When 21 farmers, some early in their careers and others nearing retirement, get together to talk about conservation with agency representatives, everyone can learn from the range of farming perspectives and experience.
That is why Iowa Learning Farms hosts Farmer Leadership Circles, where conservation-minded farmers from across Iowa discuss topics ranging from water quality, land stewardship and climate, to business and personal goals for their farms. The farmers also provide input to representatives from multiple agencies responsible for creating and implementing conservation programs.
ILF, a conservation-focused education and outreach program for Iowa farmers and landowners based at Iowa State University Extension, hosted its fourth Farmer Leadership Circle meeting recently at ISU.
Group of farmers, eager to share
“The purpose of the Leadership Circle is to foster dialogue between farmers about conservation practices, goals, successes and failures, while the invited agency representatives observe and address specific questions from the group,” says Jacqueline Comito, director of ILF. “Our role is to listen, and we strive to assemble a diverse group of participants to ensure we are getting a wide range of perspectives and opinions.”
One farmer in the group described himself as a fifth and final generation family farmer who didn’t encourage his children to continue the family business. Others had taken over responsibility of family farm operations, and some were advancing on their own without the legacy and support of a family farm.
All participants placed a high value on conservation and are actively using different practices appropriate to their region, landscape, soil and farm type. Some of the participants also serve with county soil and water conservation districts and other organizations in their local communities.
Observers at the Leadership Circle included members of ILF’s steering committee and conservation learning group leadership team, representing the following agencies: Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Nutrient Research Center, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and ISU Extension and Outreach.
Responding to why conservation practices are so important to Iowa, one farmer answered, “We have the most productive soil on earth, and we export it every day to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just crazy to throw away our most valuable resource.”
Another asked, “If you would consider letting an asset such as the roof of a house or public building degrade to the point of collapse, and if not, why would you let an asset like good soil degrade?”
The group responded to the 2019 ILF cover crop survey, which indicated that there are just over 1 million acres in cover crops statewide, and only 10% came from new seedings. In other words, not many farmers are trying cover crops for the first time. Cover crop acreage isn’t expanding as fast as needed.
Ideas to get more cover crops
Several farmers expressed disappointment in the figures but noted that barriers to adoption include habit, education and economic factors. There was near consensus that to overcome reluctance to change, education efforts need to include both economic persuasion, as well as repetitive and consistent advice on best practices from experts and peers.
One farmer suggested conservation programs should be offering broader incentives to get farmers and landowners to adopt cover crops. He suggested using incentives other than short-term cost share funds, perhaps tying adoption to crop insurance policies. Several other farmers thought more Extension presence at the county level is needed to help bring education and best practices to the farmers who have yet to adopt cover cropping on their farms.
“We all learned a lot and took away some good ideas for how to increase awareness and adoption of better land stewardship and conservation from this meeting,” Comito says.
To learn more about Iowa Learning Farms outreach and education programs, visit iowalearningfarms.org.