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

Welcome, Jack!

Hello! I am the newest member of the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms teams, so I wanted to introduce myself!

My name is Jack Schilling, and I am the first AmeriCorps Member to serve with Water Rocks! at Iowa State University. I am delighted to be a part of it. Once the program caught my eye, I knew that it would be a perfect fit for me, as it involved some of my favorite things: agriculture, the environment, music, and entertainment. And thanks to the AmeriCorps program being a part of ISU Extension and Outreach (Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach), I can continue service with 4-H, which I participated in since 4th grade.

I have lived in Iowa my entire life where I grew up on my family farm near Jefferson. On the farm, I raised chickens, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and even turkeys and geese! I have not enrolled in a college yet, as I felt that I was not ready to take the dive in without first knowing what I wanted to do. So, I chose AmeriCorps, as it seemed to be the alternative for those who did not know what they wished to pursue yet. In my free time, I enjoy video games, music, and video production. 

I am excited to have joined the team and can’t wait to meet all of you at schools, county fairs, and more! 

Jack Schilling

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

Guest Blog: Fair Eats

Our final summer guest blog post comes from high school intern Josh Harms, who will be a senior at South Hamilton this fall. Take it away, Josh!

Hello, my name is Josh Harms. I am a high school intern with Iowa State’s Water Rocks! program this summer. While I have been traveling across the state of Iowa to many different county fairs, I have had the privilege of experiencing a diversity of fair food, everything from the basic corndog to the amazing tacos and black raspberry ice cream at the Wright Co. Fair. I also tried pulled pork nachos at Badger Fest, fried cheese balls at the Central Iowa Fair, a pork tenderloin at the Washington Co. Fair, and a mango smoothie followed by mini donuts at the Cherokee Co. Fair.

Throughout all the fairs I have attended, the Wright Co. Fair had the best food by far, but I guess that could just be my bias towards tacos and ice cream, especially black raspberry! After eating all these different foods, I still enjoy all the unique foods that Iowa’s fairs have to offer, but I think I maxed out my capacity for fried foods when I had chicken tenders, fried cheese balls, and a funnel cake all in the same trip!

As my internship is coming to a close, I have really enjoyed the county fairs and camps I’ve been to, and I have also learned a lot about the environment in Iowa. One thing that is really memorable is that one gram of dog poo has 23 million bacteria. Also, sediment is the #1 pollutant in Iowa. Actually, in Iowa, we lose 1 inch of topsoil every 20 years and we gain that 1 inch back in 500-1000 years. Overall, I have enjoyed working with the other interns along with traveling to all the different fairs across the state of Iowa. I would also like to thank the staff at Iowa State University for this wonderful internship opportunity!

Josh Harms

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

Join the Water Rocks! Team for 2017-18

Here at Water Rocks!, we are thrilled to announce a brand new opportunity to join our team this fall. Starting this September, we will be an AmeriCorps host site in partnership with the larger Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program. We’re looking for someone who is energetic, enthusiastic, and musically-inclined (ready to sing in front of hundreds of kids!) to join our team for 2017-18 as a STEM Music and Outreach AmeriCorps Service Member.  Read on for more details, and share with anyone you can think of that might be interested!

Summary of STEM Music and Outreach AmeriCorps Service Opportunity:
Do you have an interest in music, youth outreach, STEM, and environmental issues?  We are seeking AmeriCorps service members who are detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, have singing skills to perform in front of hundreds of youth, and have a great sense of service and fun!

AmeriCorps members will deliver high energy, engaging outreach programs across the state of Iowa with Water Rocks!, Iowa State University’s award-winning youth water education program. Members will travel across the state, delivering Water Rocks! outreach programs at schools (music assemblies as well as classroom presentations), camps, county fairs, festivals and farmers markets. Through these outreach events, AmeriCorps members will engage with young people on water, soil, and natural resources issues, as well as inspiring them to explore STEM-related careers, raising awareness and enhancing STEM + environ­mental literacy statewide. Further, AmeriCorps members will also have the opportunity to contribute to water quality- and soil health-related research at Iowa State University, gaining on-the-ground experience with conservation issues in Iowa.

This full-time year-long opportunity begins in September 2017, and includes 1700 total hours of service. This service opportunity with Water Rocks! is part of the larger Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, in which full-time and part-time AmeriCorps members will serve in school-based and community-based host sites developing and strengthening youth development programs for Iowa youth. Application deadline is August 14, 2017.

 

Knowledge, Skills, Abilities for STEM Music and Outreach Service Member:

  • Experience working with youth and enjoyment of working with youth.
  • Demonstrated vocal music (singing) skills – You don’t have to be an opera singer, but we’re looking for service members who can sing well with confidence, enthusiasm and lots of spirit in leading Water Rocks! Music Assemblies in schools!
  • Interest and/or background in one of the following: environmental science, natural resources, ecology, conservation, soils, water quality, agriculture, and/or education.
  • Ability to plan, organize, prioritize, and complete multiple tasks with minimal supervision.
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills.
  • Ability and willingness to work in a team setting and to promote collaboration.
  • Ability and willingness to develop innovative and creative approaches to assigned responsibilities.
  • Must be certified in CPR and First Aid, or be willing to become certified in CPR and First Aid.
  • Ability and willingness to work flexible hours, including occasional evenings and weekends.
  • Ability to use a computer for e-mail communication, online reporting (monthly time reports, quarterly impact data), and preparing monthly great stories or semi-annual reflections.
  • Enthusiastic and personable nature.
  • Adaptable, practical, energetic, and intrinsically motivated.
  • Professional, respectful, and positive attitude.

Visit http://water-rocks.herokuapp.com/dive-in/2017-18-americorps-service-opportunity for further details and complete application instructions

Ann Staudt

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