Conservation Efforts

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

Many of us have had our share of virtual meetings and presentations the past few months. It certainly has been challenging not to meet in person. However we are grateful that we have been able to have conversations and to share and highlight good works that benefit the health of our soil and water. Many of our partner organizations have been hosting some excellent presentations related to our conservation efforts.

Jordan Creek Trail in Winter, Photo by Christine Curry

Forever Green—

We would like to share some of our own recent virtual discussions and connections. We are extremely thankful to UMRI’s Executive Director, David Zentner, who continues to contribute hours of his personal time and knowledge to the program as a full-time volunteer.  Because of his efforts and others, our Iowa and Minnesota teams are continuing to build and expand the beginning stages of a UMRI pilot project.  This plan includes working with small groups of farmers and partners in a target watershed to share regenerative practices. We think it will open economic opportunities for new cover crops while improving soil health and water quality.

While there are many good state and federal cover crop programs available to farmers throughout the United States, many are difficult for farmers to access and few offer a market driven approach.  This is why we are thrilled to be partnering with University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Project.  This soils and climate inspired program has been specifically designed with a market driven strategy.  Agronomists Dr. Don Wyse and Dr. Nicolas Jordan have been leading the way to help develop special marketplace niches for new cover crops.  During the past couple of decades they have been working with others to develop hybrid crops while working with companies like General Mills to help grow local markets for farmers. This project will not only put money in the pockets of farmers, it will reduce pesticides and herbicide chemical runoffs by 70% while improving soil health and water quality.  It is possible!  It just takes lots of coordinating, educating and boots on the ground.

Another Local Hero with Boots on the Ground—

Talking about boots on the ground, we recently participated in an excellent virtual event with Fishers and Farmers’ Boots on the Ground presentation featuring Iowa’s Black Hawk Creek Water and Soil Coalition.

During the event, Fishers and Farmers’ host Nancy North stated, “We know this work is challenging and there is no one recipe for success. Every place and community is different, and each group has to find its own way.”

Several of the members of the coalition participated in the discussion by sharing their story of how they have worked together to get this group off the ground in the past few years.  Efforts like this always start with someone on the ground who cares about the land they love.   And this effort was initiated by another one of Iowa’s local watershed heroes, Clark Porter.

Another local hero in the watershed, Photo provided by Clark Porter

Clark grew up along the Black Hawk Creek. Having spent his childhood years outdoors, he now manages his family’s farm, including making conservation improvements. During this time, Clark learned that the creek was an impaired waterway and he wanted to restore it. This connection to the land and the creek led Clark to gather others to form the Black Hawk Creek Water and Soil Coalition in 2017.  Thanks to the initial grant through Grundy County, the organization now has a full-time paid position which is held by Faith Luce.  Faith continues to reach out to farmers in order to share information and offer available programs.

Other participants included concerned citizens Jack Boyer and Vern Fish, who currently serve on the board and continue to work with others to secure additional funding to expand their initiatives.  After starting the coalition, Clark took a position with Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship as the environmental specialist for Black Hawk Creek County.  He continues to support the coalition through voluntary efforts.

Black Hawk Creek in Winter, Photo by: Clark Porter

Deeply Rooted in Crops and Prairie—

Here’s one more recent conversation that sheds light on conservation at work, sometimes in the most unexpected places.  Over the past few decades, UMRI’s Iowa Coordinator Mike Delaney and his neighbor Harry Stine have exchanged many lively discussions about nature and about agriculture.  They own land adjacent to one another along the Raccoon River in Dallas County.  Mike’s land on the east side of the Raccoon River includes 20 acres of a reconstructed prairie with more than 60 species of native forbs and grasses.  Next to Mike’s flood plain and terrace on the west side of the river is a row crop field owned by Harry Stine.  On the bluff above the field and the timbered hillside is Harry’s home and the Stine Seed Company.  Mike and Harry have a mutual respect for each other and they both appreciate their unique friendship.

Stine Field Day, Photo provided by Stine Seed Co.

Mike bought his little farm in 1988, and he initially put in beans and corn planted by Harry. Taking advantage of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which incentivizes improving land conservation, Mike seeded prairie grasses on his 17 acres. During that time he and Harry visited some prairie remnants along the river. On one of their walks Mike noticed a very light pink New England Aster and said, “I would love to have seed from that plant for my prairie.” At that point Harry took a soybean tag from his pocket so Mike could tag the plant for future seed harvest. Now 15 years later, Mike’s prairie is sprinkled with the descendants.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Photo by Robin Fortney

Mike and I recently met with Harry Stine via Zoom to learn his perspectives on how we can improve soil health and water quality in Iowa.  We discussed that we have to figure out a way to blend and balance our original prairie grass root system with innovative agriculture technologies as an economic driver in our state for long-term sustainability.  We need to have more conversations like this.

A little background—

Harry grew up on a farm in Adel, Iowa and has dedicated his life to the biology of soybean and corn seeds.  Harry founded Stine Seed Company, which is the country’s largest independent seed company.  At this stage of his journey, Harry continues to be engaged and is listed as one of Iowa’s most successful businessmen.  He is also noted as one of America’s top entrepreneurs in Forbes 400.

Harry Stine, Photo provided by Stine Seed Co.

During the course of our conversation, it was noted that there are many organizations dedicated to solving land and water problems, and yet the data clearly show that we are in fact not making much progress.  When we asked Harry how we can make a difference and what we can do to help improve soil health and water quality, he emphasized the need to implement good farmer practices and expand agricultural education. He said that it’s going to require everyone pitching in, not just one organization or one person.

We discussed confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) and large industrial operations. We discussed the currently proposed beef operation in the NE of the state and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ruling to allow 2,700 head of cattle (originally projected to be 11,600) along one of Iowa’s cleanest trout streams, considered “Outstanding Water”.  Harry noted that advances in the technologies of these large operations could allow them to improve efficiencies of production while still reducing polluting run-offs.

As we continued our conversation, we discussed unintended consequences from large, industrial agriculture operations, resulting in the pollution of major waterways. Harry opposes additional mandates or regulations but believes that individuals or businesses should be held accountable and pay for any damages.

When asked about climate change in relationship to agriculture, Harry assured us that he supports the science of carbon sequestration. He recognizes that soil carbon is being depleted and he has used cover crops and even applied char to his fields. He is currently working with Iowa State University in biochar development and applications.

As we end 2020, We’re wishing you the very best!

Stay Safe and Stay Engaged.

More virtual events to come in 2021—

Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual conference, January 21-23, 2021

On-line training to become a certified Izaak Walton League’s Save Our Stream monitor