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Serving: IA

COVID-19 and conservation — what happened and what's next

Tyler Harris Cover crops
SILVER LINING: One upside of COVID restrictions has been the time made available for information gathering through online programs like webinars and virtual field days.
Iowa Learning Farms: Despite its challenges, 2020 brought opportunities. Here’s a look at what happened in 2020 and the work to be done in 2021.

As we put 2020 behind us, we also leave behind some unfinished business that was delayed, deferred or just plain skipped because of pandemic restrictions, drought conditions, unusual weather and economic downturns. Despite all these human issues, our natural systems and agricultural enterprises continued to march forward. We asked some of our Conservation Learning Group members and contributors at Iowa State University to reflect on how 2020 played out and what we can look forward to in 2021.

Jacqueline Comito, CLG team leader and director of Iowa Learning Farms. This past year has had a lot of uncertainty, which has made it harder to fully understand how much and what kinds of conservation efforts and learning were accomplished. The pandemic moved people into new and often unsettling situations, forced a rapid adoption of virtual everything, and changed many ways in which people interacted and worked toward conservation goals.

One lesson we learned together is conservation can’t happen virtually. Conservation is, and must be, on — and in — the ground, with tangible impacts and results. Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, we have an opportunity to turn the disruption of 2020 into a foundation for disrupting how people think about and see their land.

In a powerful “aha” moment during a recent virtual field day, one farmer spoke about his soil as if it had its own agency — that the soil should be able to function the way it wants to function. Instead of trying to bend soil to the farmer’s will, he is looking to work with the soil the best way it can function, facilitating the soil to thrive, recognizing the soil as a living entity and habitat for many organisms that work in concert to be a life-giving resource.

Spending a socially distanced summer and fall working to hone outreach efforts, it has become clear that new tools and approaches are needed to help influence Iowans to choose to be conservationists. We need to find ways to instill a sense of awe and gratitude toward what our land does for us and the surrounding environment.

Those of us who study and promote conservation have an opportunity to move forward from 2020’s chaos and find new ways of seeing our complex ecological systems and collaborating on changing how we use and conserve soil and our other natural resources.

Matt Helmers, director of Iowa Nutrient Research Center. The 2020 pandemic certainly changed the things people focus on, and time will tell if there were any significant changes to soil and water conservation practices and results, but the methods for education and outreach did take a big hit. The biggest program impact I saw in 2020 was the loss of opportunities for face-to-face engagement. Personal networking and interactions at field days, where farmers discuss practices, problems and solutions together, are extremely valuable in disseminating information and increasing conservation practice adoption.

However, the opposite side of that coin is that many of us had lots of solitary time that provided opportunities to appreciate and reflect on nature and the land surrounding us. This somewhat forced introspection drove many to open up and see what the world around us looks like. My hope is we collectively and independently have come to appreciate the natural landscape more and will think about that as we consider what practices to adopt and implement.

Another area that didn’t seem to be slowed by the pandemic and was actually helped along by a dry summer and extended fall is the construction of wetland practices. While the weather may not have been optimal during the growing season, the long-term benefits from some of these implemented practices will last for years.

I’m hopeful in 2021 we will all carry forward our expanded appreciation for the natural environment and use it as a catalyst for education and innovation when we do get together again to learn at field days and workshops. For more information, visit

Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks program. Since 2012, Water Rocks has provided hands-on interactive programs and resources designed to get today’s youth excited about our environment and what each can do to make a positive impact on it. With COVID-19, our in-person programming came to a sudden stop. However, taking a breath and looking back to April, 2020 turned out to be a very exciting and productive year, though completely different than any of us could have imagined.

With the door to school visits and county fairs closed, we quickly pivoted and delivered multiple online and at-home learning programs throughout the summer months. And when schools reopened, we were there with outdoor classroom visits — and beginning in November, individual virtual classroom programs through Water Rocks live streaming. For Water Rocks, the adversity of 2020 has turned into a cyclone of innovation, ingenuity, and opportunities that should make youth education in 2021 even more exciting and far-reaching.

Water Rocks live streaming will expand programming options with new topics and a broadcast news-style program about watersheds and water quality for grades 3 to 8. Looking to expand opportunities for secondary students to open new avenues of expression, Water Rocks Spoken Earth virtual workshops will help students find their voice through science, art and “spoken word” poetry. And as we prepare for a summer full of fairs, farmers markets and public appearances again, Water Rocks will debut a new World of Wetlands Conservation Station trailer. For more, visit

Related: Spoken Earth helps youth find their conservation voice

Adam Janke, ISU Extension wildlife specialist. When I look at 2020 and the difficulties caused by the pandemic, I see a bright spot amid the gloom. During these dark times, we all quickly learned that the safest thing you could do to maintain your health and sanity was to be outside. This helped many people reconnect with nature in a ton of meaningful ways.

In addition to being outdoors, we were also stuck in the exact same spot for a long time. I’m a wildlife specialist, and even I saw things such as new woodpecker holes and hawks’ nests that I hadn’t noticed before. Opening our eyes to the teeming activity taking place around us in nature can only heighten our interest in protecting habitats and wildlife species, and preserving the beauty of our state.

I’m very optimistic about the prospect that after the pause everyone took in 2020, they will remain connected to the contentment they found in the outdoors. Building on these newly gained perspectives, we will continue to shape our lives and activities in ways that promote and preserve the natural world.

I’m also looking forward to a return to in-person outreach activities. I’m optimistic we can restart outdoor education, and am hopeful 2021 is going to be a good year for the ISU Master Conservationist Program. As a teacher, I expect that for many years I will refer back to 2020 for its many unique situations and what I hope is a point of transition in awareness and consideration of nature. For more information, visit

Mark Licht, ISU Extension cropping systems specialist. From the production ag perspective, there is one fundamental truism: Time marches forward despite extraordinary weather or social events. There is no pause button. COVID-19, drought and derecho impacts varied by producer and region, but ultimately field operations went forward on a fairly timely path in 2020.

One upside of COVID-19 restrictions is the time made available for information gathering through plentiful online programs, including webinars and virtual field days. With the flexibility of online resources, producers had an easier time finding knowledge to support adoption of conservation practices on their own schedule. Highlights that might be attributed to this flexibility include the increase in cover crop cost-share sign-ups this fall reported by IDALS, and more acres of no-till and strip-till than in previous years seen by some agronomists.

For those of us looking at the broad picture, pandemic limitations prevented a lot of field visits when we would “kick the tires” and learn firsthand about what is happening on the ground. However, it’s still evident there is a growing disconnect between adoption of new practices and maintaining older systems, such as terraces and waterways. All participants in the ag and environmental ecosystems should consider and evaluate appropriate practices that meet the goals of farmers and the environment.

In thinking about 2021, it is valuable to take a systems approach to finding a way to get all the pieces to mesh. Taking a balanced approach to soil health, which promotes production while reducing nutrient loss, is one thing that can influence farmers to adopt one or more conservation practices that ensure long-term soil health and support profitability goals. Working in concert, producers and conservationists can effect positive change in 2021 and beyond.

Jamie Benning, assistant director of ISU Ag and Natural Resources. Last April there was a precipitous change in how Extension programming was being done. Multiple groups within Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension have applied knowledge, innovation and enthusiasm to meet the needs of all constituencies in this new and limited environment, and the efforts are making a difference.

I was encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm for water quality, wildlife habitat, soil health and forestry topics featured through the Iowa Learning Farms webinar series and virtual field days in 2020. While being out in the field and seeing the practices in action firsthand, and having in-person conversations with farmers making these practices work is ideal, the webinars and virtual field days created an opportunity to keep the conversation active on these important issues, even when we couldn’t meet together.

Looking ahead for 2021, we need to make sure that conversation continues and translates into action and practice adoption across the state. The Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual by CLG is one highly effective tool that can facilitate progress. The manual provides farmers and landowners with practical and actionable information and easy-to-use decision tools that can walk them through the process of selecting the right practice for their farm and help move them off the fence and into implementation. The manual is available in the Extension Store .

Ripley is an Iowa Learning Farms conservation outreach specialist.

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