Around the Miller Creek watershed in northeast Iowa, conservation and water quality knowledge is spreading the tried and true way: neighbor to neighbor, farm to farm in the watershed that feeds into the Cedar River.

Farmers in the 42,000-acre watershed in southern Black Hawk and northern Tama counties are sharing real-world information about the best management for conservation practices, such as cover crops, bioreactors and saturated buffers. They are comparing their experiences of practices that have worked and haven’t, and are sharing knowledge gleaned from seminars and internet research. And they discuss plans for adding additional conservation practices as they continue to take on the challenge of improving water quality and reducing soil loss.

“It’s really tough to know everything about these practices just on your own,” said Henry Shepard of La Porte City. “That’s why getting support from each other is so important.”

Nick Meier, also of La Porte City, agreed. “It’s tough to try these things because they are all pretty new. So you need support from your neighbors,” he said.

Louis Beck, a high school ag instructor who farms at the headwaters of Miller Creek, said peer-to-peer information sharing is essential. “It’s really important to have others to talk and to see what worked and what didn’t,” he said.

Local experiences of how different conservation practices are working helps convince both farmers and others of the value of conservation practices, said Kristi Heffelmeier of Buckingham, who farms with her father, Chris Foss.

“We have other people to check information and experiences against, which is really important when you are trying new things,” Heffelmeier said. “And it also helps us to talk with our landlords about conservation measures. If they hear about other farmers trying conservation practices, they are usually more receptive.”

The farmer-to-farmer approach to spreading the adoption of conservation practices is working in the Miller Creek watershed, said Shane Wulf, project coordinator of the Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project. “We have a lot of farmers who have stepped up to be champions of conservation and water quality,” he said. “And that’s helped us get engagement from a broad range of farmers, along with agribusinesses and others in the community.”

Backed with funding and ex­­pertise from state and other sources, the approach is also working around the state, conservation officials say. The most recent report on the progress of the state’s water quality initiative, which is focused on implementing the practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, showed that the initiative reached more than 54,000 attendees at field days, information meetings and other events to spread the word on conservation.

Gains across the state

Those events have spurred significant gains in conservation practices across Iowa. Farmers planted cover crops on 760,000 acres during the fall 2017, almost 22 percent more acres than a year earlier, according to a new survey by the Iowa Learning Farms. The Iowa Nutrient Strategy’s annual report also found a six-fold gain in the acres covered by Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands since 2011, as well as significant gains in other conservation practices.

That momentum to adopt conservation and water quality practices has been very apparent in the Miller Creek watershed, one of 16 projects around Iowa that have been established by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to help spread conservation knowledge and practices.

Farmers and landowners in the Miller Creek watershed have planted cover crops on some 20 percent of all acres in the watershed, well beyond the demonstration project’s goal, Wulf said. Several farmers have also installed bioreactors or saturated buffers, and some are looking at building wetlands, he said.

In fact, farmers in the Miller Creek watershed are implementing conservation practices so quickly that their efforts are outgrowing the amount of local, state and federal funds available for cost share, Wulf said during a press conference at the Iowa Capitol led by Gov. Kim Reynolds and then Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

Middle Cedar partnership

The Miller Creek watershed is also part of the Middle Cedar Partnership. In the partnership, the city of Cedar Rapids is working with local conservation partners, farmers and landowners to install best management practices such as cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands and saturated buffers to help improve water quality, water quantity and soil health in the Cedar River watershed, where it draws a portion of its drinking water.

Wulf, who became coordinator at for the Miller Creek demonstration project soon after it was formed in 2014, said enthusiasm for conservation and water quality continues to grow in the watershed as neighbors see the success of the early adapters. The drive to improve soil health and concern about tough-to-control weeds have also spurred more interest in cover crops and other conservation practices.