County Farm Bureaus all over Iowa are stepping up in their local communities this year to lead the effort to improve water quality, limit nutrient loss and reduce soil erosion.

One Farm Bureau in Iowa’s northeast corner has developed an innovative way to help farmers increase acres of cover crops, as well as pollinator crops for bees and butterflies. A couple of other Farm Bureaus are working with a local co-op to spread the use of a system designed to monitor nutrient movement in soil and reduce losses. Several other Farm Bureaus in southeast Iowa are teaming up to purchase a hands-on educational tool to help local citizens visualize how water and nutrients move through the soil.

And the members of the Hancock County Farm Bureau in north-central Iowa are focusing their efforts to improve water quality close to home: in a local recreational lake. The Farm Bureau members are funding a research effort to find practical ways to improve the quality of water in Eldred Sherwood Lake, a small recreational lake in the southeast corner of the county that is also known as Indian Lake. In recent years, the lake’s water quality has been hurt by late-season algae blooms.

A gem of a lake

"This is really a little gem of a lake that’s really important for a lot of people in the county," said Brent Renner, former county president who has been a leader in the lake project. "We are very conservation-minded and are always looking for ways to improve water quality. But we also know that we have to continue to farm to make a living. So this challenge has been a great fit for us."

The work by Hancock County and other Farm Bureaus are just some of the examples of a growing number of conservation and water quality efforts by county Farm Bureaus all over Iowa, said Joe Johnson, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) field service director. Some of those conservation and water quality efforts are being aided by grants, called SHARE grants, from the IFBF state office. But the county Farm Bureaus are also putting up a lot of their own funds to further conservation efforts, he said.

"It really shows that Farm Bureaus are stepping up to make a positive difference in their own communities," Johnson said. "As farmers, they know how important conservation is. And they also know that by working with their county Farm Bureau they can have a bigger impact than by just working alone."

That was the case for the Hancock County Farm Bureau in their efforts to improve water quality in Eldred Sherwood Lake, Renner said.

"We thought it made sense to work together with other groups on improving a lake that we know and value," he said.

The Hancock County Farm Bureau, working with the Wright County Farm Bureau, received an IFBF SHARE grant and added its own funds to finance a study on what is causing the algae blooms in Eldred Sherwood Lake and to develop strategies to improve water quality. They’ve worked with the local Soil and Water Conservation District, a local co-op as well as state agencies to develop an 18-year plan to improve water quality in the lake. That plan includes additional buffer strips, sediment-capture basins and other practices to prevent sediment, and thus phosphorus, from entering the lake.

"It’s been great to have Farm Bureau involved," said Terry Kaduce, a commissioner of the Hancock County Soil and Water Conservation District. "It really shows that it’s a local project, not just something the state is pushing. And as farmers, they know the economic factors that we deal with."

Other county Farm Bureaus in Iowa are working to promote conservation and improve water quality in different ways.

A seed lottery

In Winneshiek County, the Farm Bureau is launching a lottery program to get farmers to plant an acre or more to crops that are good for pollinators, said Farm Bureau leader Dean Darling. Farmers who win the lottery will get funds to help offset the cost of seed needed to plant the pollinator crops, he said.

The lottery for pollinator crops follows a similar lottery a few years ago the Winneshiek County Farm Bureau held to distribute funds to encourage farmers to plant cover crops.

"As far north as we are, we have trouble getting many farmers interested in cover crops because it’s hard to get them planted before the growing season ends," Darling said. "We thought having the lottery would entice more farmers to try them to see if they work."

Nutrient monitors

The Farm Bureaus in Benton and Tama counties are teaming up to promote the N-Watch nutrient monitoring program operated by an area cooperative, New Century FS. Farm Bureau members can get a discount on joining the program, which tests soil probes throughout the growing season to determine nutrient levels and movement.

"We wanted to get more farmers interested in this program so they can get more data on nutrients in their soil," said Dustin Schirm, Benton County Farm Bureau president. "We felt this was a good program to help us determine the best ways to keep nutrients in the soil and help water quality, too," he said.

The two Farm Bureaus, Schirm said, are also offering signs for farmers who are participating in the N-Watch program as a way to build awareness in the countryside.

Rainfall simulator

Several Farm Bureaus in southeast Iowa have purchased a rainfall simulator they will display at county fairs and other events this summer and fall. The simulator helps show how rainfall percolates through soils and provides a visual demonstration of how cover crops, no-till systems and other conservation practices reduce erosion and stem nutrient loss.

"By having the rainfall simulator, farmers and non-farmers alike will be able to see what we all can do to reduce nutrient loss," said Jason Steele, vice president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau. "I think it will help show that we are in the water quality effort together," he said.

The wide variety of conservation and water quality efforts by county Farm Bureaus is a clear indication that different practices and efforts fit better in different parts of Iowa, IFBF’s Johnson added.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But it’s clear that county Farm Bureaus are stepping up to find and implement solutions that are right for their counties and communities," he said.