Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Art and Science create Vision for Future in Conservation Station

The Big Conservation Station trailer is trailblazing to county fairs across the state with a brand new, interactive display presenting a simple question: “What is your hope for Iowa?” Inside the Conservation Station’s learning lab are new mixed media murals showcasing the past, present and future of Iowa’s natural resources. Conservation Station visitors will have the opportunity to engage in discussion and artistic expression of their own – each fairgoer is invited to share their own #HopeForIowa.

“I am hoping to evoke an emotional response to the land, by depicting not a particular place, but ‘every place,’ so each person can relate to it,” explains artist Cecelia Comito of Artworks Studio in Carroll.

Comito collaborated with Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! science director, to create the original mixed media artwork for the Conservation Station trailer, representing an artistic vision that reflects the past, present and the future of our state. The artwork panels illustrate advances in conservation efforts over time, and the potential possibilities as farmers and other Iowans continue to implement effective land management practices to build soil health, improve water quality and increase wildlife habitat.

All the artwork was done on large canvasses at Artworks Studio. Each mixed media panel was built up with extensive layers of torn and cut paper, including such materials as stained and textured papers, pages from recipe books, story books, road maps, plat maps and even sewing patterns. Fine details were added through image transfer, paints, gelatos, watercolor pencils and pastels. Click through the slideshow below for a behind-the-scenes look at how the artwork came together. The finished pieces were imaged on a large scanner and then digitized in order to produce them large enough to place on the walls of the trailer.

“Farming practices have evolved over time, and not always in ways that have been positive for the ecosystem,” explained Staudt. “This new interactive art display will help people envision what’s possible for Iowa’s future and maybe inspire us to see what is possible.”

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In addition to the new artwork, Conservation Station team members employ perennial favorite interactive games and activities including The Watershed Game, The Poo Toss and the Rainfall Simulator to engage fairgoers of all ages.

Upcoming Big Conservation Station Trailer Appearances:
July 17                  Public Radio On Tap, Iowa City
July 18                  Polk Co. Fair
July 19                  Jones Co. Fair
July 20                  Tama Co. Fair
July 21                  Poweshiek Co. Fair
July 25                  Wayne Co. Fair
July 26                  Monroe Co. Fair
July 27                  Fayette Co. Fair
July 28                  Independence Farmers Market
Aug. 4                    Lakes Area Farmers Market, Spirit Lake
Sept. 2                  Glow Wild at Jester Park, Granger

Ann Staudt

Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa.