Iowa Learning Farms, the award-winning statewide conservation and water quality education and outreach program at Iowa State University, celebrates 15 years of service to Iowa in 2019.
Established in 2004, ILF is building a “culture of conservation” by encouraging adoption of conservation practices. Farmers, researchers and ILF team members are working together to identify and implement the best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable. Throughout the year, ILF is sharing stories about the contributors, history and successes of the program and its partner program Water Rocks! For information, visit iowalearningfarms.org.
Rick Juchems operates a family farm raising soybeans, corn, cover crops and hogs near Plainfield, in northeast Iowa. He has a long history with conservation practices and has been a cooperating farmer in ILF programs and studies since the organization was formed in 2004. He’s committed to running a successful agricultural enterprise while keeping a focus on conservation efforts that keep the productive soil in place and maintaining a better environment on the farm and downstream.
What was your involvement and role with ILF? My first exposure to ILF occurred when they came to speak at a Conservation District of Iowa board meeting, seeking farmers to participate in some early studies. At the time, my farm was in a classical corn-soybean rotation, and it made sense to see what I could learn and gain from participating in the studies. Since those early days, I’ve participated in multiple studies, hosted field days, and continued to both learn and share my knowledge.
In 2008, I joined the rye cover crop study and have stayed with it for 10 years. Like the other participants in this study, I started with test plots. But today, I’m 100% cover crop, and particularly in a year like 2019, it’s made a huge difference on my farm.
What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement? ILF works to take information gathered through research and small-plot studies and put it into practice on whole-field applications. These programs include farming practices as well as efforts to improve water quality and soil health. They are committed to actively protecting our environment while supporting farming.
My purpose in participating with ILF was, and is, to learn how to improve the soil and production on my farm. A critical part of the ILF approach is that they want me and other farmers to help educate and influence each other.
Promoting this farmer-to-farmer interaction is probably the most important thing ILF has done to make headway on their mission of creating a culture of conservation in Iowa. It’s easy for farmers to latch onto what has worked for them in the past, and sometimes it takes someone who’s facing the same challenges and situations to get them to consider doing something different.
How did you change the program, and how did it change you? I’m not sure I’ve directly changed the ILF program, but I have participated in ILF Leadership Circle meetings and multiple surveys. ILF is hungry for information, and they are always eager to hear my ideas and feedback. Maybe I’ve changed things from behind the scenes through this involvement.
ILF changed the way I look at my farm and the soil on it, and what I do to preserve and improve the soil. Conservation has always been important to me, but working with ILF on things such as cover crops, I’ve seen the benefits to my soil structure indicated by better water infiltration and more night crawlers.
What are your fondest memories of working with ILF? Getting to meet and work with a great group of people from around the state. I regularly get to know new like-minded people concerned about conservation as well as people looking for information. I’ve really enjoyed speaking at events and field days and am frequently stopped by people who saw me speak looking for information and advice. I hope I’m making a difference with a few people and contributing to building a more sustainable ecosystem in Iowa.
Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa? From a business point of view, working to improve water quality is important because it means my soil is staying where it belongs — in the fields. If we can constantly improve soil retention and slow runoff, water quality will improve all by itself. This has been a very challenging year in Iowa, with lots of rain and flooding at inopportune times. The resulting erosion of river and stream banks was bad, but for farms without cover crops to help hold the soil, the problems were much worse.
As Iowa continues to work on its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers need to understand the potential ramifications. We must be proactive in changing practices to stay ahead of the plan, or we risk having regulatory mandates that will likely not be to our liking.
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 that the education programs from ILF and Water Rocks! have helped bring about a generational change in Iowans regarding water quality and conservation. I’d like to see caring about the environment, and understanding the responsibility each person, community and farm has in maintaining water quality, to be natural for every Iowan.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about ILF? I’m glad ILF got started when they did and that they’ve continued to do good work for 15 years. They’ve taken the bull by the horns to get people involved and increase knowledge about conservation. The application of farmer-to-farmer outreach has been a critical and successful part of the program that should help it continue to flourish.