ANKENY, Iowa – “Observability”, according to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory, is the first step needed to encourage the adoption of a new practice. And the same can be said for the adoption of conservation practices – farmers need to “see” the practice on the landscape. Rogers grew up on a farm near Carroll, Iowa and according to his biographers; his father was reluctant to adopt hybrid seed corn technology in the 1930s. However, after “seeing” hybrid seed corn on his neighbor’s land weather a drought, he was convinced. Being able to witness the practice on a relatable landscape and to see the relative advantage of the practice convinced him, and helped Rogers develop his grand theory.

How can farmers “see” these practices as we enter the winter months? Or – in this memorable time – when a worldwide pandemic requires us all to isolate? One answer to this question is the Conservation Media Library, a visual toolkit for farmers, landowners, conservation professionals and anyone else interested in learning more about conservation practices. The Library was created by the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) and contains over 600 high resolution, professional photographs of conservation in action on farms across the Midwest. Each photo collection was curated to lead the viewer from the initiation of a conservation practice to its completion. And all the resources within the Conservation Media Library can be viewed, and downloaded for free, from the comfort of your own home.

The Library has continued to grow and adapt since its initiation in 2018 based on feedback. Bioreactors were added to the collection in December, joining cover crops, prairie strips, saturated buffers and drainage water management. And wetlands are slated to be added in 2021. Bioreactors, the newest addition, are an innovative conservation practice that filters drainage tile water through woodchips to remove nutrients and protect water quality. A bioreactor is an edge of field practice meaning, as the name implies, they are implemented on the edges of agricultural fields and have little to no impact on in field management.

Another reminder embedded in the Conservation Media Library is that conservation practices rarely make their way to the landscape without the time, effort and expertise of conservation professionals. Without conservation professionals to guide farmers, design effective practices, construct these structures, and inspire their initiation these practices will not be on the landscape to filter water, limit erosion, improve soil structure and offer habitat. This is presented through the Library in the diversity of experts and practitioners that come together to make a practice happen. The Conservation Media Library includes the work of conservation professionals including federal employees from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Agriculture Research Service, professors and extension agents from Land Grant Universities, state department of agriculture staff, construction professionals, city officials, private engineering firms, watershed coordinators, agricultural retailers, and of course, farmers and landowners.

But we need more conservation professionals! A report from Patagonia and Guidelight Strategies recently highlighted that one of the most common refrains from the farmers is the need for more conservation professionals on the landscape. As the report stated, “Comprehensive and culturally-responsive technical assistance—including outreach, education, planning, project design, and application and implementation assistance—acts as the necessary bridge for farmers and ranchers to successfully transition toward regenerative and climate-smart practices.” Chris Morris, a graduate student at Iowa State University, has also found in his research, currently in press, that interaction with a conservation professional is the greatest indicator of conservation adoption – not necessarily access to financial incentives.

Bioreactors, the newest addition to the Conservation Media Library, require engineers to design the practice, construction crews to implement, and a technical advisor to manage the project and consult with the farmer. Additionally, because of the predominantly rural location of agricultural land, the role of conservation as a source for rural jobs cannot be overstated. The bioreactors featured in the Conservation Media Library include a unique partnership between the City of Des Moines and the NRCS. The bioreactors, which are located in Polk County, Iowa near Easter Lake, were designed by the NRCS and constructed by the City of Des Moines. Jonathan Gano, Director of Public Works for the City of Des Moines, states, “In an effort to do all we can to improve water quality, we’ve built these bioreactors – an unusual part of a city’s stormwater system – as the ideal tool for the site. Taking a watershed approach lets us think holistically about the land and its uses within our boundaries and use all of the tools that are available to us.”

Conservation provides a public good in that these practices help to manage our shared water and soil resources. Wetlands for example, which will be added to the Conservation Media Library in 2021, provide floodwater storage, offer habitat for migrating waterfowl and can recharge groundwater supplies.

However, none of these positive changes can be observed on the landscape without the daily work of conservation professionals. Perhaps having a go-to resource like the Conservation Media Library to see these practices on the landscape will lead to greater adoption of conservation practices, and perhaps seeing the good and important work of conservation professionals will increase the investment in them as a valuable resource as well.

For More Information:

Catherine DeLong, Special Projects and Policy Director
Soil and Water Conservation Society