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In Iowa’s Corn Country, Farmers are Leading Efforts to Protect Soil and Water

September 23, 2022
Innovation and collaboration in America’s agricultural heartland are protecting the environment – and the future of rural communities

The corn fields of Iowa hold a special place in the American imagination.

In the movie, Field of Dreams, when the ghost of Ray Kinsella’s father walks across a ball diamond, framed by a setting sun and towering stalks of corn, he asks his son, “Is this heaven?”

“It’s Iowa,” replies Kevin Costner’s Kinsella.

It’s easy to embrace the romantic qualities of Iowa’s farm culture, especially in the late summer when crops stand 10-feet tall and the Iowa State Fair comes alive with its corn dog stands, butter sculptures and livestock shows.

There’s good reason why highway signs have welcomed Iowa’s visitors by touting the “Fields of Opportunities” the state provides. Iowa leads the nation in corn, hog and egg production and is our second-largest soybean and red meat producer. More than 30 million acres of Iowa land is in production, supporting almost 90,000 farms and generating more than $26 billion in revenue in 2020 alone.

I saw the critical importance of agriculture to the state’s prosperity during a recent visit to several Iowa farms, some of which have raised up six generations of Iowans. But I also learned firsthand the threats facing the state’s farming communities and the next generation of Iowa farmers.

Farmer Mike Helland talks with Walton Family Foundation executive director Caryl M. Stern during her visit to the Helland family farm in Huxley, Iowa.

The relentless demand for increased production and higher crop yields has come with a high cost – degraded soil health and lower water quality.

The runoff of soil, fertilizer and manure from farmland is the most significant source of water pollution in Iowa, harming rivers and lakes and causing algae blooms that threaten drinking water, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

Climate change is making the situation worse, as heavier rains in spring and fall cause more frequent and severe flooding, soil erosion and water pollution.

Through the Walton Family Foundation's Environment Program, we are committed to protecting the environment and communities of the Mississippi River Basin – working with farmers, businesses and conservationists who are at the vanguard of efforts to improve soil health and water quality.

They are redefining collaboration and finding solutions that improve the sustainability of farming practices and managing for life with more water.

Throughout my conversations, I heard a consistent message: We need “all hands on deck” to ensure cleaner water and healthier soil in Iowa.

In Polk County, farmer Lee Tesdell gave me a tour of his fields and talked about the conservation practices he is using on his 80-acre farm. These include strips of prairie, integrated into the crop field, that hold soil and slow down the runoff during heavy rains. Lee has also helped to protect the stream, Alleman Creek, that runs along his farm boundary with buffer and filter strips, which separate the field from the stream and help reduce erosion and improve water quality.

Walton Family Foundation executive director Caryl M. Stern (left) and Environment Program director Moira Mcdonald visited Lee Tesdell's farm in Slater, Iowa, to learn more about his use of prairie strips to help improve soil health. Lee also explained how he uses plastic field tiles to drain and carry water off the land during heavy rains.

Lee’s grandfather bought the family’s farm in 1884. Today, Lee speaks with pride about the productivity of his crop ground, but also how his prairie strips bloom with wildflowers and provide new habitat for birds and wildlife. As a landowner, Lee has worked closely with the farm operator to adopt more conservation practices that improve water quality and soil health; they make the management decisions together.

We need more innovative farm owners like Lee. Here is where philanthropy can help.

Beginning in 2013, the foundation has provided grants to Iowa State University to test prairie strips and increase their use on farms. Data collected by Iowa State has shown their benefits to water and soil. Because of this work, the USDA has approved the practice and farmers can apply for government support to help them establish prairie strips.

Down the road, Lee’s neighbor – and farm operator - Mike Helland told me that his family has practiced no-till farming and grown cover crops for the past 20 years – practices that enrich his soil with more organic matter and require less fertilization.

Walton Family Foundation executive director Caryl M. Stern (second from left) and Moira Mcdonald (far right), who leads the foundation's Environment Program, meet with farmers Mike Helland, Roger Wolf and Lee Tesdell in Slater, Iowa.

Mike’s sons, Nick and Erik, have recently launched a business growing cover crop seeds for local farmers who want to adopt more sustainable practices. While the use of cover crops has expanded dramatically over the past 10 years, they are still used on only a small fraction of Iowa’s agricultural acres.

The Hellands are working with the Iowa Soybean Association and Practical Farmers of Iowa, both foundation grantees, as part of an innovative project to create businesses that reduce financial, cultural and time barriers to widespread adoption of cover crops.

The Cover Crop Business Accelerator is one way to bring new economic opportunity to rural areas by creating new revenue opportunities for beginning farmers. Mike’s hope is that this new farm business will enable his son to farm full time without needing an off-farm job.

Iowa has some of the best soil in the country – and it’s our collective responsibility to be good stewards of this resource.

Soil health specialist Hillary Olson shows Walton Family Foundation executive director Caryl M. Stern (center) and Environment Program director Moira Mcdonald the results of a rainfall simulator during a visit to Jeremy Gustafson's farm in Boone, Iowa. The simulator indicates how heavy rainfall causes more erosion on conventionally tilled farmland.

On Jeremy Gustafson’s farm in Boone County, I saw just how much we can improve water quality and soil through better agricultural practices.

There, soil health specialist Hillary Olson simulated a two-inch rainfall on trays of soil demonstrating different agricultural management practices. I watched as most of the water ran off the top of a tray of conventionally-tilled soil, carrying soil with it. Trays of soil protected by prairie and cover crops held much more of the water and lost much less soil. This helped me visualize how conservation practices help reduce flooding, erosion and nutrient loss, and also help build soil that retains moisture to sustain a crop through Iowa’s increasingly hot and dry summers.

It was striking visual evidence of the problems facing Iowa agriculture – and the solutions.

In my time in Iowa, I learned that it takes time and effort – and a lot of creative collaboration – to find the mix of practices and incentives to make conservation work for farmers. But once implemented, we know they can help lower costs for farmers – and improve water for everyone - in the long run.

That’s good for farmers, good for rural communities, and good for the land that has sustained them for generations.

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