As Iowa farmers take on the challenge of improving water quality through the state’s four-year-old Clean Water Initiative, they are building on experience and a knowledge base of farmers who have led the way over decades of adopting practices to conserve the state’s rich soils and improve water quality.

The legacy of Iowa conservation work spans decades and has roots in the soil losses during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, said Jim Gillispie, director of the soil and water conservation division at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. "We’ve had a very strong conservation ethic here in Iowa for a long, long time," he said.

The current conservation mom­­entum, which has gained pace since the launch of the Clean Water Initiative in 2013, is being built on the foundation of practical knowledge gained and shared by the pioneers in Iowa conservation, said Gillispie. "It’s a legacy that has been passed down from generation to generation," he said.

One of those pioneers is Ron Warren, 69, of Humboldt County, who planted tree windbreaks, stabilized a stream bank, installed buffer strips and took other steps to save soil and improve water quality. Those efforts have earned Warren and his wife, Phyllis, an award as the Conservation Farmer of the Year from his county’s office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Warren’s conservation journey, which has led him and his family to plant some 40,000 trees, began when he helped his uncle, Harold Hemerson, on the farm. "He was a big believer in taking care of the land and working with nature, and that stuck with me," Warren said.

In the late 1980s, Warren knew he had to do something to reduce erosion on a field he farmed along the West Fork of the Des Moines River near Bradgate. "The wind erosion on the land was just terrible," said Warren, a Humboldt County Farm Bureau member. "A lot of times, the dust was so bad that you couldn’t see the elevator, which was only about a mile away."

Warren decided to plant tree windbreaks to reduce the erosion. Working with Gail Kantak, who at the time was district forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Warren planted an ex­­tensive windbreak using a variety of tree species, including white pines, dogwood and flowering crab apples.

Along with slowing the wind, Warren hoped the trees would attract wildlife. It worked.

"Before we planted the windbreaks, you would hardly ever see a pheasant around that field. And now you see them everywhere, along with a lot of other birds and deer."

Improving yields

By interrupting the wind flow and erosion, Warren said the tree lines also helped improve the field’s corn yields.

A lot of Iowa fields in that era were hit by brittle snap, when high winds break off fast-growing corn stalks, Warren explained. But the potential for brittle snap was reduced, and yields tended to climb in the corn planted near the windbreak.

"It really made a big difference in my overall yields."

With the windbreaks in place, Warren didn’t rest on his conservation work. He decided to restore the river bank on his farm to keep the river from gouging into his fields.

"It had already eroded a lot over the years before I bought the land, and I could tell it was going to keep happening," he said. Warren also wanted the stream bank restoration to help retain sediment and nutrients to promote water quality.

Obtaining permits for the stream bank stabilization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NRCS and DNR was a time-consuming process, Warren admits. "It really took us five years to work through the process and get everything set, but we had great local people to work with at the agencies," Warren said.

Finally in 1996, the Warrens had everything in place to execute his plan to stabilize the river bank.

They hauled in chunks of old concrete and rock to the edge of the river to stem the bank erosion. Then, with the help of people from Trees Forever and students in science class from Humboldt High School, the Warrens planted thousands of willow trees into the bank to stabilize the ground and to create a buffer strip.

"It was quite a project," Warren said. "I know that a lot of folks at the elevator thought I’d lost my mind, doing all this and taking land out of production."

A big challenge

Rick Robinson, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy director who witnessed the stabilization project more than 20 years ago, said the Warrens deserve credit for blazing a trail for conservation and water quality.

"The Warrens took on a big challenge back in 1990," Robinson said. "They took some risks with an unproven technology. They are modern-day pioneers, and it’s great to see their work pay off."

Today, there are few willow trees showing on the stabilized bank. The willow trees seem to be a favorite of beavers. But the roots of the willow trees spread well and have stabilized the soil on the river bank.

The restored river bank has held up well in the numerous extreme rain events and flooding over the past two decades, Warren said. "I think it’s kept the bank from falling right into the river."

Over the years, the Warrens have added other conservation measures on the farm, including cover crops and ponds, and have stayed active in conservation work.

A few years ago, the Warrens moved from the farm to Humboldt. They enrolled the entire field where they had completed the windbreaks and stream bank restoration into to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Warren said the move to CRP made sense. "It was time to give the land a rest, and it’s the type of field that makes sense for the program."

Warren is excited about the current momentum in conservation programs in Humboldt County and all around the state. "It really seems to be getting better every year," he said. "You get things started and keep adding practices over the years, it really adds up."