Want a positive jolt of optimism about how Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality and re­­ducing soil loss? Do what I did last week and wander over to the ceremony for the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Awards.

The ceremony, held each year during the Iowa State Fair, recognizes farm families around the state who are leaders in taking on the challenge of improving water quality and saving the state’s rich soils. This year, 94 environmental leader awards were presented by Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The 2016 awards add to some 300 of the environmental leader awards that have been presented since the program was created in 2012.

It’s not really the number of the environmental leader awards that’s impressive. Instead, it’s the breadth and depth of conservation practices that the award-winning farm families have incorporated into their farms over the years to reduce nutrient loss, improve water quality and save soil. And it’s the overall conservation ethic that drives how these families operate their farms.

"It really demonstrations the progress we are making in water quality and conservation all over the state," said Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation president, who attended the ceremony.

A range of practices

Most of the environmental award recipients have planted cover crops on some or all of their acres and plan to expand the practice. Many have installed wetlands, built terraces and grass waterways or have transitioned to no-till or strip-till programs, as well as soil testing to make sure fertilizer is applied at the right rate and the right time.

One of the Environmental Leader Award recipients, Guthrie County Farm Bureau president Bryan Mowrer, agreed that it was impressive to listen to the lists of practices adopted by the 94 award-winning families. But, he said, it’s just as impressive to drive through the Iowa countryside these days and to see all of the conservation practices that are going in on the land.

"There are just a lot of families out there now who are doing a lot of great things in conservation, and we need to recognize all the progress we’re making," Mowrer said.