Building momentum for farmer adoption of conservation practices, such as cover crops, waterways and bioreactors, will require additional field days, more educational seminars and simply more time, three Iowa conservation leaders said last week.

“The important thing is education. That’s what’s critical,” John Schulte, an Iowa County farmer, said last week at an educational seminar titled “It Takes a Village to Protect a Watershed” held during the 2017 Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) annual meeting. “We need to help people un­­derstand that the more they try this, the better it is for the soil and the environment. It really does snowball when people get into it.”

Repetition is important

Mike Ehlers, a Buena Vista County farmer, agreed that education is the key to changing farmers’ ideas about conservation practices. And, he said, repetition is also a necessary tool.

“It really takes multiple times of showing other farmers things before they are willing to consider making a change,” Ehlers said.

Patience is the key, said Jeff Pape of Dubuque County. “People’s minds will change when they start seeing their neighbors have positive results,” he said. “That’s really when you get a lot of people who start to be willing to try new things.”

It’s also important for farmers who have experience in conservation practices to be willing to talk with neighbors and others about the advantage of the conservation practices, Pape said. “We need to be willing to talk and explain things. We need to get over our shyness, whether that’s with other farmers, legislators or the public,” he said.

Building momentum

Widespread adoption of conservation practices by farmers is vital to the long-term success of Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative. The initiative, launched by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2013, is designed to provide information to help farmers adopt a range of practices proven to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields.

The goal is to improve water quality in Iowa and reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Water Quality Initiative has helped spur many farmers around the state to adopt, or increase, efforts to preserve soil and improve water quality.

Ehlers, who farms at the headwaters of the Raccoon River, has experimented with different species of cover crops and has moved to a strip-till program. “The goal for us with cover crops is keeping as much water on the field where it can do us the most good,” he said.

Protecting water quality is also important for farmers, said Ehlers. “It’s not because of the lawsuits,” he said referring to the failed suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against drainage districts in Buena Vista and two other northwest Iowa counties.

“We care about the water that goes into the streams, because we live there,” Ehlers said.

Schulte in Iowa County said he is a big believer in cover crops because they help improve the quality of his soil. “It’s really incredible what you can do with cover crops to improve soil quality,” he said.

The key, Schulte said, is to keep experimenting with cover crops and other conservation measures to figure out what works best on each field. “I never cease to experiment and learn from what I do,” he said.

Hewitt Creek project

Pape of Dubuque County has been a leader in the Hewitt Creek watershed project, which is considered the state’s first farmer-led watershed improvement project. The project, which was started with the help of seed money from IFBF, provided farmers cost share funding to install grassed waterways and other practices to help improve the steams in the watershed.

Helping the bottom line

Over time, Pape said, farmers in the Hewitt Creek watershed were adopting conservation practices on their own because they could see improvements in their bottom lines. “They were both gaining yields and saving on inputs, like fertilizer,” he said.

In addition, farmers in the Hewitt Creek area saw that their neighbors were implementing conservation practices and could see an improvement in the streams, Pape said. “People’s minds change when they see their neighbors having success,” he said.

All three of the panelists said field days remain the best way to show conservation practices and get other farmers interested.

“It’s surprising that farmers will stop what they are doing and attend a field day, but they do,” Ehlers said. “I think a lot of people are willing to listen and learn.”

Schulte said field days are a great way to show off what you are doing and to learn by talking with other farmers. “I always end up learning a lot myself, and learning is really the key for me,” he said.

Pape agreed. Even though field days take time and energy to arrange, they are very rewarding, he said. “It’s really worth it to put in the time and effort.”