With measurement coming into sharper focus on Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy, Laurie Wissler is ready to take on the challenge of getting a better handle on farmers’ progress in water quality improvement and soil conservation.

"This is a big state and there are a lot of different types of data out there on farmers’ conservation practices," said Wissler, who was hired last fall as measurement coordinator for Iowa State University’s (ISU) Nutrient Research Center. "We want to be able to document the conservation and water quality practices that are on the ground now as well as partnership efforts that influence their adoption."

The project, Wissler said, is gathering the information on what farmers are doing on the land that will ultimately lead to improvements in the state’s water quality. To do that, she is working with a wide range of data sources.

First, there is public data that can be obtained from government programs, including federal and state cost-share, Wissler said. This program data includes information from federal and state agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency.

A second source is private data which is gathered through a new organization called the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC), Wissler said. The INREC program is designed, in part, to work with co-ops and other agricultural retailers across the state to develop, document and analyze nutrient management and conservation practices that farmers implement outside of government cost-share programs. The INREC data will be aggregated so individual farms won’t be identified.

"We are excited for this project to get started because private data provides additional insight to track the strategy’s progress," Wissler said.

Farmer surveys

A third source are surveys of farmers to better understand conservation implementation, Wissler said. ISU’s long-standing Farm and Rural Life surveyed farmers on their conservation practices and is finding that most farmers are aware of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and have begun implementing conservation practices, such as cover crops, buffer strips or conservation tillage on their acres.

Under a grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, ISU researchers have also begun conducting targeted surveys of farmers in certain watersheds around the state that have been designated as priority areas for water quality.

"These surveys are very helpful in obtaining information on the adoption of conservation and water quality practices," Wissler said.

Finally, Wissler will access information on point-source nutrient reduction efforts of communities, businesses and others from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other agencies.

It will be quite a task to gather and work through all of that data to establish an overall picture of water quality and soil conservation efforts, Wissler admits. But she’s excited by the challenge and the collaboration she’s had with state agencies, Farm Bureau and other ag organizations and other parts of ISU working on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

"It will be great to be able to deliver a clearer picture of the conservation work that has been done, highlight the momentum in collaboration and track future progress."