The first thing Zippy Duvall noticed during his visit to Iowa last week was how corn dominates the state’s mid-summer landscape.

"I’ve never seen so much corn in my life," said the American Farm Bureau (AFBF) president, who toured farms in northwest and central Iowa before delivering the keynote speech last week at the Iowa Farm Bureau Economic Summit. "It’s really a beautiful sight."

Duvall quickly learned how farmers who grow that corn are working to improve the soil and water quality on their farms through conservation projects like wetlands, pollinator habitat and buffers. He also heard about the challenges farmers face in burdensome regulations and funding shortfalls that slow conservation progress.

Duvall’s four-day Iowa visit was part of his commitment to fulfill his pledge to visit all 50 states during his first term as American Farm Bureau president. He has visited 42 states since being elected AFBF president in January 2016 and plans to make it to the remaining eight by the end of the year.

In-depth learning

And these are no fleeting visits. His schedule in Iowa was packed with meetings with state officials, including Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey; a tour of the World Food Prize in Des Moines; driving in the Grundy County tractor ride; and farm tours led by Iowa Farm Bureau district directors Brent Johnson and Mark Buskohl.

"My travel is not just travel," said Duvall, who has a cow herd and raises broilers on his Georgia farm. "It’s to fulfill my commitment to our state Farm Bureaus to come out and visit with the grassroots members and listen to how the issues are affecting them on their farms so I can share their stories in Washington or wherever I might be that can make a difference."

Duvall said he does "more listening than talking" on his trips to learn the issues affecting farmers.

"I came so that when I’m in the right place at the right time with the right people, I can tell your story," he said. "After spending a lifetime farming, you think you know agriculture. But I promise, you only know a little bitty piece of it. This is going to make me a better president."

Johnson, Iowa Farm Bureau District 4 Director, took Duvall to a wetland near Palmer created as a part of a drainage district pilot project under Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The project upgraded inadequate drainage tile mains and created a wetland where nitrates are removed before the water flows into the Des Moines River watershed, which is a water source for the city of Des Moines.

Improving water quality

Water quality monitoring shows the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland is reducing nitrates by 50 to 60 percent, said Matt Lechtenberg, water quality coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Meanwhile, farmers could see a 7 to 25 percent increase in yields due to the improved drainage, he said.

The wetland delivers a big water quality benefit with minimal impact of removing farmland from production, Lechtenberg told Duvall. The only downside to the project was that it took four years to complete due to various regulatory delays, he said.

"We’d like to do a lot more of these," he said. "I hope it doesn’t take four years (next time)."

Duvall also visited the Kalsow Prairie, a 160-acre preserve a few miles northwest of Manson. The prairie, which has never been touched by a plow, shows the naturally-occuring high organic matter present in north-central Iowa soils, Johnson said. Soil tests show nitrate levels of about 7,100 pounds per acre in the prairie, which is almost twice has high as a sample taken from a nearby crop field, he said. The naturally-occuring nitrate makes the region’s soils among the most productive in the world, but also contributes to water quality challenges, Johnson pointed out.

"I think (Duvall) saw what the Des Moines lobe is — the challenges and the benefits of the high organic matter and how that impacts agriculture and how we farm here," Johnson said. "For him to have that knowledge while he learns about Midwest farming will give him a foundation for future conversations."

Johnson, who operates a crop consulting business with his wife, LuAnn, also showed the AFBF president how farmers are using precision agriculture like soil tests and aerial mapping to fine-tune their fertilizer applications.

In Grundy County, Duvall hopped aboard a John Deere 4020 tractor owned by Grundy County Farm Bureau member Brian Feldpausch to spend part of a day on a local tractor ride. He then accompanied Buskohl, IFBF District 5 director, to see various conservation projects installed by Kim and Ted Junker. The Junkers have created a wetland, planted pollinator habitat and implemented other conservation practices.

The AFBF president left Iowa impressed by the work farmers are doing to protect the soil and water on their farms while regularly leading the nation in corn and soybean production.

"You can tell by the way they treat their land," he said. "I’m sure their dad told them like mine did — if you treat the land right, it’ll treat you right. You always try to leave it in better shape than you found it."