Grant Menke, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Iowa

Grant Menke, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (Photos by: Joseph Hopper/Iowa Soybean Association)

Iowa Deputy Secretary of Ag, USDA Under Secretary open ‘Making Retail Conservation Real’

February 29, 2024 | Joseph Hopper

Ag professionals, soil and water professionals and many others from throughout the agriculture industry met this month for a two-day national meeting in downtown Des Moines, entitled ‘Making Retail Conservation Real.’ Before taking a deep dive into how to advance conservation agronomy in the private sector, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Grant Menke and USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie helped open the energetic conference.

“The idea for engaging the private sector in conservation has been brewing for quite some time, says Menke. “As conservation activity accelerates in Iowa and elsewhere around the country, the need to innovate and engage with new partners is more real now than at any other time in hour history working on these issues. It’s fantastic to see the level of engagement and interest in helping to be a part of this important work.”

The deputy secretary told the crowd a great example of what can be accomplished through an effective partnership is the recent agreement the department developed with the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance (ACWA) to expand the conservation agronomist network.

“This project will support agreements with five retailers and our focus is on advancing conservation drainage practices through batch and build projects,” says Menke. “However, agronomic, soil health, soil conservation and other practices will also be installed. A few highlights of our progress so far: Mike Gilman, conservation agronomy lead with ISA, has been established as the main point of contact for ACWA outreach and communication with the five retailers involved. ACWA is also engaged with ag retail cooperative network to offer opportunities to collaborate with the conservation agronomist network. Individual retail agreements are now in place with ACWA and the five retailers and these retailers have all hired or are in the process of hiring conservation agronomists.

He added, “Under the leadership of Sec. Naig, the department is committed to expanding partnerships in both the public and private sectors. The work spanning the conservation agronomist network is an example of that. We believe it is critical to leverage trusted advisors to reach more farmers to further accelerate conservation efforts across the state.”


According to Bonnie, to scale up, partnerships are key.

“How do we scale up when you think about water quality, soil health, climate change, whatever it is?” says Bonnie. “And fundamentally that means we need to think about new tools, and if you’re in the government like I am, you need to think about how are we partnering with the private sector, how do we collaborating with universities, producer groups, conservation groups and others to scale agriculture. I think it’s still fundamentally one of the real challenges that we have.”

Menke gave an overview of Iowa’s conservation milestones, including increased adoption of no-till, reduced till and cover crops in the state, highlighting the total of four million acres of cover crops being planted in the state in 2022 according to the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council.

“In the past 10 years since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy has been developed, we have made steady progress but are continually looking for ways to adapt, improve and do what we can to accelerate these important efforts,” says Menke.

He continued, “The department’s 2023 annual report showed that 286 saturated buffers and bioreactors have been completed with another 300 in progress. Also 133 water quality wetlands have been constructed which will remove 1.8 million pounds of nitrogen annually. Plus, 60 more wetlands are in development and will be completed with assistance from the partnership of conservation agronomists. These practices are a priority for the department and we are always looking for ways to advance these concepts through internal and external partnerships.”