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Welcome to Episode 47 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. This is part one of a two-part series on water quality and conservation. In this episode, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig quantifies the growing number of practices Iowa's farmers are using to protect soil and water quality. And Mark Jackson (a Mahaska County Farm Bureau member who was recently named Iowa's 2020 Conservation Farmer of the Year) shares his advice for farmers who are looking to scale up their conservation efforts.

Below are some of the resources referred to in this episode:

Click here to view the transcript +
Narrator: Since 1934 Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now the Spokesman Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now here's your host.

Andrew Wheeler: Welcome to the July 27th edition of the Spokesman Speaks podcast. I'm Andrew Wheeler. And in today's episode, we're going to dive into the topic of water quality with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Naig, and Mark Jackson, the Haskell County farm Bureau member who was recently named Iowa's 2020 conservation farmer of the year. This is actually part one of a two part series we're doing on conservation and water quality with part two coming on August 10th. As Iowa Farm Bureau's public relations manager, I get the chance to see and share the progress Iowa's farmers were making. So I'm excited to bring you some good water quality news and opportunities to learn more about adding to the conservation practices on your farm. We'll start with Secretary Mike Naig. Spokesman editor Dirk Steimel caught up with Secretary Naig earlier this summer to discuss Iowa's current water quality progress, and what's next

Dirk Steimel: Mike, even with a pandemic and a tough economy, farmers continue to push forward on projects to improve water quality in Iowa. What do you think are the key signs of progress in water quality?

Secretary Mike Naig: Boy, I tell you, this has been an area I'm very proud of our team and the partners that work on water quality and soil health all across the state, because even in the midst of a crisis, we have been moving in the right direction. And even in a situation where on farm income has been declining over the last several years, we have been on a completely different trajectory when it comes to implementation of conservation practices and adoption of management practices on farms that are improving soil health and ultimately improving water quality. I'm so proud of that, even in some very challenging times and we're headed in the right direction. And, and even as we're looking to work remotely and looking to restrict access to public offices, our teams, were still able to go out and maybe it's the ultimate social distancing exercise, right. To go out and lay out a practice out in the field somewhere. But that work went on and continues to go and we while it was also a great year for spring planting, it was also a very good year from a conservation construction standpoint. So, we really believe that we're headed in the right direction. And so what's the evidence of that. Well, ultimately we want to count practices. That's the best way that I know how to show and give evidence that we're moving in the right direction because the nutrient reduction strategy tells us that each practice has a corresponding nutrient reduction. If it's cover crops, it's got a 30% reduction. If it's a wetland, it's got up to 90% reduction in nitrogen. You know, that those are things that we know because the science tells us that. So we can go out and count practices. We can go out and know that we've got well over a million acres of cover crops in the state of Iowa now, and headed for 2 million very quickly. And that's evidence that we're moving in the right direction and that we've got a whole lot of folks paying attention to water quality and soil health at a pace and a rate and a level that we we've never seen before.

Dirk Steimel: Mike, we've seen a lot of progress in reducing the losses of phosphorous, which are down 22% since the 1980 to 1996 benchmark period established in the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy. Why is that a good signal as farmers pivot to concentrate more on reducing nitrogen loss?

Secretary Mike Naig: This is a great signal. And it's further evidence that the approach that we're taking with the nutrient reduction strategy is an effective approach that it will ultimately yield the results that we want it to. And the reason I know that is because we've been working on phosphorus reduction, we've been working on soil erosion prevention for, for decades, and it shows that when you bring focus, when you bring people, when you bring resources and when you show the benefits of certain practices that you can see adoption and adoption at a significant scale. And ultimately what you see is that impacting the water in a positive way. And so the fact that phosphorus loss is down 22% since the benchmark period is huge. And we believe that if we can apply the same kind of focus energy boots on the ground resources, that we can also see that type of change when it comes to nitrogen and they are different practices and they are different approaches. And so it will require time. But I think it just goes to show that our non-regulatory approach, our science based approach, our practice based approach works. And we just need to continue to focus on accelerating the rate of adoption and bringing innovation to this space as well. And so I think it's just more evidence that we're on the right track.

Dirk Steimel: Mike acreage and cover crops. As you noted earlier, has grown quickly across the Iowa. Why is that a good signal for water quality? And what do the cover crop gains say about farmers' interests in improving water quality

Secretary Mike Naig: Cover crops are a great, great practice. And we think they've got applications that fit into a variety of operations, right? And that's one of the things I'm really committed to is that we want to have a suite of practices that will work on any particular farm, right? The things work in Southwest Iowa are not necessarily the things that will work on a farm in Northeast Iowa. The things that will work on a livestock farm are not necessarily the same types of practices that will be of interest to a producer that has just row crop. And we want to be able to bring a whole host a whole menu of practices to the table that folks can consider an implement into their operations cover crops. Great example of that. And again, we're seeing a significant increase before the strategy was finalized. We saw a few thousand acres of cover crops, state of Iowa, well over a million acres now headed for two and that's really happened in very short order. And I think it comes down to just being able to continue to show the benefits of whether we're talking soil health, whether we're talking weed control, whether we're talking infiltration, whether we're talking about addressing compaction or whether we're talking about providing a great feed source for livestock, this is a really versatile crop. And what we're finding is we can do it very, very well. And yet we've got a lot that we need to learn yet about how best to implement and use cover crops. And there's a ton of work going at Iowa State and on farms all across this state, really excited about what happens next.

Dirk Steimel: How does your department plan to continue scaling up state programs to assist farmers efforts to improve water quality?

Secretary Mike Naig: No, we're really focused on attracting any partner into this work that we can, we'd love to leverage our state resources. And that leverage comes from of course, farmers putting skin in the game, significant skin in the game in terms of investing their dollars. Now, we're also very aggressive in going out and seeking federal dollars. And we also want to attract and have had success attracting private sector, and even some nonprofits who also are interested in putting dollars into this effort to work with owners to improve water quality. And so we're always, always anxious to form a new partnership and looking at innovative ways to deliver practices. We have our traditional cost share based approach to implementing conservation practices and that worked. And it'll be the core of what we do. But we know that there's more, we are looking for market drivers. We're looking for innovative ways to finance. We're looking for partnerships that we can connect downstream interests and upstream interests. can we get cities to look upstream in their watersheds and potentially have a flood mitigation effect while we can achieve nutrient reduction? Those are just a few examples of really innovative partnerships that are happening, and we're going to continue to do just that we haven't learned the last thing that we're ever going to learn about implementing conservation practices in the state. And there's a lot of work that's going into scaling up.

Dirk Steimel: Mike, some critics of the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy are saying that progress not going fast Enough and that we should determine progress by solely testing water. What's your response to that criticism?

Secretary Mike Naig: Well, I think you have to, you have to ignore a lot of the progress that you see across the state. You have to ignore a lot of the evidence that I've just talked about. If you're going to make this claim. To the argument about, are we going fast enough? I think, I think we all want to go faster. I think we all want to see more of an impact. I think we're all, we're all anxious to innovate and accelerate the adoption of practices. The good news is that's happening. One that I like to use is it took us 15 years to build 90 nitrate, reducing wetlands in the state of Iowa. We've got 41 under development. That'll come into existence in the next couple of years. That's tremendous acceleration. And yet it's not even close to where we would like to be and where we want to be, but it's evidence that we're moving in the right direction. Cover crops again, going from a few thousand acres to over a million acres, headed for two, that is evidence that we're accelerating our adoption of practices. And so you have to ignore all of that. If you're going to claim that we're not making progress. And I think to the point we know, and I'm a big believer in, you heard me talk about counting practices. That is the best way to know that we're making progress on the land, which ultimately will result in improvement in the water. You can't just test the water. We do test water, we test water all over the state. We've got more nitrate sensors in the state of Iowa than any other state. That's just fine with me because it tells us a lot about what's happening in those localized watersheds. But water testing also tells us an awful lot about the weather that we're having. And we need to keep that in mind too really good data point, not the entire story we must look at. What's actually happening on the landscape across the state of Iowa to get the full picture of what's happening when it comes to conservation.

Andrew Wheeler: Well, it's not going to happen overnight, but I think you've got to be really encouraged by the progress we're seeing. And it's clear that farmers are just getting started. Last year alone, more than 50,000 islands participated in field days and other educational events to learn about conservation and water quality opportunities. You can read all about that and more in a new water quality progress report released by Iowa State, the Department of Ag and DNR. We've included the link to the report highlights as well as the full 115 page report in the notes for the podcast episode. So you can click there to view it. Now let's turn to Mark Jackson, who was just named, Iowa's 2020 Conservation Farmer of the Year. We know that farmers like to learn from their peers. And Mark is certainly a wealth of knowledge on the topic of conservation, and he's enthusiastic to share his experience with other farmers. Dirk Steimel and I traveled out to Mark's Maska County farm last week to what's working for Mark. And what advice he has for farmers who are looking to take the next step on their farms. Here's Dirk's interview with Mark Jackson.

Dirk Steimel: Mark. Why is conserving soil and protecting water quality so important to you?

Mark Jackson: Well, my family has a long legacy in this County. I'm fifth generation. I have a son farms with me. Michael's six generation. I have a brother. To me, farming is about a legacy preserving land. Sustainability is an in that conversation and I think making that land better for that next generation.

Dirk Steimel: Tell us about the conservation practices you've adopted on your farm.

Mark Jackson: Well, I've built from the basics over the years. I started no telling into soybean stubble, planting corn and soybean stubble back in the eighties, trying that effort to try to reduce runoff. I have good level fields, but I also have a lot of fields that are rolling. So my mind's eye kind of took me in the direction to try to conserve soil and it started putting in grass waterways, where there were none and headlands that were grasped as well, buffers along streams, things like that.

Dirk Steimel: What do you see as the biggest advances in conservation practices during your career in farming?

Mark Jackson: Well, the technologies that we have today are, are phenomenal. I mean, the ability to have a swath control. So I'm not planting through a waterway. I'm not double planting on end rows, things like that, where I can actually save dollars and cents right up front without having to worry about whether they will improve yields. It doesn't matter because I just reduce my expenses, which when we talk sustainability economics is right there beside, the environment and the social responsibilities that we all have. And as I've looked back on my history, my soil health has improved soil structure, my water infiltration, things like that. With added residue, I've increased my organic matter by using cereal rye, things like that as cover crops in the fall to create that green root zone, if you will, as long throughout the growing seasons we can, between our cash crops that we plant.

Dirk Steimel: How long have you been planting cover crops?

Mark Jackson: We're working in about seventh or eighth year now. We started slow, but we quickly saw the advantage. We didn't have the yield drag scenario. We did add popups starter on our corn. So we can do a little green on green if the rye is a little shorter early in the spring. But I think when you're nutrient banking and conserving soil, that is definitely a long term scenario. And I think with the legacy scenario, you've got the next generation coming. It's, it's an optimistic view. It's an investment. It is a cost of doing business. So yes, it's a cultural mindset when you get into it. And I think it's a matter of how you want to look at it. Do you want it to succeed or not? And anyone, I would encourage anyone that hasn't tried cover crops to try to in a small way, I don't go too large, 40 acres, if you will, whatever is comfortable that field size and try it several years, three to five years is my challenge to anyone that has not tried cover crops. And if you could do it on every acre every year, that's even better, but starting the corn stocks from last fall, planting beans in it next spring, that would be my scenario. If you have a cereal rye let that cereal rye get some height to it. waist high three, four foot. If you could, you're creating an organic matter. You're sequestering nutrients. Then through time three to five years, then make that call.

Dirk Steimel: Are there other conservation practices that you hope to adopt in the future?

Mark Jackson: Well, I think our gamut as I go down through the list, I probably struggled to find things that I haven't done. I've never made a mistake in the world of conservation, but there's a lot of things I won't do again. But I think when you start with the basics, the waterways, the headlands, the grass buffers, you'll soon find that it will grow in your own management style and your own farming train, and that sort of thing.

Dirk Steimel: So Mark, what you're saying is every farm is different. So you have to work conservation practices into what works for your farm.

Mark Jackson: Very much. So. Yeah, every farm is different and I think every management style on a different farm is going to approach those challenges differently.

Dirk Steimel: Are you seeing more farmers in your area and around the state adopting conservation practices such as cover crops?

Mark Jackson: Yeah, it was. Yeah. We're starting to see that conservation, whether it's the no till, whether farmers just do the no till end of bean stubble, it's a positive, it's a good direction. We see a lot more cereal rye. And I think you look at the numbers out there where, in the last 10 years we've gone from virtually no, sir. All right. Or I shouldn't say cereal rye or I'm talking cover crops. That's kind of my go to just because experience and we do add other scenarios, oats and barleys and radishes and turnips and things like that for different experimental under the cover crop guys, but growth has been positive and I'm watching my neighbors start to turn their head, slow down backup drive in the driveway and ask questions. And I think that's where it starts as farmer to farmer.

Dirk Steimel: What advice do you have for farmers who are looking for ways to increase their conservation practices?

Mark Jackson: So I think conservation practices start small. Talk to your neighbors, your friends, the learning curve is different for everyone, but a lot of times you can eliminate mistakes by talking to others. There's a lot of good educational wintertime groups. The virtual world is amazing right now where you can go online and pick up people from all over Iowa, all over the country, doing different scenarios and see how they may adapt to you. If you have livestock such as cattle and grazing cows, that sort of thing that actually is probably or even a more positive, easier conversation for you to have. But then you're starting to double crop if you will, when utilizing rye, and we've worked legislative with your crop insurance individuals now, so that we can actually understand that double cropping scenario. If it's, if it's done properly.

Andrew Wheeler: Lots of good advice there from Mark, as he said, conservation education often starts with farmer to farmer interaction, which is why field days and virtual events that connect farmers have proven to be so popular. If you'd like to learn more about upcoming in person and online conservation field days, we keep a running list of those events on You can find a link to that events listing in the notes for this podcast episode. Another useful resource is the new conservation practices manual developed collaboratively by Iowa State, USDA and other leading scientists and technical specialists. We talked with Iowa, state's cover crops expert about that new manual back in episode 37. So you can go back and listen to that episode. It's linked in the notes for this episode, so you can find it there. And one more thing before you go, we know that conservation is just one of many topics that are on your mind right now. So, we've got some great learning opportunities on other topics coming your way in the weeks to come. On July 30th, we have a webinar that's going to help you do a midyear review of your farm's financial situation. On August 12th, we have a webinar to refresh you on DOT's rules for farmers as we head into harvest season. And on August 25th, we kick off a two part webinar series on selling directly to consumers by building your own farm to table brand. You can learn more about each of those upcoming webinars and register for them at That's all for this episode of the Spokesman Speaks podcast. If you've enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to make sure you're subscribed to the Spokesman Speaks in your favorite podcast app and join us for our next regularly scheduled episode on August 10th, which will be the second part of this two part series on conservation and water quality until next time, I hope that every day presents you with an opportunity to learn something new and share your farm's unique story. Thanks for reading the Spokesman. And thanks for listening to the Spokesman Speaks.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to the Spokesman Speaks, a podcast by Iowa Farm Bureau. Check out more podcasts and articles from the Spokesman at You can also find and subscribe to the Spokesman Speaks Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and other popular podcast apps. We appreciate your ratings and reviews and welcome your feedback at

About The Spokesman Speaks Podcast

Since 1934,  The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can  find episodes of the podcast here or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, TuneInRadio, or

We release new podcast episodes every other Monday. Episode 48 will be released on August 10, 2020.