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Iowa conservation leaders help ILF celebrate 15 years

Iowa Learning Farms: The group is marking 15 years of soil conservation and water quality outreach efforts.

By Hilary Pierce

Iowa Learning Farms turned 15 in May. On July 11, leaders from Iowa’s conservation community, ILF partners, supporters and staff gathered at Reiman Gardens on the Iowa State University campus to celebrate the history, impact and future of this award-winning conservation and water quality outreach and education program.

Leaders from various agencies that have helped guide and fund ILF in its missions since 2004 were on hand to offer congratulations and thanks.

Bruce Trautman, former acting director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) expressed thanks for the efforts of ILF, the stewardship of some $1.5 million in funds granted over 15 years, and the farmer-partners who’ve been teaching over the fences across Iowa.

ILF a voice for conservation

Kurt Simon, state conservationist for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, made note of the numerous field days conducted by ILF, which have touched some 13,000 Iowans. He lauded the organization for its outstanding partnership with NRCS and the value returned for nearly $1 million in funding over its lifetime.

Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, recalled the early days of ILF under the supervision of former Leopold Center director Jerry DeWitt, during which time the ILF mission of building a culture of conservation got its start. He said ILF is a major voice of conservation in Iowa and saluted its partner program Water Rocks! for making an impact on conservation education for kids across Iowa.

Educational efforts on water quality

Susan Kozak, from the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, division of water and soil conservation, brought greetings and appreciation from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. She made note of the importance of the relationship between state offices and ISU and the value teams like ILF and its outreach efforts bring to all parties.

Kozak highlighted the unique benefit of the Conservation Station trailers in bringing conservation education to all Iowans through venues such as farmers markets and county fairs, as well as at field days which cater to farmers and landowners. She recognized ILF for its application of social science as a core element of programming noting that the data collected by ILF is crucial to mapping a path to progress for the state’s nutrient reduction strategy.

John Lawrence, vice president of ISU Extension and Outreach, applauded the ILF team for continuing to stay true to the roots of the program through its focus on farmer-to-farmer teaching. He took delight in mentioning that the Conservation Station trailers bring to mind the efforts of George Washington Carver in taking education to the fields. In 1906, Carver built a “traveling school” known as the Jessup Wagon, which facilitated education for some 2,000 farmers during its first summer in use, covering topics including soil health, crop rotation, fertilizer and best practices.

Milestone for ILF program

“Fifteen years is a milestone that many programs never reach,” said Jaqueline Comito, director of ILF. “We would not have enjoyed the successes we’ve had without the tremendous support, encouragement and input from the people and organizations in the room tonight. Our success is everyone’s success, and ultimately we feel we are making a difference for all Iowans on the water quality and conservation fronts.”

From its founding in 2004, ILF has used a multidisciplinary approach in its efforts to boost adoption of conservation practices that lead to greater natural resource protection. Bridging areas including ag engineering, agronomy, soil science, conservation and social science, the team has honed its approach to education services in ways that resonate with stakeholders across Iowa. One key tenet of the approach is to be farmer-centric and facilitate farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities through field days and seminars.

Steve Hopkins, DNR administrator for EPA Water Act Section 319 funds, said ILF has had a tangible impact on the state’s nonpoint source pollution reduction progress, commenting that “Nonpoint source education by ILF puts crucial information, practices and strategies in the hands of farmers. Providing a link between researchers and farmers, ILF leverages its partner farmers to spread information efficiently. In addition, the evaluation and feedback methods employed by ILF have helped us better understand how farmers make their decisions and develop better methods to work with them.”

Delivering message in innovative ways

ILF is also recognized for the effective use of art, music and graphic design to convey conservation messages in easy-to-consume media, breaking the mold of longer publications and research reports.

The three Conservation Station trailers are fully equipped mobile classrooms with materials and equipment needed to support field days, public appearances and even school programs. Each has a series of activities for all age groups as well as demonstration stations. Two are equipped with rainfall simulators to show soil erosion and one with working bioreactor and saturated buffer models.

In conclusion, Comito said, “Throughout the 15 years, not everything we tried was a complete success, but as you can see by the turnout for this event and the results tabulated in the 15-year report, ILF has made a difference and we look forward to continuing to change, grow and have even greater impact over the next 15 years.”

Pierce is an ISU Extension outreach specialist with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!

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