to choose two, what are the most impactful achievements or lessons-learned from the first 15 years of ILF, and how do they inform the path going forward?
Field days. We’ve developed an excellent process for organizing, promoting, and operating field days that works for everyone involved, and takes a lot of pressure off the host farmer or organization. Field day programs are crucial to facilitating farmer-to-farmer conversations.

The Conservation Station trailers have also been a significant achievement for ILF. Designing and redesigning these mobile classrooms across the years have kept materials fresh, enabled us to respond to feedback, and drawn audiences to learn about conservation, farming practices and water quality. Utilizing the trailers at county fairs, farmers markets and community gatherings, we’ve been incredibly successful in taking the conservation message to the public.


How do you see the next five years of ILF evolving?
ILF will continue to be a strong voice providing education and advocacy for conservation practices at venues from field days to classroom programs. There is no end in sight for the need to continually reinforce the challenges facing Iowa and provide information and education through outreach programs such as ILF.

 

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The relationships I’ve formed with colleagues and people throughout the state are very special to me. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know many farmers and learning about farming processes, challenges and their conservation efforts. Even if there are long periods between meetings, when I do get a chance to see them it’s like seeing an old friend. Relationships and community are essential to the success of ILF, and we are striving to make the most of advocates across Iowa to help build a Culture of Conservation that will benefit all.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?

My hope for the future of Iowa includes a substantial increase in the number of wetlands. I would love to be a part of finding a solution and resources to make a reality of the goal to take three-to-four percent of cropland out of production and return it to prairie and wetlands. We would also like to build a fourth Conservation Station trailer with an emphasis on wetlands education.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Rick Juchems


This blog post is part of our ongoing Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors
to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.


RICK JUCHEMS
Conservationist and Farmer
Rick Juchems operates a family farm raising beans, corn, cover crops and hogs near Plainfield, Iowa. He has a long history with conservation practices and has been a cooperating farmer in Iowa Learning Farms programs and studies since the organization was formed in 2004. He is committed to running a successful agricultural enterprise while keeping a focus on conservation efforts that keep the productive soil in place and maintaining a better environment on the farm and downstream.

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
My first exposure to ILF occurred when they came to speak at a Conservation Districts of Iowa board meeting, seeking farmers to participate in some early studies. At the time, my farm was in a classical corn/soybean rotation and it made sense to see what I could learn and gain from participating in the studies. Since those early days, I’ve participated in multiple studies, hosted field days, and continued to both learn and share my knowledge.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
My purpose in participating with ILF was, and is, to learn how to improve the soil and production on my farm. I think a critical part of the ILF approach is that they want me and other farmers to help educate and influence each other.

Promoting this farmer-to-farmer interaction is probably the most important thing ILF has done to make headway on their mission of creating a culture of conservation in Iowa. It’s easy for a farmer to latch onto what has worked for them in the past, and sometimes it takes someone who’s facing the same challenges and situations to get them to consider doing something different.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I have participated in the ILF Leadership Circle meetings and multiple surveys. ILF is hungry for information and they are always eager to hear my ideas and feedback. Maybe I’ve changed things from behind the scenes through this involvement.

ILF changed the way I look at my farm and the soil on it, and what I do to preserve and improve the soil. Conservation has always been important to me but working with ILF on things such as cover crops, I’ve seen the benefits to my soil structure indicated by better water infiltration and more night crawlers.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Getting to meet and work with a great group of people from around the state. I regularly get to know new like-minded people concerned about conservation as well as people looking for information. I’ve really enjoyed speaking at events and field days and am frequently stopped by people who saw me speak looking for information and advice. I hope I am making a difference with a few people and contributing to building a more sustainable ecosystem in Iowa.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
From a business point of view, working to improve water quality is important because it means my soil is staying where it belongs – in the fields. This has been a very challenging year in Iowa with lots of rain and flooding at inopportune times. The resulting erosion of river and stream banks was bad, but for farms without cover crops to help hold the soil, the problems were much worse.

As Iowa continues to work on its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers need to understand the potential ramifications. We must be proactive in changing practices to stay ahead of the plan, or we risk having regulatory mandates that will likely not be to our liking.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I’d like to see that the education programs from ILF and Water Rocks! have helped bring about a generational change in Iowans regarding water quality and conservation. I would like caring about the environment and understanding the responsibility each person, community, and farm has in maintaining water quality to be natural for every Iowan.

In closing…
ILF has taken the bull by the horns to get people involved and increase knowledge about conservation. The farmer-to-farmer outreach approach has been a critical and successful part of the program that should help it continue to flourish.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Jim Gillespie

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.


JIM GILLESPIE
Director of the Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality for Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) – retired

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
I was very lucky to be able to contribute and participate from the beginning, back in 2004, when serving as Field Services Bureau Chief for IDALS. I regularly participated with the ILF leadership team in discussions and activities and helped forge strong ties with the IDALS management team. I learned quickly that ILF was a valuable resource for the State of Iowa that provided excellent information garnered from their close work with ag producers. The ILF approach and success melded well with the state’s goals and objectives.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
Since its inception, ILF has placed great emphasis on establishing and promoting the concept of farmers helping farmers and peers helping peers. The purpose was – and is – to get information into the hands and minds of producers. Farmers like to share information and experiences with each other and often give more credence and respect to what is learned from a peer than when the same information is presented as a research report. ILF has continued to innovate while maintaining its core approach to delivering information and services and promoting efforts to build a Culture of Conservation in and beyond Iowa.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
Working with ILF gave me an opportunity to get out of the office and work with farmers across the state. Connecting directly with farmers helped me to learn and better understand where they were coming from, what was important to them on business and personal levels and how programs might best serve their needs. I think this experience helped lead to better models and ways to promote successes while addressing concerns from the producer community. I’m not sure that I had as much of an impact on ILF as it had on me, but I would not trade the experiences for anything.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Having the opportunity to watch and work with the ILF staff was always impressive and fun. Watching the precision of the team setting up and conducting field days never ceased to amaze. The dedication and commitment from every member of the ILF team shows through in the quality of the programming. They all saw the potential and wholeheartedly supported each other’s ideas to build and grow the program.

And, I loved working with the farmer partners. There was so much to learn from their passion for conservation and real world experiences – with successes and failures in real time.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Growing up on a farm, I’ve always maintained a connection to farming and the land, including a 40-plus-year career in agriculture. I began my career as a Vocational Agriculture teacher and became engaged in conservation as a field representative for soil conservation and water quality. My experiences have helped me to see and understand the issues from the perspectives of landowners, farmers and conservationists.

We are blessed with some of the best land in the world. We currently have sufficient water and great soil to support agriculture and community needs. However, moving forward, if we can’t or don’t protect these resources, the future could be bleak.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I’d like to see much more diversification in agriculture. ILF could be of great service in moving toward this goal. Wouldn’t it be nice if farmers had the ability to diversify into other commodities [beyond corn and beans] that could fit into a rotation that would improve soil health and promote better water quality, but still make a viable business?

In closing…
ILF has given a breath of freshness to extension services. Their approach to engagement and education through partnering with farmers has helped strengthen the connection between research and practical application. ILF has also helped to reinforce the role of extension as a noncommercially-biased resource and revitalize the reputation of extension as a trusted partner and resource.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Liz Juchems

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.


Liz Juchems – Conservation Outreach Specialist
Liz Juchems has been part of the Iowa Learning Farms staff since 2013, but her original involvement dates back to 2008 when she first worked as an intern. With multiple ILF internships under her belt, Liz left ISU to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before returning to Ames and ILF.

What is your role with the organization?
ILF has grown over 15 years and my roles and responsibilities have likewise grown and evolved through my years here. As the team’s conservation outreach specialist, my days are filled with planning and delivering field days and workshops for farmers and landowners, coordinating school visits and Conservation Station events, and lots of scheduling and logistics planning!

I’m also deeply involved in ILF’s long-term cover crop research, data collection, and working with farmers and ISU farm managers to establish research plots. Other research related activities include performing economic analysis of cover crops and assessing soil erosion reduction benefits of using cover crops across Iowa. I recently helped author materials for the Emerging Farmers program which includes business planning tools as well as the Talking with Your Landlord publication series.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
My father, Rick Juchems, was one of the early farmer partners with ILF, so I saw the program in its infancy and from the farmer’s perspective. I’ve seen the programming evolve to what it is today and note that ILF has stayed true to its original mission to engage farmers and communities in creating a culture of conservation throughout the state of Iowa. An important part of the program has been face-to-face involvement with farmers through field days and workshops. Not only has this helped build the impact and reputation of ILF, but has also affected how farmers speak with and influence other farmers.

ILF is successful because we engage with multiple communities and constituencies with facts, science, and solutions. Partnering with farmers, service agencies, non-profits, schools, and others helps ILF continuously promote practices and actions that can deliver positive outcomes for all.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I’ve got a “get it done” personality, whether it be planning the fine details for each of the 180 school visits per year that we do with Water Rocks!, hand seeding cover crop research plots, or bringing fresh ideas to how we approach field days and outreach events that have improved quality and impact.

Involvement with ILF definitely helped me choose my education and career paths. I have also learned a lot about problem solving, gained confidence in speaking one-on-one and in front of groups, and deepened my understanding of soil and water conservation practices to help better inform Iowans – farmers, landowners, students, and urban citizens alike.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I grew up on a farm and my parents continue to farm and employ conservation practices in Butler County. My brother and I are future landowners and have a personal stake in preserving the land that our family has worked to care for and create a legacy. I also enjoy outdoor recreation, be it floating down a river or walking through state and city parks, so having clean and healthy public places to enjoy is very important to me.

Iowa’s economy relies heavily on agricultural production. But there are also robust water and wildlife recreation opportunities that contribute to making Iowa a great place to live. Conservation plays a huge role for every Iowan whether they are landowners and ag producers or not.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see a quarter of Iowa’s crop acres seeded with cover crops. That would mean 6 million acres of cover crops, compared to today’s 880,000 acres of cover crops. While this is still well below the goals proposed in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, it would make a real impact on water quality in Iowa.

I’d also hope that we will have made a mental shift in thinking about conservation, making it a normal way of doing business. And that crop diversity and conservation will have become norms, not afterthoughts that are only considered when time and money are ample.

In closing…
ILF is a trusted resource that’s been around for 15 years. We have tons of expertise in water quality, conservation and agricultural practices. We’re also connected to partners with even more experience and expertise. So, if someone has a question, we can explore and reach out to our network of experts to find an answer.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Matt Helmers

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.


Matt Helmers – Iowa Learning Farms Faculty Co-adviser and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I started working with Iowa Learning Farms in 2004 as a member of the initial team working on the water quality programming. As I got more involved in the program, I also became more energized with the potential of a small group such as ILF to make a big impact on water quality in Iowa. I moved into a faculty advisory position and have become active in helping the team implement the group’s vision through closely collaborating with program director Jacqueline Comito.

Aside from my administrative role as liaison to the university, I provide technical and engineering contributions to the water quality programming. For example, when ILF was looking to create the Conservation Station trailers back in 2009-2010, we all pitched in to come up with a better rainfall simulator than the model used previously. We felt there must be a better way to show both surface and subsurface water flow, and to simulate true field conditions. I tossed out the idea of cutting undisturbed soil blocks from fields to provide a true model of soil conditions. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the authenticity of the soil samples providing more credible results. See the Rainfall Simulator in action on our YouTube channel!

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t know whether I’ve changed the program. I love working with the team and seeing the vision turn to reality, but I mostly feel that I’ve been given a great opportunity to ride along with some amazing people.

Being a part of ILF has changed my outlook a great deal. My engineering background trained me to approach things from a technical point of view, analyzing impacts using a pragmatic and practical approach and assessing economic effects in a very strict sense. What I’ve learned in working and speaking with farmers, and listening to their concerns and questions, is that there are social and emotional issues at play that don’t fit neatly into formulae or spreadsheets.

I’ve continued to learn from team members and from farmers across the state. Field days help me to gain insight into farmers’ thought processes, broaden my understanding of farm practices and how we can better communicate best practices for improvements.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Among the many fond memories and fun adventures with ILF, I think being a part of the field days is a favorite. Time spent with teammates traveling to and from the field days is often filled with wide-ranging conversations that both entertained and helped everyone gain understanding and knowledge. And at the field days, learning from the farmers through talking with them – and listening to them – about getting practices implemented in working fields has been incredibly insightful.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
As a native Iowan who grew up around agriculture, I would like Iowa to continue to have a vibrant agricultural ecosystem, but one that includes the health and stewardship of our natural resources. This is critical. We are a heavy agricultural state with a water quality problem, and the only way to address the problem is to get conservation practices implemented.

There is a need for better communication and efforts to facilitate conversations that will help farmers and others learn about what is working and how practices will have an impact for the entire state. These conversations can be one-on-one, in groups, electronic or in person, and should involve farmers, researchers and conservation professionals. Iowans need to work whole heartedly on improving our water quality.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see much more diversity across Iowa’s landscape. The diversity may come in small pieces and may be comprised of different plant varieties and farming techniques that aren’t common today, but with an eye toward sustainability and conservation, the results should help keep our natural resources in good shape.

In closing…
It is amazing that ILF has been around for 15 years and has continued to evolve. We should recognize that the program’s growth and maturity have emerged out of adapting and developing dynamic programming, actively responding to the needs of stakeholders. ILF is a world class organization driven by a creative and focused leader in Dr. Comito. We are lucky to have this team at ISU and in Iowa.


Previous Posts in Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Marty Adkins

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to Iowa Learning Farms, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Martin “Marty” Adkins – Assistant State Conservationist for Partnerships at USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)


What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with ILF has evolved over time but can be broken down into three main categories. I’ve provided guidance and advice from my own background in conservation as a member of the ILF Steering Committee, witnessing ILF’s growth and expanding contributions to the conservation landscape here in Iowa. I have also served as a NRCS liaison on ILF projects to which NRCS contributed funding. I’ve also enjoyed a couple of opportunities to contribute musically to the Water Rocks! program.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
I think the whole idea of building a culture of conservation speaks to the mission of ILF, providing important outreach and education from its base at ISU. Through active partnerships with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and NRCS, the program has made a lasting impact on the statewide conservation landscape.

The outreach through field days, webinars and workshops extends the value of research and technical development at ISU – taking the information and practices to the stakeholders that can use them most. Programs like ILF have really been an important part of building momentum in education and continuing to push for more sustainable agriculture and improvements in Iowa’s ecosystems.


How has working with ILF changed you?
I think the biggest impact ILF has had on me is providing me the opportunity to work with so many great minds and leaders, to learn from them, and to collaborate on important solutions. In other words, when you hang out with people that know more than you do, you can learn a lot from them. The last 15 years have been an amazing time of change and learning in agriculture. I’m excited about the growing number of people and organizations in all sectors that recognize their responsibility to protect soil, water and other natural resources.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One event that stands out was a landowner meeting for the Conservation Learning Labs project that Bill Northey (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture at the time) joined. His presence not only signaled the State’s commitment to water quality improvement, but also gave the landowners a chance to share their concerns and thoughts at the highest level.

Attending a workshop with new farmers last summer was also a great experience. Seeing the energy and enthusiasm combined with thirst for information on sustainable practices was fantastic.

The other really fun part of working with ILF was having the opportunity to write and record a couple of songs with the Water Rocks! team.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
What makes Iowa really special is the quality of our agricultural soil and landscape. It’s imperative to the future of our state and our larger place in the world for Iowa to be doing a great job in building and conserving our agricultural soils and landscapes. Water bodies are a reflection of the landscape, and if we are not doing a good job taking care of the soil and land, the water bodies are going to reflect that failure.

I am passionate about my family, faith and the sustainable management of soil, water and other natural resources. Being able to make a difference in Iowa has given personal meaning to my career. This is wonderful work that we get to do, and I am delighted to be in a position to help work for the present and future quality of the environment, our state, our economy and our communities.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see a green landscape nine months of the year—green being the dominant color of the landscape when there isn’t snow on the ground. My hope for Iowa is that it will be a green place, not a brown place.

In closing…
Everyone should recognize what a great resource ILF is for the people of Iowa. Any citizen, whether farmer, nonfarmer, city or rural dweller that cares about what kind of world they live in, what kind of landscape we share and what kind of water flows through it, can benefit from the groups like ILF which help to build sustainability for Iowa.


 

Faces of Conservation: Elaine Ilvess

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 over the years.

Elaine Ilvess –Water Resources Bureau Program Planner (retired), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and Assistant Commissioner for the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District

Elaine Ilvess was a part of the Iowa Learning Farms story from the outset. In her role with IDALS, she was involved in seeking new ways to communicate to and educate the public about water quality and conservation. She played an active role in the planning and creation of ILF, continuing to consult and advise up through her retirement in 2010.


Elaine Ilvess (green/white shirt at right) teaches all ages about how water and soil move at the stream table.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I was involved in ILF before the foundation was poured and the ground floor existed. Being a part of the planning team and drawing on my career in water quality and conservation outreach, I was eager to help create something new for Iowa that could move awareness about these important topics forward. Once ILF was up and running, I served on the technical committee, in addition to managing funding, monitoring expenditures, and coordinating with other partner agencies to ensure compliance and help keep the program on track.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
It may not have been so much of a change as contributing to the formation and mission of ILF from the beginning. In the early 2000s there were specific funds available for new approaches to water quality education and outreach. I was instrumental in developing the ILF concept of a Culture of Conservation, spreading information to farmers through hands-on demonstrations that would facilitate farmer-to-farmer engagement

Being a part of ILF gave me the opportunity to learn from and work with some of the masters, including governors, agricultural leaders, forward-looking scientists and researchers, environmentalists and the strongest advocates for conservation and water quality who brought fresh and innovative ideas to the table. It also led me to become a champion of continued funding and support for programs such as ILF—programs that learn from farmers and peer groups, and that imbue the concepts of “Information, Education and Demonstration.”

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The conversations and interactions at field days—my own conversations, but also observing the engagements between the ISU professionals with farmers—listening, advising and working together.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Growing up on a farm, I learned the value of conservation at a young age through living within the farm and natural ecosystems and observing firsthand impacts. Our environment, soil and water are the basis of our existence as well as Iowa’s economy and livelihood. It’s critical that we improve and preserve these resources for current and future generations.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see that the results of programs such as ILF have proven their significant worth to Iowa, leading to more secure funding. This would empower the further expansion of outreach and education programs delivering information that is relevant to farmers and non-farmers alike. In addition, establishing youth conservation education as an integral part of school curricula would be a wonderful step forward for Iowa and the nation.

In closing…
A small yet powerful program like ILF can have a big impact. The way they deliver information and facilitate conversations has had a multiplying effect which has been going on for 15 years. Starting out with small numbers and a few field days to thousands of Iowans becoming aware of what conservation means and how each individual plays an integral role has been a laudable achievement that can continue to contribute to Iowa’s future.