Farmers in key watersheds across the state continue to ramp up conservation measures by installing bioreactors, saturated buffers and utilizing cover crops on more of their acres. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

ISA building a culture of collaboration for conservation

July 30, 2020 | Bethany Baratta

The Pritchard Keynote Panel presentation during the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s (SWCS) 75th International Annual Conference, hosted virtually this week, featured conversations about Diffusing Conservation Innovations. One of the panelists showed the breadth of the ways the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) is collaborating with farmers, researchers and stakeholders to further conservation efforts in the state.

“We have a long history of farmer leadership and we’re always on this continuous improvement cycle, and that’s trying to move the ball forward,” said Roger Wolf, ISA director of innovation and integrated solutions. The Pritchard Panel was a keynote panel to kick off the Conference and address the conference theme of “Expanding Horizons: Where Conservation Meets Innovation”. Wolf featured ISA’s work as a legacy of diffusing innovation.

 Collaboration is key, Wolf said.

“We’re building a culture of collaboration and bridging disciplines via this integrative framework,” he said. “We have to get out of our silos … we bring agronomic cropping system solutions with data together with conservation and that’s what it’s going to take to be successful in scaling up these efforts.”

Watershed planning opportunities

People reach out to opportunities when they find them valuable. ISA’s watershed planning process is a meaningful way to assist farmers and stakeholders to improve soil and water quality in their watersheds. The planning process blends the science of the nutrient reduction strategy with the technical information and expertise necessary in developing a watershed roadmap.

In the last 5 years, ISA helped 23 watersheds across Iowa write their watershed plans. These local watersheds and partners have successfully secured $38 million in additional funding to support the implementation of their plans.

Now, Wolf said, ISA is looking at ways to scale up these efforts in other parts of the state.

“We’re trying to bring value to farmers and scale up success of the nutrient reduction strategy in Iowa,” Wolf said, “so how do we get to more places? How do we engage more groups of farmers?”

ISA is expanding its efforts to the cropping district scale. So far ISA has completed cropping district-scale conservation roadmaps for 4 cropping districts in the state, encompassing about 40 of Iowa’s 99 counties. We will be holding action forums with farmers in near future.

Incentivizing outcomes

Ag Outcomes, Inc., a new collaborative effort in Iowa, seeks to provide an incentive for farmers to generate valuable ecosystem service outcomes.

The Fund supports the implementation of on-farm conservation practices that result in quantifiable environmental benefits. These benefits may include improvements in water quality, increased carbon sequestration, reduction in emissions from on-farm operations, creation or protection of habitat, reduced downstream flood risk, and enhanced financial resilience for farmers.

The fund contracts with beneficiaries — such as municipal governments, water and wastewater utilities, flood mitigation authorities, corporations with supply chain sustainability targets, and conservation organizations — to sell the measured, monitored, and verified outcomes created by its activities.

Habitat restoration

ISA and Syngenta, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and other partners, are restoring much-needed habitat for the Topeka shiner and rusty-patched bumble bee. Both are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wolf hopes continued partnerships and efforts will eventually lead to a delisting, or a surge in Topeka shiner and rusty-patched bumble bee populations.

“We’re overlaying practices in watersheds where we can achieve nutrient reduction improvements from oxbow restorations, which is also key habitat for the Topeka shiner,” Wolf said.

The rusty-patched bumble bee prefers a unique habitat, one of long-blooming varieties of wildflowers, which have become a scarcity. ISA continues to work with farmers to improve pollinator habitat on nonworking land areas

Wolf said farmers have been receptive to these habitat restoration projects in the state. “We’re thrilled with farmer response.”

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