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.


 

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Dig Into Soil

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation of my monthly blog series highlighting our educational approaches working with youth, today I will be explaining our “Dig Into Soil” module which we present in classrooms with Water Rocks!. We start off our soil module with a trivia question as we always do. Next we explain the definition of natural resources and then ask students for some examples. Then we let the students know that Iowa has some of the best soil in the entire world.

Our next step in this module is to define soil – how is it different from dirt? Soil is alive! It supports us here on earth and we could not live here without it. Next we show the students a poster with pictures of different items to help them guess the different ways soil is used, including food, clothing, habitat, and filter (filtering our water).

Now that we have explained some of the very important things soil does, we move on to see how soil is formed. We go old school for this part, using a felt board to help show the different layers of soil. This includes bedrock, subsoil, top soil, many different species that live in the top soil, and many different things that grow out of the soil.

We continue by explaining that soil is endangered here in Iowa because it takes the earth 500-1,000 years to form 1 inch, but we are losing that inch in 20 years. The reason we are losing soil so fast is because of erosion, the process of soil being moved by wind and water.  Soil is most valuable in place, in our fields and gardens – it becomes a problem when it makes it to the water.

There are a few very important things that should be done to protect the soil. Keeping the soil covered is key, which can be done through mulching, planting trees and grasses, plus farmers can do no-till and cover crops.

Next we transition into a game that shows how important soil is, considering that nearly everything that we use comes from the soil. The game is called Six Degrees of Soil. In this game, we give the students an item and they have to work together in teams to figure out how to get from soil to said item in no more than six steps. An example that always makes students laugh is underwear. One would start with soil, next plant some cotton, then pick the cotton, then process that into thread, and lastly send it to a factory so they can sew it into underwear.

The last important topic we cover related to soil is decomposition. This process takes place when the different organisms break things back down into soil.  We explain that certain items get broken down quicker than others. To help the students understand this topic even better, we play another game. In the decomposition game, we give the students 5 different items and they must put these items in order from fastest to slowest in terms of decomposing.

We wrap up by asking the students for ways we can help protect the soil and protect the larger environment around us. Common conversation points include planting grasses and trees, no-till farming, reusable water bottles, taking your own bags to the grocery store, setting up a compost pile, organizing a trash pick-up day, etc. Finally we finish with the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of our presentation.

Joshua Harms