Jim Calvert believes in conservation. The Guthrie County Farm Bureau member uses no-till, cover crops and rotational grazing on his farm. And, as vocational agriculture instructor at Adair-Casey and Guthrie Center schools (AC/GC), he teaches the importance of conservation efforts. 

“We’ve always talked about conservation in my classes,” says Calvert. For many of his 42 years of teaching, he has backed up the talk with hands-on learning opportunities that focus on conservation of the area’s natural resources. For the past two decades, Calvert’s students have collected water samples in the Raccoon River Watershed. Calvert says the project started with measuring nitrates, and now includes seven or eight elements including phosphorous and bacteria.

He reports nitrogen levels have come down in recent years, and fluctuate with rainfall — rising after a recent rain, and declining in dry conditions.

“Water is unsuitable for drinking at 10 parts per million, and we’re at 3 to 4 parts per million now,” says Calvert. “We’re making progress.”

For students, the next generation of farmers, the experience is invaluable. 

“They understand what’s in the water, and how it connects to fertilizer use,” explains Calvert. “They learn that nitrogen does leach. Phosphorous attaches itself to the soil. We can measure those levels, and what the industry can and is doing to protect water quality.” 

Classroom conversations on the subject lead to discussions about water quality, and that as a minority, farmers will have to defend their practices.

“They may not think they will, but someday in the future, they will be in a conversation in Chicago, and the issue will come up,” says Calvert. “The other side will always be more vocal.”

He starts the process of learning to speak for agriculture at the junior high level with an exploratory class. “They need to be able to present the facts so others can make their own decisions,” says Calvert. 

A lifelong passion

After teaching for 42 years, this year will be Calvert’s last. 

He was born and raised in Guthrie County and graduated from Guthrie Center High School. Calvert says he always wanted to farm. A vocational ag teacher inspired him to teach as well. 

His own farming practices show his commitment to conservation. He only occasionally tills land, sometimes limited by equipment. 

“The newer planters are much better at planting no-till ground,” he explains. 

He plants cover crops following corn silage harvest, taking advantage of additional grazing opportunities.

Calvert credits increased technology with conservation improvements. Equipment that regulates fertilizer application avoids overlap and repetitive application. 

“We’re simply more efficient about it,” says Calvert. “Technology has made a huge difference.”

Impacting the future

Calvert says he will see one or two students each year take on farming as an occupation, with another 20 to 30 entering ag-related fields. Many of the area’s farmers are his former students. 

Through his classes they learn about water quality, terraces, waterways, soil types and residue management.

Meanwhile, Calvert will continue practicing conservation and teaching about it after he leaves the classroom in May. It’s ingrained in who he is.

“Agriculture is doing a lot better with conservation efforts than it was 25 years ago,” he says. 

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer in Greenfield.