Iowa Learning Farms, housed at Iowa State University, celebrates 15 years of service in 2019. Established in 2004, ILF is building a “culture of conservation” by encouraging adoption of conservation practices.
Farmers, researchers and ILF team members work together to identify and implement best management practices to improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.
Throughout 2019, ILF will be sharing stories about the contributors, history and successes of ILF and its partner program Water Rocks!
Rob Stout, a cooperating farmer with Iowa Learning Farms, grew up on a farm and has been farming near West Chester in southeast Iowa since graduating from Iowa State University in 1978. Throughout his time farming, Rob has maintained high levels of interest in conservation and water quality and has been involved in efforts to advocate for improvements. This has extended to his own farming choices, which have included no-till for many years, as well as participation in multiple research studies with the experts at ISU.
What has been your involvement and role with ILF? I started working with the ILF team in 2006. The ILF commitment to creating a “culture of conservation” resonated with my own interest in achieving water quality improvement through agricultural practices.
We got in on the first year of the long-term cover crop study, and I’m proud to say we recently reported our 10th year of data. But it didn’t take me 10 years to see the benefits. The only parts of my farm fields not in cover crops are the four test strips I keep for comparison in the ILF study.
The farmer-to-farmer communications element of the ILF outreach is very effective, and I’ve hosted field days, invited friends and neighbors to learn about conservation techniques, and volunteered to speak at ILF-sponsored events and meetings.
Why did you get involved with ILF? I don’t recall the exact mechanism, but I had been involved in research projects to help learn and improve farming techniques. The culture of conservation initiatives from ILF captured my interest. As I became involved with ILF and learned more about on-farm research opportunities and the hands-on approach to outreach, I was eager to join the team. The ILF approach to research and outreach fits well with my own passion for learning and doing more to protect and promote the natural ecosystem through better agricultural practices.
I was also already involved in water quality initiatives and saw working with ILF as an opportunity to learn more and work with others interested in water quality improvement.
What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement? ILF has always been about building a culture of conservation, and they’ve stayed true to that goal across these 15 years. I’ve seen the organization grow and change, but I’ve always been pleased with the way the team works together with farmers on their farms — sometimes trying different things and failing — to learn at farm scale what works and what doesn’t.
How did you change the program, and how did it change you? I don’t think I individually changed the ILF program, but I’ve always been pleased with the genuine interest they’ve shown in learning from farmers through listening to — and acting upon — feedback and ideas from the farmers. Through hosting and participating in field days, showing others by the application of conservation practices, and joining in farmer-to-farmer interactions, I’ve provided valuable feedback and helped open new ears to the messages of ILF.
I’ve learned a lot from my involvement with ILF. I loved doing research when I was at ISU, and participating with ILF gives me a chance to continue learning while staying involved in research efforts.
I’ve also grown in my understanding of conservation and water quality issues. In 1983, I was doing no-till and thought I was doing everything I could. I initially thought of conservation simply as erosion control. The ILF cover crop study helped broaden my perspective and knowledge about practices that have changed the way I approach farming and conservation. ILF helped me to become an advocate and a voice of experience for farmers who may be interested in learning about the research from someone who has done it.
What are your fondest memories of working with ILF? A favorite memory is of a field day we were hosting for ILF. As often happens in Iowa, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, and we had torrential rains dropping 3½ inches on the morning of the event. We quickly cleared the shop to make room for the participants and were able to have a great experience. However, I think the rainfall simulator in the Conservation Station trailer didn’t need to use its own water supply that day.
Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa? I care about the environment and future of our ag-based economy. Everyone, including farmers, must take responsibility and do their part to help reduce nitrates in our water. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and goals are critical for the future of the state.
I’ve been learning about watersheds and water quality since the early 2000s when I joined a group working to restore an impaired watershed. We secured grants to install bioreactors and a saturated buffer, implemented buffer strips along creeks, and took other positive steps to recover the watershed. To me, this kind of on-the-ground action is a core element to creating the culture of conservation, which will benefit all Iowans.
If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities? I’d like to see more conservation and more water quality work done in all areas of the state. There are pockets of success, but many areas don’t even know what their nitrate levels are or what information is available to help. We need to continue to grow and support outreach and education efforts to help build on the progress we’ve achieved.