Conservation Efforts

By Mike Delaney, UMRI Iowa coordinator, Christine Curry, and other Iowa Izaak Walton League chapter members

We love sharing stories from great conservation farmers in the Raccoon River Watershed. Many of our active UMRI members are also volunteers of our partner organizations. During this Covid-restricted summer, we’ve had the opportunity to visit some admirable farmers who are doing great things to improve soil health and water quality, all while sequestering carbon.

In July we visited a couple of farms that were hit hard by the drought.  A few weeks after our visits, we learned that those farms had suffered destruction caused by the derecho.

Derecho destruction of corn across the road from Chris Henning’s farm. Photo by Christine Curry


Farm Visits continue…


Just fifteen days after the August 10th derecho tore through Central Iowa, we visited Greene County’s 4th generation farmer, Chris Henning, at her farm in Franklin township.  As we drove slightly NW from Des Moines on our way to her farm we observed many miles of crop destruction from the derecho, with flattened dry corn stalks everywhere.

As we walked along the gravel road with Chris and her little dog Tuffy, she shared her story with us and explained why she’s dedicated to conservation farming and answering her neighbor’s complaint: “Your dad and grandpa wouldn’t do it this way”. Photo by Christine Curry


A fourth generation farm kid, in 1992 Chris and her late husband invested in this farm and Chris returned home to rehab the 1874 farmhouse after a twenty year career in HR, management and marketing in central Iowa and Arizona.  Chris was just settling in July 1993, when her farm, Greene County and the Raccoon River Watershed experienced the devastating floods of 1993.

The Floods were a living example of how conventional, fence-row to fence-row crop production was not working so well.  The “hundred year flood” caused major drainage, erosion issues, and extreme soil loss on the farms, and water levels that took out water treatment plants and inundated city centers, leaving greater Des Moines without water service for almost two weeks.

With boots on the ground, Chris began studying, taking notes and action to improve this piece of Iowa’s farmland. She started taking steps on her farm by taking some of the marginal land out of production that in her opinion should have never been farmed in the first place.  She incorporated conservation techniques including prairie buffers along streams and taking wetlands out of production, diversified her farming practices, and added cover crops to the corn and soybean rotation.

Chris Henning's prairie buffers provide a lovely wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Chris Henning’s prairie buffers provide a lovely wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Chris explains the benefits of conservation farming in her soy bean field. Photo by Christine Curry


Higher return on investments…with Diversity


Over the years, Chris has been able to demonstrate that she has a higher return on investments while improving the quality and value of her farm land that now includes two neighboring parcels.  About half of the 320 acres she owns are in state and federal conservation reserve programs (USDA CRP) to protect the land, add wildlife and pollinator habitats to existing cropland, and protect the soil and water quality.

We are grateful to have women like Chris who are working hard to improve agriculture in Iowa.  Chris is a community advocate and an active member of several agriculture and conservation organizations. She is a well-known speaker and often featured as a presenter at related events.  Chris currently leads the Raccoon River Watershed Association.

Farmhouse Sunflowers Photo by Christine Curry


Educators and lifelong learners in the watershed…


Many of our UMRI partners are educators and lifelong learners themselves, and Bob Rye is no exception.  Bob is one of our active members who continues to contribute his time and shares his knowledge with others. He also captures some beautiful photographs of nature and wildlife along the way.  Besides photography, Bob’s interests also include; grand-parenting, volunteering, traveling, motorcycles, bicycles, hiking, fishing, hunting, woodworking, cooking, gardening, developing partnerships…all through education.

Bob Rye an educator and lifelong learner… Photo submitted by Bob Rye

Bob started in his journey in Washington D.C. then went to school and worked in Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa. While working in Iowa in the mid-70’s, Bob was the manager at Springbrook Conservation Education Center in Guthrie County.  During his time at Springbrook, Bob created valuable partnerships with other universities and departments.  The programs expanded over the years with many special activities, classes and workshops offered for both students and teachers.  By the mid-90’s, over 17,000 people visited the Center each year. He retired in the State of Washington for 9 years. Eventually Iowa friends and it’s beautiful nature brought him back. And we are grateful to have him back!

Iowa State Goldfinch snacking on Thistle By Bob Rye

Where is the water?


Central Iowa has had quite the weather year!  Farmers just got in the field when it rained for several days, and all took a deep breath, remembering 2018’s late planting.  But the rains stopped short of “normal”, planting resumed and the spring and most of the summer had less than normal rain.  Late July and August went by without much needed rain.  By September 1st, the Raccoon River at canoe access points near Chris’s farm were nearly dry…more suitable for walking than using a canoe or kayak.  Nearby farmers who had DNR permits to use millions of gallons of water to irrigate their crops were among those notified to cease use because of the drought’s effects on water levels here and downstream, especially in the Des Moines area, where the Raccoon River is a principal source of drinking water for nearly 500,000 people.

Squirrel Hollow and Adkins Bridge canoe access points are each within 3 miles of Chris’s farm. Canoeing and kayaking has been severely curtailed because of low water levels. Photo by Bob Rye


Raccoon River near Squirrel Hollow. Photo by Bob Rye