Conservation wetlands

10 steps to help Iowa put more conservation on the land

What will it take to get 14 million acres of cover crops in Iowa?

The goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to improve and protect water quality in Iowa’s lakes, streams and rivers. One of the scenarios to help reach that goal and keep nitrate and phosphorous in the fields and out of the water is to get farmers to plant 14 million acres of cover crops in Iowa. The state’s farmers planted 472,000 acres of cover crops in 2015.

Earlier this year, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a group of 18 farmers and landowners in Ames to discuss issues surrounding the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and what it will take to meet its goals of putting more soil conservation and water quality improvement practices, such as cover crops, to work on the land.

Cultivating soil and water conservation progress
Overwhelmingly, this group of conservation leaders said Iowa needs a stronger, more consistent conservation message statewide. They also agreed the success of the message rests in conservation farmers and landowners telling their stories of success. We were fortunate enough to have a diversity of voices present at the discussion, creating a rich conversation from which we were all able to learn and benefit.

At the end of the roundtable discussion, the group put together a “Top 10 conservation messages list” for 2016 and beyond.

Ten ways to get more soil and water conservation on the land
1) Connect sustainability of land and water resources with economic sustainability for the farm.

2) Think about what legacy we are leaving for future generations.

3) Realize that soil erosion costs farmers and landowners money in terms of lost production.

4) Protecting and improving water quality is our responsibility. Urban folks care about how we farm; water quality and soil conservation issues aren’t going to go away.

5) Understanding ecology—how the whole system is connected—is critically important.

6) Stay positive—tell the general public what is going on and what practices work.

7) Water quality is long-term. Emphasize a systems approach on your land, to address soil loss and find workable answers to water quality issues.

8) Realize that everyone can do better—and everyone needs to take responsibility.

9) Share what you learn with others. Conservation pays off in terms of helping improve farming profitability.

10) We all have a role to play in taking better care of land and water resources in Iowa. Ask yourself, what are you doing for conservation?

It’s no surprise cover crops dominated the conversation
Participants in the ILF roundtable discussed the largest benefits of cover crop use, shared stories on how using cover crops has impacted their farming practices and discussed how to help others gain knowledge about this important conservation practice. A recurring theme throughout much of the conversation was how to address the many different types of people who are farming today.

Several women farmers/landowners were present. Women are increasingly finding themselves in positions as primary decision makers on their land and many are working on building stronger networks where they can hear stories and get information from peers. As Chris Henning, a Greene County, Iowa, farmer put it, “Men get to go to the coffee shop, or the co-op, or hang out at Casey’s and there really isn’t a place for women to go and hang out.”

Landowner and renter relations are very important
Laura Krouse, a Linn County farmer, added that as the number of women over the age of 75 who own land is increasing, having a voice is especially important. “They spend their life, helping their husband doing conservation, and now their husband’s best friend’s grandson is their tenant, and they don’t feel like they can interfere,” Krouse explained. “But I think they can; all they need is a little bit of a voice.”

Krouse’s comment especially highlights a topic that drew lots of discussion: landowner-renter relationships. The group discussed the complexity of these relationships, especially when seen through women landowners’ eyes. The women in the room commented that some female landowners might feel they are not in a position to ask a renter to change their farming practices. Some of the male farmers added that tenants might feel reluctant to begin a new practice because a short-term lease makes an economic investment toward conservation seem prohibitive.

Economics of conservation was also discussed at length
Many of the ILF roundtable participants agreed that perhaps the most effective means for influencing others to adopt conservation practices with these low commodity prices is to focus on economic benefits. As Mark Thompson, Webster County, added, “One of the things that I think is an excellent opportunity is to promote the economics of no-till right now because that is front and foremost on every operator’s mind. And so, I’ve talked to many of my guys that way and said, ‘Hey, here’s a way you can shave $40 off your operation by quitting that recreational tillage’.”

When posed with the question of how to bring about increased adoption of conservation practices, many agreed that encouraging lifelong learning and cultivating curiosity play a big role. Making sure that others know there are technological resources available at their fingertips is important. Bob Lynch, Humboldt County, asserted, “We have technology today. Anything you want to learn, you go out and you Google it. I think we know how to learn these things. It’s just getting them to hit the button to do it.”

Still a long way to go to meet goals of Nutrient Reduction Strategy
The larger takeaway from the discussion for this group of leaders was that despite having made some modest progress toward Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, there is still a long road ahead if we are to meet those goals. Getting the message about conservation out to peers is especially important. As Thompson put it, “We don’t tell our good story out here. I think we have good stories, but we don’t put it out there. Put it out there, guys.”

For more information, or if you’d like to find out about Iowa Learning Farms field days, contact us at [email protected] or visit the ILF webpage (extension.iastate.edu/ilf/).

Comito is program director, and Sepulveda is communications and outreach specialist for the Iowa Learning Farms program at Iowa State University.

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