With U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue riding shotgun in a John Deere Gator, Heath Stolee led a tour of his Hardin County farm last week to point out the conservation and wildlife habitat benefits that will be gained from a newly constructed wetland project. 

“I got a sense of Heath’s passion as we rode around. His heart is here,” said Perdue. “This is a great example of what’s happening here to help nutrient load reduction all over Iowa. Iowa’s been leading the effort for water quality for a long time.” 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sen. Joni Ernst and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig also joined the parade of utility vehicles on the wetland tour, which Stolee said showcased the efforts farmers are making to keep excess nutrients out of Iowa’s waterways.

Construction of the wetland started in May after more than two years of planning. It spans 56 acres, including a 15.5 acre shallow pool of water to help reduce nitrogen runoff from nearly 1,900 acres of agricultural land. Over its lifetime, the wetland will remove more than 1,744 tons of nitrogen from surface and drainage tile runoff and provide wildlife habitat.

Water on the landscape

“It’s going to be beautiful when this thing gets some water in it,” said Stolee, a Hardin County Farm Bureau member who grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, small grains and chestnuts. “We’ve got to put more of these on the landscape to achieve our nutrient reduction goal. We’re trying. It just takes (people) to do it to get where we need to be.”

There are currently 41 wetlands under construction in Iowa with cost-share provided by a combination of state, federal and private sector funding, Naig said. “Today, you’re seeing what can be accomplished when we work together,” he said. 

Stolee’s wetland includes a perpetual easement through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which is a partnership between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

During the planning process, he worked with farm and wildlife groups as well as state and national officials to lobby for changes to CREP rules to allow winter cover such as evergreens, bushes and food plants to provide habitat for pheasants and upland game birds.

Adding habitat

It was important for Perdue to see the result of those rule changes, said Stolee, who is the habitat coordinator for his local Pheasants Forever chapter. 

“Before, all of the upland portion of the sites were strictly grass,” he said. “We had to go all the way to the national level to get the rules changed. So now these CREP sites can have those habitat pieces and just make them that much more valuable, not only from a water quality standpoint but to increase habitat. It was a win for us all the way around.”

Stolee is a prime example of farmers who are putting conservation projects on the ground that provide dual benefits for agricultural production and conservation, said Adam Putnam, CEO of Ducks Unlimited, which worked with Stolee, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and other partners on the wetland restoration project.

“These are people who understand the future of food production and the future of conservation are completely in al­­ignment,” said Putnam. “I wish every other state had the synergy we’re seeing here.”