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Serving: IA
 ISU’s Matt Helmers talking about water quality problems
STEWARDSHIP NEEDED: “Iowa is a heavy agricultural state. To solve the water quality problem, we need to get many more conservation practices on the land,” says ISU’s Matt Helmers

Helping farmers find answers to water quality questions

ILF Profiles: Matt Helmers, ISU ag engineering professor, helps guide Iowa Learning Farms program.

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!

Matthew Helmers

Matthew Helmers, an ILF faculty co-adviser and ISU professor of ag and biosystems engineering, has been a part of Iowa Learning Farms since its founding in 2004. He has provided leadership and guidance on technical issues, as well as supporting many of the field studies and activities related to edge-of-field practices. Here is a recent interview with Helmers by the ILF staff.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms? I started working with ILF as a member of the team focused on water quality programming. I also helped supervise a postdoctoral researcher working on the impacts of soil erosion on water quality.

As I got more involved in the program, I also became more energized with the potential of a small group such as ILF to make a big impact on water quality in Iowa. I moved into a faculty advisory position and have become active in helping the team implement the group’s vision through closely collaborating with the leadership team led by program director Jacqueline Comito.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement? Aside from my administrative roll as liaison to the university, I provide technical and engineering contributions to the water quality programming. For example, when ILF was looking to create the Conservation Stations, we all pitched in to come up with a better rainfall simulator than the model used previously. We felt there must be a better way to show both surface and subsurface water flow, and to simulate true field conditions.

I tossed out the idea of cutting undisturbed soil blocks from fields to provide a true model of soil conditions. The soil trays in the newly designed rainfall simulator were built to hold these soil blocks. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from field days about the authenticity of the soil samples providing more credible results.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you? I don’t know whether I’ve changed the program. I love working with the team and seeing the vision turn to reality, but I mostly feel that I’ve been given a great opportunity to ride along with some amazing people.

Being a part of ILF has changed my outlook a great deal. My engineering background trained me to approach things from a technical point of view. And analyzing the impacts using a pragmatic and practical approach and assessing economic affects in a very strict sense. What I’ve learned in working and speaking with farmers, and listening to their concerns and questions, is that there are social and emotional issues at play that don’t fit neatly into formulas or spreadsheets.

The learning has continued throughout my involvement. I’ve learned from team members and learned from farmers. Field days help me to gain insight into farmers’ thought processes and why they are doing what they are doing. This helped broaden my understanding of farm practices and how we can better communicate best practices for improvements.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF? Among the many fond memories and fun adventures with ILF, being a part of the field day teams is a favorite. Time spent with teammates traveling to and from the field days was often filled with wide-ranging conversations that both entertained and helped everyone gain understanding and knowledge.

And at the field days, learning from the farmers through talking with them — and listening to them — about getting practices implemented in working fields. The full range of insightful conversations is one of the best parts of being on the ILF team.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa? As a native Iowan who grew up around agriculture, I would like Iowa to continue to have a vibrant agricultural ecosystem, but one that includes the health and stewardship of our natural resources. This is critical for Iowa. We are a heavy ag state with a water quality problem, and the only way to address the problem is to get conservation practices implemented.

There is a need for better communication and efforts to facilitate conversations that will help farmers and others learn about what is working and how practices will have an impact for the entire state. These conversations can be one-on-one, in groups, electronic or in person, and should involve farmers, researchers and conservation professionals. Iowans need to work wholeheartedly on improving our water quality.

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, as a result of ILF and other efforts, that there will be much more diversity across Iowa’s landscape. The diversity may come in small pieces and may be comprised of different plant varieties and farming techniques that aren’t common today, but with an eye toward sustainability and conservation, the results should help keep our natural resources in good shape.

Is there anything else people should know about ILF? It’s amazing ILF has been around for 15 years and continues to evolve. We should recognize that the program’s growth and maturity hasn’t been a result of organizational mission creep, but rather it’s from adapting and developing programming to respond to the needs of stakeholders. ILF is a world-class organization driven by a creative and focused leader in Dr. Comito. We are lucky to have this team at ISU and in Iowa.

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