By Brandon Friederich
One of Iowa's leading organizations for the advocacy of conservation celebrated a milestone recently. Those involved with Iowa Learning Farms came together on June 24 to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. Attendees included farmer partners, scientists and ILF staff, who have worked together throughout the past decade to promote and research conservation land management techniques.
ILF was formed 10 years ago with two simple goals: to help farmers understand that how they manage their land impacts people in different geographic locations and future generations, and to give farmers the information they need to adopt practices that preserve soil and improve water quality. These goals are accomplished with a proven strategy—enable farmers to talk to other farmers about protecting Iowa's soil and water. That strategy involves coordinated efforts between farmers, researchers and ILF staff.
ILF bridges the gap between the science of conservation farming and the practical application of that science. As research yields new innovations, ILF takes the information and makes it accessible to farmers, giving them the knowledge and experience they need to talk with others. According to former ILF manager Jerry DeWitt, this technique has been instrumental to ILF's success. "ILF spreads its message very effectively, and does it through a model of learning that's not just lecture—it's an educational process. Farmers lead farmers; and ILF gives hands-on demonstrations."
The ILF program takes a unique, effective approach
DeWitt mentioned another key aspect of ILF's approach. "Allen Bonini helped ILF tremendously by putting money into understanding the sociology of farmers and other stakeholders, instead of only using funds to implement practices that improve soil and water. ILF is unique—there is no program like it in the rest of the country," said DeWitt. Bonini is the Watershed Improvement Program supervisor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Even though ILF is comprised of people from different backgrounds and disciplines, the cohesion between them has driven ILF for the past 10 years. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey commented at the celebration, "Everyone in this room has made a difference in Iowa agriculture in the last 10 years. I'm excited to see what will be accomplished in the next 10 years."
This research of farmer behavior helped ILF to effectively communicate with farmers, increasing the chances that conservation techniques would be adopted on a large scale. But ILF's outreach effort goes beyond Iowa farmers. Educator and farmer partner Margaret Hogan pointed out that ILF field days and Conservation Station events educate future farmers.
"An important part of ILF is that we educate young people about farms," says Hogan. "There are so many kids in Iowa that have never been on a farm, and they need to know how important it is to the state."
Educating young people is important part of ILF mission
Reaching younger generations is very important to ILF. Bonini explained, "We can be somewhat successful educating today's farmers, but we really need to educate their children. They are the future and we need to set the foundation now."
While the effects of ILF and its sister program Water Rocks! are beginning to show on our communities, the full impact of these programs has yet to be seen.
"ILF and Water Rocks! are reaching out to Iowa's youth. The impact that these programs have will not be seen for another 20 to 30 years," ISU Extension and Outreach Associate Dean John Lawrence told the group. "These future adults will provide us with the best measure of the programs' effectiveness."
All the work that ILF does stems from one idea: Iowa farmland is among the most fertile in the world, and it needs to be treated like the valuable, irreplaceable, natural resource that it is. Margaret Hogan's son Johnny, who is a sophomore at ISU, points out, "As a farmer, you take ownership of your land, but you also have a duty to preserve that land. Because in the long run it's not going to be yours. It will be somebody else's."
Friederich is an ISU journalism student and intern with ILF.
For more information about Iowa Learning Farms visit ww.extension.iastate.edu/ilf.