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!
As director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Ag at ISU, Jerry DeWitt first heard the idea for Iowa Learning Farms from fellow ISU faculty member Mahdi Al-Kaisi. In 2006, DeWitt was tasked with administrative oversight of ILF in his role as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He continued his work with ILF and contributed to the early development of program ideas until leaving the Leopold Center in 2010. DeWitt is also a professor emeritus at ISU.
What was your involvement and role with ILF? When ILF first started, my office was next door to Mahdi. I told him I thought the ILF approach was quite creative and a great idea for improving conservation outreach and education. In 2006, I became directly involved as director of the Leopold Center.
Although I wasn’t part of the initial formation of ILF, I was there during the time when things really took off, and the team developed a range of programs and components that took it well beyond the traditional Extension-type methodology. ILF was under the administrative auspices of the Leopold Center. The goals of ILF were a good fit with the Leopold Center mission, and it made organizational sense within the university’s structure.
What did you find unique about ILF? As a seasoned administrator, I always liked to take the approach of providing an organization with structure and foundation, but letting the experts drive the outcomes. With ILF this worked well.
The team included faculty and staff from different departments. Yet when we all gathered to talk about program ideas and goals, the typical hierarchy was left at the door, and everyone was encouraged to contribute as a peer. This collegial working environment was not just effective and productive, it was a lot of fun.
What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement? ILF was, and continues to be, an innovative and effective conservation outreach program. Promoting farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities and putting actionable information and practices into the hands of those who will use them, have proven to be very effective in working toward the ILF goal of building a “culture of conservation.”
Engaging expertise across organizational lines within the university and community, ILF is a great example of how interdisciplinary organizations can function and succeed.
After a decade of Extension budget-tightening, which brought about changes in the ability to deliver services, and damaged our relationship with farmers, ILF helped reaffirm my belief in the important role Extension plays in Iowa.
How did you change the program, and how did it change you? The program changed me more than I changed it. If I had any direct impact, it would have been minor or subtle. My contribution to ILF was as an administrator and organizer. Certainly, ILF’s association with the Leopold Center contributed early credibility to the program within the university, as well as with partners in Des Moines and around the state. But in very short order, ILF built its own reputation as a strong partner that consistently progressed toward and beyond its goals.
I believe I brought stability and continuity to the ILF organization, and within that structure let the team use their creativity and skills to succeed. It was not a difficult job with this group, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Working with ILF also helped to re-establish my belief in the value of farmer-led one-on-one education in the field. Building these interactive conversations with all stakeholders through direct hands-in-the-soil efforts is what Extension should be all about.
What are your fondest memories of working with ILF? There are many, but two favorites come to mind. The first was watching a farmer lead a discussion about soil with a group of farmers using nothing more than two buckets of soil and a spade. He awed the audience with his knowledge and his presentation on soil quality in the words of a working farmer.
The second was the weekly ILF meetings. The team gathered for planning, coordination and checking signals. The meetings were efficient, but more importantly they were fun. The sense of energy and passion was palpable and infectious. They were always eager to make a difference. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself when working with such a group.
Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa? Water quality and soil conservation are important to me and Iowa. I co-own a farm that’s been in production for over 100 years. It’s imperative to protect the soil and environment so my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy and benefit from a productive farm as well.
Iowa has some of the best and most fertile soil in the world. If we lose the advantage of this incredible resource, we’ve effectively lost Iowa. It’s crucial to protect and maintain our collective resources, or we will find we’re no longer in the Iowa we love.
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 it happen in less than 15 years; I want to see a totally different landscape in Iowa. USDA-NRCS published a booklet titled “Lines on the Land,” which provides a great description of what a diverse and healthy farming landscape can look like. A landscape developed for soil protection, biodiversity, structure, enhanced productivity and cleaner water. If we can make progress toward that ideal, I’ll be delighted.
Is there anything else people should know about ILF? I reiterate that ILF is showing the people of Iowa and an ISU Extension program that’s over 100 years old how outreach and Extension has worked in the distant past and how it should work today: hands-on and farmer-to-farmer.