Eco Education: Linking Ag and the Environment
Over the past decade, nearly 300 Iowa farmers and crop consultants have used CEMSA (Certified Environmental Management System for Agriculture), a tool developed by Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) Environmental Programs and Services staff, to evaluate, document, and, where possible, improve their management of nutrients, pests, soil, energy and other resources. Many farmers indicated they would also like help managing habitat for desirable aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.
Through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which provides funding on a competitive basis to projects that sustain, restore and enhance wildlife and habitats, ISA has worked with wildlife and aquatic biologists, students, public and private sector conservationists and collaborators to gather information on assessment tools, practices and programs that help farmers integrate fish and wildlife habitat installation and management into their conservation plans.
Workshops and surveys were utilized to assess and enhance farmers’ understanding of the co-benefits of wildlife habitat and agriculture production and link them to tools and services for implementing and cost-sharing fish and wildlife habitat practices.
Keith Summerville, associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Drake University, says small changes and adjustments in land use can help producers achieve their goals with minimal cost by attracting the right wildlife. Examples include oxbow restoration and native prairie restoration.
“An oxbow restoration means restoring water to its original flow pattern,” Summerville explains. “In the last 80 years or so, waterways have been altered to make straight lines. By excavating sediment and dirt and reconfiguring tile outlets, we’re making the ‘squiggle’ in the stream come back.”
Summerville says diverting water away from the straight line discharge helps to rebuild habitat for wildlife, such as water fowl, dragon flies and other wetland-dependent insects, amphibians and other creatures that consume pests, which could help reduce a farmer’s need to spray chemicals.
Another benefit of an oxbow restoration is its contribution to improved water quality by functioning as a very small wetland, filtering and trapping nutrients – the oxbow filters sub-surface drainage, as a tile-line feeds the oxbow.
When this practice is coupled with native prairie restoration, Summerville says, even more benefits can be achieved.
“Water fowl nest in upland tall grasses, and having these tall grasses border a corn and soybean field can reduce flooding,” he says. “Smooth bromegrass, which is around most fields today, is often weedy and doesn’t provide much benefit other than stabilizing sod. Tall prairie grass and broadleaf flowering plants diversify the habitat and provide erosion control while the soil composition improves and water benefits by slowing down nutrient loss.”
In July, ISA held the On-Farm Fish and Wildlife Farmer Information and Learning Session at the Smeltzer Trust-Iowa Learning Farm in Webster County. The workshop shared the co-benefits of wildlife habitat and agricultural production and included information on the “how’s and why’s” of establishing and maintaining wildlife habitat on working farms. Participants were encouraged to learn about and use the tools, techniques and resources available. The Smelter Trust learning Farm incorporates a variety of infield soil and nutrient management demonstrations, coupled with efforts to improve wildlife habitat –a great one-stop shop for farmers to see these efforts on a working farm.
Freshwater Specialist Eileen Bader with the Nature Conservancy in Iowa says there are a multitude of benefits that come from maintaining wildlife habitat on working farms, including pest management, recreational opportunities, increased home energy efficiency (through windbreaks that also serve as wildlife habitat) and crop yields, to name a few.
Bader says farming practices aimed at improving water and soil quality hold benefits for in-stream fish and wildlife habitat and for the entire operation, as well – for example, strip/no till, cover crops, bioreactors, nutrient management, buffer strips, wetlands and oxbow restorations.
“Although practices like bioreactors don’t directly benefit the farmer installing them, the benefits they can have on water quality at the watershed scale will offer evidence that volunteer conservation is occurring and having an impact, which provides a case against potential future regulation. Buffer strips, wetlands and oxbows serve multiple functions, including filtering nitrates and phosphorus out of runoff, increasing wildlife habitat and providing flood mitigation. Many of these practices help improve a farm’s biodiversity, and cost share is available to assist with practice implementation.”
Bader believes farmers recognize the benefits of creating additional wildlife habitats, particularly the non-economic personal and social benefits, such as greater access to recreational opportunities and complimentary improvements to soil and water quality, but obstacles may keep farmers from being able to manage habitats.
Farmers and other participants attending the workshop identified some of the benefits, obstacles and likely actions at focus groups facilitated by Iowa State University (ISU) Natural Resource Ecology and Management staff and graduate students to conclude the workshop. The ISU experts also conducted pre- and post-event surveys of workshop invitees and participants to obtain similar feedback.
According to the report summary prepared for ISA by ISU’s Tricia Knoot, Ph.D., and John C. Tyndall, Ph.D., obstacles and concerns farmers identified included “balancing economic costs and benefits, the strong need for social support and cooperation, complexity of economic programs and monitoring tools and the loss of control of land ownership and management decision-making when enrolling in programs that encourage management for wildlife habitat.”
Farmers says remedies for overcoming these obstacles included working with professionals to enhance the multiple benefits of wildlife habitat on the farm, so they could more effectively communicate their wildlife habitat management decisions to family members, neighbors and landowners, as educating these groups was a priority. In addition, farmers recommended consolidating and centralizing information on economic incentive programs available to farmers, conducting more informational outreach and clarifying the rules and regulations involved.
According to Knoot and Tyndall, “Overall, farmers perceived a gain in both knowledge and confidence concerning planning, managing and evaluating fish and wildlife habitat” from the ISA/NFWF activities, and expressed the likelihood they would sign up for incentive programs and pursue connections with specialists.
Summerville says some resources farmers can use to help implement wildlife habitat include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the state’s Wetlands Reserve Program, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited.
“Ducks Unlimited is a great non-profit organization that is often underutilized in Iowa for wetland restoration,” Summerville says.
Darwin Pierce, farm and land manager with White Rock Conservancy, says it’s important for farmers to really understand all that is involved in the wildlife habitat implementation in which they are interested.
“Each piece of land on the same farm is different and has a different set of rules that applies to it,” Pierce says. “Talk to fish and wildlife experts, as National Resource Conservation Service (NCRS) may dictate what happens on the land. Another piece of advice is to know the rules of your county and allow for plenty of time for implementation.”
Pierce recommends getting to know the local county commissioner as well.
“A big issue is there are countless programs, but how do you get tied into them? Determine what is available at your local level, get to know your commissioner and start lobbying.”