By Ann Staudt
In February, Iowa Learning Farms brought together a group of farmers, landowners and conservation professionals from across Iowa to take part in a Leadership Circle meeting at the Iowa State University Alumni Center in Ames.
Leadership Circle gatherings have been an input and feedback tool for ILF for several years, but this meeting took on special significance as is was the first event to celebrate ILF’s 15th anniversary this year.
Through Iowa State University Extension, ILF supports education initiatives throughout the state, focusing on conservation and water quality topics from a science- and research-based foundation. A key element of ILF programming lies in working with farmer-partners to provide support and information regarding best practices and research-based advice regarding sustainable farming and conservation initiatives.
In attendance were 18 farmers and landowners, all of whom are using conservation practices, such as no-till, cover crops and edge-of-field practices. Some are relative newcomers, while others have been fully committed to conservation practices for as long as three decades. Supporting the discussion were representatives from multiple organizations including ISU Extension, ILF, Conservation Learning Group at ISU, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Conservation Districts of Iowa.
Jacqueline Comito, ILF director, says the Leadership Circle provides an important forum for feedback and interaction. “We ask our farmer-partners to share their experiences and challenges with implementing different conservation practices. Through these discussions we learn about what is working and what isn’t making an impact. We also take the opportunity to test new ideas and seek input on our programs. To date, the feedback has been candid and very helpful. This meeting was no exception.”
Lessons learned over 15 years
ILF’s tactics, programming, approaches and activities have changed over time to continually improve the effectiveness and relevance of its outreach, but the fundamental goal has remained strong. The organization is focused not just on building awareness of the state’s natural resources, but also on helping to educate stakeholders about best practices to improve water quality, biodiversity and soil health, and quell resistance to the adoption of methods such as no-till, cover crops and edge-of-field practices.
The day’s program included a look back at the first 15 years of ILF from the viewpoint of farmer Seth Watkins of Page County, ISU Extension water quality program manager Jamie Benning, ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers, and the ILF leadership team. The review of the evolution and accomplishments of the organization provided a solid foundation for the day.
Conservation farmers set example
Jacqueline Comito began the discussion with opening comments about the importance of farmer-to-farmer education and the question: Do farmers appreciate the power they wield? Among the responses were some common themes.
Farmer influence. Each farmer employing conservation practices has a local influence. Their neighbors and family members may not be ready to follow them, but most are acutely aware of and have opinions about conservation practices.
Peer power. Sharing stories of successes and failures are equally important to influencing peers. Farmers do tend to give more credence to other farmers over commercial or educational experts.
Preconceptions. Pushing past current and older generational preconceptions about cover crops and no-till through constant outreach and education of younger farmers and their children will help bring about change over time.
Find right choice
Many hurdles to broad adoption were mentioned during the meeting. One that came up multiple times was the response, “Cover crops won’t work in this part of Iowa.”
Brent Johnson of Calhoun County refuted this saying. “Iowa is diverse. Farmers will implement change, but don’t try to pigeonhole them with the ‘one right way’. There is a rainbow of choices and each farm must find the right choice at the right time.”
Overcoming reluctance of farmers to adopt new practices despite mounting research on soil loss and nutrient runoff, which indicate change is needed, was also addressed by the group. Mark Thompson of Webster County asked the group, “How do we broaden the local platform that we all have? Each one of us can educate our neighbors and bring them along by hosting field days, sharing our successes and challenges, and making sure they know how our operations change over time. Extending that circle to a broader audience is something we should all consider.”
Others echoed this sentiment, adding the need to share stories and experience, acknowledge mistakes that others can learn from, and counter misinformation that’s often bandied about. Another key point raised by several members was to have the patience to take a longer-term view of success. Just as the weather in Iowa changes year to year, results will also vary by field and year.
Field days, on-farm demos valuable
Many agreed that showing impacts and results through field day programming and the use of the ILF Conservation Stations to demonstrate soil erosion and edge-of-field practices will help move others to consider taking a step toward conservation practices.
When the conversation turned to the relatively small number of farmers planting cover crops or using no-till, the discussion focused on proof. One panel member emphatically stated that farmers will only be convinced by an economic proof offered by farmers to farmers. Others preferred to take a looser and longer-term view of proof.
Chris Henning of Greene County mentioned that trying to fit conservation practices into a return-on-investment formula is nearly impossible. Other members of the panel took this idea further. One suggested building the environmental costs of not practicing conservation into the economic model. Others noted the time element involved in converting a farm to any new practice. The intrinsic benefit of keeping nutrients and soil in the fields does have a positive impact on production and yield, but may take multiple growing seasons to show major results.
Not all successful with covers
Brian Sampson of Story County admitted to being on both sides of the fence. He tried cover crops and didn’t have the success he wanted. Two years ago, he was asked to participate in an ILF research project that would require him to plant cover crops on a major number of his acres. Despite the technical assistance from ILF staff, he still has questions.
“I want to believe that I’m doing the right thing, but when I look behind the tractor the fear and doubt still try to creep in. When you commit to a conservation plan, it may look great on paper, but as you implement, it’s easy to find as many reasons that it works as there are reasons that it doesn’t. It really takes a balance between belief in the greater benefit of conservation and the traditional way of looking at the bottom line.”
When asked about the challenges facing Iowa and farming in Iowa, there was concern over maintaining control and being a part of the solution, not just being perceived as a problem. The Des Moines Waterworks suit was used as one example of this.
Ray Gaesser from Adams County, noted, “Farmers care for the land and want to leave their farm better for the next generation. The rain falls on all of us. All of Iowa has a role to play; farmers, landowners, cities, citizens. The lawsuit was a wake-up call that our citizens are concerned about the quality of the water. Conservation practices all go hand in hand toward improving the quality of our water and improving soil health. Conservation practices take time and effort, and change is tough. But in the long run, it will be better if we make our own choices before something gets forced down on all farmers.”
Looking to future for ILF, Iowa
Looking ahead, the group considered the next growing season. Due to unusual weather in the fall, many fields in Iowa were not tilled after harvest. This unintentional no-till situation presents an opportunity for farmers across the state to try no-till with no extra effort this year. All agreed that leveraging this situation will require a lot of education and convincing.
Many farmers will be inclined to “rip” the fields in early spring to get ready for planting. Persuading them to plant through the crop residue must be followed by a lot of coaching and information on best practices and details such as planter settings.
Staudt is manager and content specialist for Iowa Learning Farms.