Taking on the challenge of improving Iowa’s water quality and protecting soil has long been a priority for Mark Jackson, who farms near Rose Hill in southeast Iowa. He was recently named Iowa’s Conservation Farmer of the Year for 2020. Now in its 68th year, the prestigious award is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
The award was presented by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig at the local Van Wall Equipment dealership in Oskaloosa. “Mark uses a variety of practices to improve water quality and soil health. He is helping lead the way in our state’s conservation efforts,” Naig said. “With all that he does in conservation, and all of his work to pass that knowledge onto future generations, Mark is absolutely deserving of this award.”
Jackson was an early adopter of many conservation practices, first implementing soil and water stewardship projects when he and his wife, JoAnn, began farming near the South Skunk River. “I have good, level fields, but I also have a lot of fields that are rolling,” Jackson says. “So, I went in the direction to try to conserve our soil.”
Began using no-till many years ago
Shortly after graduating from Iowa State University in 1974, Jackson broke with the common tradition of clean-tilling fields and turning the soil over after harvest. Instead, he adopted a no-till system that uses crop residue to stabilize the soil. He also began planting grass waterways and grass buffers to hold soil on his farm. Next came terraces, sediment basins, contouring, cover crops and more.
Today, the Jackson farm has 40,000 feet of grassed waterways and 25,000 feet of terraces. The Jacksons plant cover crops annually and use several other projects to improve soil health and advance water quality.
Jackson knows his conservation practices are yielding results, and he sees those advancements firsthand following rain. He is observing an increasing amount of organic matter in his soil and sees improved water infiltration after it rains. Both the increased organic matter and improved water infiltration are huge factors in controlling soil erosion and protecting water quality.
Nearly a decade ago, he started planting cover crops. “We started slow, but we quickly saw the advantage of cover crops,” Jackson says. “We haven’t seen any yield drag, and we are banking nutrients and conserving our soil, which is very good for us in the long term.”
Jackson was nominated for the award by his son, Michael Jackson, president-elect of the Mahaska County Farm Bureau. In nominating his father, Michael wrote, “Leaving a family farming legacy of continuous improvement for the next generation to build on is the cornerstone of his farming protocols.”
Leading by example, leaving a legacy
“As farmers, we know that leading by example is so important, because everyone has a role to play in protecting our soil and water quality,” said Craig Hill, IFBF president. “Our role as farmers is to do more than grow food; we must all work towards leaving the land and watershed better for the next generation. We can even take things a step farther and share our conservation success stories with other farmers and encourage them to implement more conservation practices on their farms — something Mark has done so passionately throughout his farming career.”
For earning the award, Jackson will receive the free use of a John Deere 6E Series utility tractor for up to 12 months, or 200 hours. The tractor prize is sponsored annually by Van Wall Equipment of Perry, and John Deere.
In addition to Jackson receiving the statewide award, regional winners for 2020 include: Sam and Danielle Bennett, Ida County; David Stevenson, Wright County; Jeff Rooney, Rooney Farms LLC, Cerro Gordo County; Michael Redmond, Jackson County; Russell Brandes, East Pottawattamie County; the Des Moines Area Community College Farm, Dallas County; and Roger Van Ersvelde, Poweshiek County.