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Building infrastructure to scale up conservation practices

Article cover photo
Sean McMahon brings the group up to date at the recent Conservation Infrastructure workshop. This initiative is working to break down the barriers that impede conservation farming practices. (Photo: Zita Quade/Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance)

By Zita Quade, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance

It is recognized that there are barriers to scaling up conservation practices from the current rates of adoption to the levels necessary to achieve the nutrient load reduction goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS).

“The Conservation Infrastructure (CI) initiative aims to identify these barriers as well as potential solutions to overcome those obstacles,” said Sean McMahon, Executive Director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA).

Co-led by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and IAWA, the CI initiative seeks to increase the investment and engagement from both public and private sectors in implementing the INRS.

This will be achieved by accelerating farmer and landowner demand for conservation practices — through outreach, education, and training — and harnessing economic drivers, innovative market-based solutions and new revenue streams to improve water quality. 

“The initiative recognizes that as the pace and scale of conservation practices increase, there will be job creation and economic development opportunities as well as water quality improvements that benefit all Iowans,” said McMahon.

Who is involved?

In the first 18 months, more than 100 representatives from public and private sectors have been engaged in defining and developing the initiative.

The overall co-chairs of the CI initiative are Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and farmer-leader Ray Gaesser.

The CI initiative is organized around three working groups: Strategy, Cover Crops, and Conservation Drainage:

  • The Strategy Working Group is co-led by Matt Lechtenberg, IDALS Water Quality Coordinator, and Brian Selinger, Energy Team Leader, Iowa Energy Office of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA).
  • The Cover Crops Working Group is co-led by Sarah Carlson, Strategic Initiatives Director at Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), and Bert Strayer, Western Cover Crop Lead, La Crosse Seed.
  • The Conservation Drainage Working Group is co-led by Charlie Schafer, Chair of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition and President of Agri Drain, and Chris Hay, Senior Environmental Scientist, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA).

“We’re pushing the limits of what the current practice system can deliver,” said Hay. “The CI initiative offers an opportunity to help build the infrastructure needed to plan, design, and pay for conservation practices and develop the workforce to deliver them.”

Partner Update

On Nov. 28, IAWA and IDALS hosted a workshop for the three working groups and involved partners. The workshop provided an update on CI progress to-date and then transitioned to advancing CI progress through breakout sessions for the three working groups.

The CI workshop had more than 70 participants. Engagement from both public and private sectors and urban and rural organizations helped make the workshop a success. Attendees included representatives from the rural community, academia, agribusinesses, associations, conservation groups, and federal and state agencies from across Iowa. 

A new CI website is set to launch later this month and will showcase the CI Action Plan and its 47 recommendations. When implemented, these recommendations will help make substantial progress towards the INRS goals.

The website also will feature reports from the three working groups identifying challenges and key opportunities. Highlights will be included from key projects that CI stakeholders have collaborated on and the CI recommendations they are helping to advance.   

“We hope that all interested partners will see the website as a hub of community engagement that will showcase their excellent work and attract new partners to the effort,” concluded McMahon.

Contact Zita Quade at

For media inquiries, please contact Katie Johnson, ISA Public Relations Manager at or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at

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