Eagle Grove Students Learn about Conservation Practices on the Farm

Eagle Grove, IA – On September 20th, the Earth Science class from the Eagle Grove High School took a field trip to a farm operated by Tim Smith. Smith, a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture, showed how he incorporates cover crops, strip tillage, and a bioreactor into his farm operation. Students also traveled 12 miles north of his farm to tour a wetland CREP site. Tim, along with Bruce Voigts and Tas Stephen from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in the Clarion USDA office, discussed how the benefits these practices add to soil health and water quality.

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Iowa’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts – Good conference, good people

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, we headed down to Prairie Meadows in Altoona for the 2015 Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners 69th Annual Conference. The Iowa Water Center has exhibited at the last three conferences, and we must say, it gets better every year. Clare Lindahl and her staff at Conservation Districts of Iowa work incredibly hard to put together a fun, informative conference with some big names in the business – the luncheon speaker on Tuesday was Kirk Hanlin, Assistant Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and on Wednesday, Iowa’s own Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

Our limited budget doesn’t allow us to exhibit at a lot of conferences each year, but we make sure to include this conference at the top of our list. We always see good friends, like Jamie Benning, who masterfully connects people and watersheds to Extension programming as the Water Quality Program Manager for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Jackie Comito with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! (who, by the way, was honored this past spring as a recipient of the National Wetlands Award).  We were happy to see we were positioned next to our perennial neighbor at this conference, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It gives us a chance to catch up with our colleagues – these are busy times in the Iowa water landscape, so we don’t always have the time to keep up with each other like we’d like to!

Another reason we keep coming back is the quality conversations we have with attendees of the conference. Our booth is boring compared to some others – we don’t hand out pens, or candy, or keychains – in fact, this year, we just had our display, Iowa Water Conference Save-the-Date postcards, and copies of our white paper of Water Resources Priorities from the 2015 Iowa Water Conference session. But the district commissioners don’t care that they won’t pick up a water bottle or a stress ball from us. They want to know who we are, what we do, what we’re working on, and how they can use us as a resource. These are elected officials who will go back home after two days of soaking up information and will use it to better soil and water conservation management in their district. There are 500 soil and water conservation district commissioners, and they want to talk to you (yes, you!) about what can be done in YOUR district for soil and water. Find contact information for your commissioners and have a conversation about conservation.

PRACTICES: A tale of grassed waterways

Guest post by John Gilbert of Gibralter Farms, an Iowa Century Farm raising dairy, pigs and crops in the South Fork [Iowa River] Watershed in Hardin County.

The folks of Gehrke Construction, Eldora, and the Hardin County office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently finished shaping  what is now Gibralter Farms’ longest waterway.

About 1900 feet in length (three-eighth of a mile), the channel is designed to safely move water that runs off the surface of about 80 acres down 40 feet in elevation to where it can spread out in grass pastures before entering The Southfork, a tributary of the Iowa River.  (The channel will be seeded to sod-forming grass in the spring;  cross-channel fabric checks protect it until then.)  Part of the route has been a waterway for a long time, but recent years of heavier rains have re-enforced the need to control the water all the way across our crop fields.

This is the fourth waterway across this farm moving surface water from the uplands to the north to grass and wetland areas buffering The Southfork, all rebuilt since 2008.  Public money has helped cover half the cost on all but one reconstruction, and could be slightly more than $4,500 on this project.

In addition to the cash assistance, NRCS personnel provided engineering design and layout at no additional cost.  Even after spending 14 years as a commissioner for the Hardin County Soil and Water Conservation District, I’m challenged to explain just what the public gets for their investment in projects like ours.  Obviously, it facilitates getting it done, as it would be harder to budget the whole cost into any year’s expenses, but could be covered by cutting back on other improvements.  Cost share projects are designed to help keep soil from washing, and to protect water quality, and this project will have some benefit for both.

In the final analysis, the benefit is really more one of the public having some involvement in protecting the land, which really is a commonly held resource…one on which we all rely.  Recent trends in farming — with fewer owner-operators and more ownership physically and generationally removed from the land — have eroded (pun intended) the understanding that good soil stewardship is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of using the land.

Farms are not like Vegas; what happens here doesn’t stay here.  What we do as farmers affects us all.  That’s why we’re glad to get this project done.

Most people might not see bulldozed dirt as art, but a well shaped waterway is a thing of beauty.  One more thing to be thankful for.