I am a farm kid from Iowa. I like to tell new friends that not all Iowans fit the stereotype, but I probably do.
Our farm has been in my family for more than 100 years. I grew up in the least populated county in the state. We had 29 kids in my high school graduating class, the same public school my mom and grandfather attended.
My parents’ church is predominantly attended by our relatives. My closest neighbors as a kid were my grandparents and my mom’s cousin.
I spent summers helping garden and putting up food for winter, dressing chickens and playing outside until it got dark. After school in the fall, I would ride in my mom’s tractor, bumping along as she hauled grain to the local elevator while my dad ran the combine. Having supper in the field – sitting on the tailgate of my dad’s ’68 Chevy, the combine idling nearby, a chill in the air at dusk – was a great joy of my childhood.
There’s a way the air smells during harvest in the Midwest that immediately transports me home.
My interest in conservation is really an interest in having rural communities be viable places to live.
I have witnessed how Midwestern agriculture has changed in the last 30 years – fewer farms and fewer farmers, less diversity of plants and animals, worsening water quality for drinking and recreating in rural America.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them I manage a grants program focused on making row crop agriculture more sustainable in the upper Mississippi River basin. We’re trying to make enough small changes on a huge number of acres to have a big impact on soil health and water quality.
While I haven’t lived on the farm since I left for college, I remain deeply rooted in Iowa. I have watched my rural community become an increasingly hard place to live and make a living. The water isn’t always safe to drink. As farms got bigger and concentrated on fewer types of production, the diverse, local agricultural economy diminished, too.
Since the prairies were first tilled for agriculture, we have lost at least half of our soil organic matter.
If we want to continue having productive agriculture in America, we need to increase organic matter and make sure we don’t lose any more soil. This will lead to cleaner water, more sustainable rural economies and more resilience to climate change.
Integrating more conservation practices into farming will not, on its own, reverse rural decline. But it has the potential to address some quality of life issues that people in rural communities – including farmers – face.
Conservation appeals to me because it makes economic sense for farms of all sizes.
The average Iowa farm size has tripled over my lifetime, to 1,500 acres, but my family continues to farm about 600 acres. My parents grew more diverse crop rotations when I was a kid – popcorn, wheat and oats all made an appearance – but like many Iowa farmers, they settled into a corn/soybean rotation because it was the least risky.
Existing government farm programs do not prioritize environmental stewardship and sometimes even penalize farmers for implementing conservation practices. My interest is in aligning incentives so farmers can do the right thing for their bottom line and the environment.
In my work, we are targeting the eaters and the drinkers. So, everyone. Everyone wants safe, clean drinking water.
I am optimistic because I see a lot of young and beginning farmers becoming interested in conservation and soil health. I think younger farmers are more focused on reducing input costs – often through implementing conservation practices like cover crops, fertilizer optimization and no-till farming – than maximizing bushels per acre at any cost.
When I think of what inspires me, it’s moments like one I had last July visiting with a farm family in central Iowa that embraced conservation.
One morning, we were sitting on the family’s back porch, looking out at their orchard, chicken run and native prairie. This family farmed with a kind of diverse and “low input” mindset during the time that most Midwestern farmers transitioned to corn and soybean monocultures.
Because they maintain diverse sources of income, their relatively small farm provides a good living and a good life.
The amount of birdsong that morning was incredible. This farming family wasn’t thinking about conservation as a way to improve water quality in the Mississippi River; they were thinking about the very local impacts of reducing soil loss, improving wildlife habitat and biodiversity and limiting expenses on their land.
It was very peaceful. It felt like home.