Fawcett Farms of Cedar County was an early adopter of conservation practices that benefit Iowa's soil, water and pollinators.

Monarch butterflies flutter into the air as Ken Fawcett points out different types of flowers growing in a 10-acre pollinator strip that winds through a soybean field on his Cedar County farm. 

The 80-foot wide strip thrives with more than three dozen different varieties of wildflowers and native grasses, providing habitat for wildlife while also protecting the soil and making it easier for Fawcett and his nephew, Kent Stuart, to farm around waterways in the sloping field. 

“It’s remarkable to see the variety of flowers from spring to fall,” says Fawcett. “I just couldn’t believe that we could spray herbicides right next to it and not damage any of the flowers. It’s just amazing to me that those two things are compatible. I wish every farmer could see it.” 

The pollinator strip is just one of more than a dozen conservation practices employed by Fawcett and Stuart, who earned the 2021 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year Award for their ongoing efforts to protect soil and water quality. 

As winners of the statewide conservation award, Fawcett Farms received the free use of a John Deere 6E Series utility tractor for up to 12 months or 200 hours. The tractor award is sponsored by Van Wall Equipment of Perry and John Deere. 

The conservation award, spon­sor­ed by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa Depart­ment of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, was presented by Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Julie Kenney. 

“I’m so impressed with all that you’ve done in conservation. I sense the pride and the passion that you have for this,” said Kenney. “I commend you for all that you’ve done to advance stewardship, but I think what’s even more impressive is how you share that story with others … to help create that ripple effect and get other people engaged and sharing the passion that you have.”

Fawcett Farms was an early adopter of no-till in the 1970s and has installed contour buffer strips in many of their fields. They built a pond to prevent erosion next to a freshwater spring in the 1980s, and in more recent years, Stuart and Fawcett have adopted cover crops, installed a saturated buffer and planted thousands of trees in riparian buffers to protect water quality in creeks running through their farm.

The Cedar County Farm Bureau members also utilize nitrogen stabilizers and conduct soil and water tests to make sure nutrients are staying where they’re able to be utilized by crops instead of leaching into waterways. “That’s vitally im­­portant to us because we’re the first ones to drink the water,” says Stuart. “We have springs around here that we certainly don’t want excess nitrates in.”

The 72-year-old Fawcett, a fourth generation farmer, traces his conservation ethic back to the early days of his farming career when most farmers still relied heavily on tillage to manage weeds. He decided changes were needed after seeing the farm’s black soil washed away by a pounding rain storm. 

“The typical tillage procedure back then was the moldboard plow,” he recalls. “One of the first things I helped implement was chisel plowing, minimum tillage and planting into a lot of crop residue. It’s been very, very satisfying to see the changes through those years and how much more protection is afforded to the soil and how much better the soil is.”

Fawcett and Stuart often host field days to allow neighboring farmers to see the conservation practices they’ve implemented and ask questions. 

“I think a lot of people are ap­prehensive of different practices and how it’s going to affect the commercial side of their business,” says Stuart, age 59. “When they see it firsthand, I think it helps bring it home that they’re not going to be detrimental to the corn or soybean crop next to it. That’s very satisfying to make that connection to people and (show) that it is possible. It’s just a different way of doing things.”

The farmer-to-farmer learning aspect of conservation is important because practices that work in southeast Iowa are different than in other parts of the state, Stuart points out.

“Farms are different, so there’s not going to be one practice that you can prescribe for everybody,” he says. “It is the goal of every farmer we know to reduce the amount of runoff because that’s what carries the nutrients. It’s important to us to be able to try different things on our terms rather than having the government dictate what we have to do.” 

Fawcett says technology has trans­formed farming and enabled many new conservation practices over the past 40 years, and he sees even more changes to come in the years ahead. 

“I think technology can help diversify agriculture, not just field by field but acre by acre,” he says. “By knowing what each acre is doing, we can tailor the practices to the soil better. We can put crops on those areas that are the most productive, (and) we can find areas that aren’t and use some of the conservation programs that are beneficial.”

Regional winners in the 2021 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year pro­gram are Nathan Ronsiek of Sioux County, Brent Larson of Webster County, Merlin Balik of Howard County, Tom and Maren Beard of Winneshiek County, Mark Assman of Shelby County, Randy Gamble of Madison County, and Harold and Delores Sandquist of Jefferson County.