Critics of Iowa’s water quality initiative often complain that only a few farmers in the state are stepping up to adopt conservation practices or are installing structures designed to improve the state’s water quality.

It’s strange, because I’m seeing a whole different picture. As I travel around Iowa, it’s clear that farmers are planting more cover crops, installing bioreactors and other edge-of-field structures and scouting out spots for wetlands. Even more encouraging is the enthusiasm that Iowa farmers of all ages express for taking on the ongoing challenge of improving water quality.

That enthusiasm was on full display last week at the Iowa State Fair when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, presented the 2017 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader awards. Farm families from all over the state, nearly 90 in all, earned the award for stepping up to make a difference in improving water quality and conserving Iowa’s precious soil.

Big accomplishments

As always, it was impressive to hear the list of practices that each family adopted to earn the award. It was a good indication that proven water quality practices are becoming common all over Iowa and more farmers are integrating them into their seasonal routines.

It was also encouraging to visit with a few of the recipients after the ceremony. The farmers appreciated the honor and liked being recognized. But, they added, their efforts to improve water quality and save soil were simply the right thing to do.

"It feels good to get the recognition, but what’s really important to us is protecting the soil and water," said Dave Winter, who has planted cover crops, converted to no-till and adopted other practices on the land he farms with his father, Carl, in Guthrie County.

Wayne Koehler of Floyd County said the awards were important to recognize the conservation work that Iowa farm families have been doing for a long time. "I do think the recognition will help encourage others around us who haven’t tried them yet," he said.

Most farmers, said Leon Sheets of Chickasaw County, are quietly implementing water quality improvement practices with little or no financial assistance. "These awards help everyone in the state recognize what’s really going on."