Agriculture’s Clean Wat­er Alliance (ACWA), a group of Iowa ag retailers collaborating to improve water quality, is working on an ambitious three-year project to provide farmers in the critical North Raccoon River watershed information and incentives to spur the adoption of conservation practices, such as cover crops, bioreactors and saturated buffers.

As part of its $2.6 million North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership Project, the ACWA has also funded hiring a conservation specialist for the first time in its 20-year history.

The ag retailer group, working in conjunction with the Iowa Soybean Association, hopes to eventually fund several more conservation specialist positions as it continues its efforts to promote conservation and improve water quality, said Harry Ahrenholtz, who chairs the organization of ag retailers that operate in the Raccoon and Des Moines river watersheds.

“We wanted to have somebody who focuses on conservation as the first thing he does when he gets in his pickup in the morning,” Ahrenholtz said. “We needed someone who is em­­bedded in our businesses who can work both with farmers and our sales agronomists to promote conservation and get it on the ground.”

The hiring of the conservation specialist is a continuation of ACWA’s ongoing work to help farmers in their conservation and water quality efforts, said Roger Wolf, ACWA executive dir­­ector. “We all know that ag retailers play a very important role with farmers with seed, fertilizer and chemistry,” Wolf said. “This project really presented an opportunity to embed a conservation specialist with that ag retailer team and help solidify conservation, water quality and nutrient management as key parts of a total cropping system.”

Putting practices in place

ACWA’s first conservation specialist, Chance McDonald, started in the new position in July and has since kept a busy schedule working with farmers and retail agronomists in the project area, which includes Calhoun, Carroll, Greene and Sac counties. He’s specifically working with farmers who are clients of three ACWA members: Landus Cooperative, based in Ames; New Cooperative in Fort Dodge; and Nutrien Ag Solutions in Wall Lake.

“There is definitely a lot of interest in cover crops and other conservation practices, but farmers are still looking for more information,” McDonald said. “Most of them want to know what other farmers are doing that’s been successful, like the seeding rates and planting practices that have worked.”

McDonald, an Iowa State University agronomy graduate from Logan in western Iowa, was a sales agronomist and certified crop advisor at Aspinwall Co-op before taking the conservation specialist position. That experience has helped him work with sales agronomists to put conservation practices on the agenda for more farmers in the North Raccoon watershed.

“I’m working to act as a bridge between the sales agronomist and the farmer to get more conservation on the ground,” McDonald said. “There’s been a lot of instances where a sales agronomist will call me with the name of a grower interested in cover crops or another conservation practice, and I can take it from there.”

The North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership Project has established goals for four key conservation practices: cover crops, bioreactors, saturated buffers and targeted wetlands. The project’s goal is 11,500 acres, or 10% of the total acreage in the watershed, planted in cover crops by the end of 2021, when the project wraps up. In addition, the project hopes to have 15 bioreactors and 15 saturated buffers installed and two targeted wetlands installed in the watershed.

Cover crops gaining

Since he started in July, McDonald has dedicated most of his time to helping farmers interested in planting cover crops.

“We are off to a good start on cover crops, and there’s a lot of interest,” he said. “Many farmers are seeing the benefits of cover crops and how well they can work on a cattle program.”

The ACWA project is offering farmers $25 per acre to offset the cost of establishing cover crops. McDonald also works with farmers to secure cost share offered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In the late fall and winter, McDonald plans to concentrate more on working with farmers who are considering adding bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands. The North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership Project will reimburse a farmer for 100% of the cost installing these edge-of-field water quality projects.

“If farmers can see the effectiveness of these practices and know they won’t take land out of production, I think we’ll have a lot of interest in them,” McDonald said.

Along with Landus Cooperative, New Cooperative and Nutrien Ag Solutions, ACWA members are Ag Partners LLC in Albert City; First Cooperative Association, Cherokee; Gold-Eagle Cooperative, Goldfield; Heart­­land Cooperative, West Des Moines; Helena Agri-Enterprises, West Des Moines; Key Cooperative, Roland; Pro Cooperative
Gilmore City; and Van Diest Supply, Webster City.