Heartland Co-op Conservation Agronomist

(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Ruth McCabe is Iowa's 2022 Nuffield Scholar

August 19, 2022 | Joseph Hopper

What makes a bright future? Brilliant ideas. It’s the core concept behind the Nuffield Farming Scholarships.

The Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust, sponsored by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), has continued to mint Nuffield Scholars since 1947. Scholars are future leaders of the agriculture, horticulture and rural industries who embark on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world to research a specific topic to augment their brilliant ideas.

Ruth McCabe is Heartland Co-op’s lead conservation agronomist, a position originally made possible by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant managed by ISA. She's also Iowa’s newest Nuffield Scholar. A native of Los Angeles, McCabe served in the U.S. Marine Corps before earning a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree in crop physiology from Iowa State University.

As a senior conservation agronomist, McCabe says her current job melds her passion for conservation and agronomy into one. After learning about the Nuffield Scholarship program from a Twitter post, McCabe credits an enthusiastic response from her leadership team for taking the scholarship journey full-speed ahead.

Dream Come True

McCabe’s scholarship is geared toward exploring and understanding the drivers and support systems behind conservation practice adoption in other major grain-producing countries.

“It’s been a dream of mine to go to other countries and study agriculture,” she says. “I think anyone working in ag would say the same. I want to learn about conservation farming in other countries that grow grain to inform our conservation program at Heartland. There are other countries that make as much grain as the U.S. and use a lot of conservation practices.”

McCabe is already deeply entrenched in her journey as Iowa’s 2022 Nuffield Scholar, attending the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference in the U.K. and traveling to the East Coast and Canada. It’s just the start.

She’s visited with grain producers and poultry farmers in the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), and visited with people who work in ag, government, and the state department of ag and natural resources, learning about various conservation programs.

“I asked the farmers that I met in the Chesapeake Bay how they are supported in conservation farming,” McCabe says. “I am very envious of their cost share and technical assistance programs. What they’re doing for conservation is impressive; it’s probably 70-100% no-till and cover crops. It’s wild.”

Canadian Roadtrip

The conservation agronomist’s journey into Canada came as an extensive road trip across the Canadian prairie provinces. Landing in Winnipeg, she traveled through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to meet with ag retailers, farmers and research farms before flying home from Calgary. Once back in Iowa, McCabe led tours for her Australian and Irish Nuffield Scholar peers, visiting with Iowa farmers, examining saturated buffers and bioreactors, and meeting with ISA representatives. The next destinations for McCabe include Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.

Worldwide Agronomist

McCabe isn’t waiting to test her new knowledge; she’s still wearing her conservation agronomist hat on the journey.

“My job didn’t stop because I was traveling,” McCabe says, laughing. “I’ve had people say, ‘How was your vacation?’ Don’t call it a vacation; I probably need a vacation from my ‘vacation’ because I was working two jobs for a moment there, and I still am.”

Despite the fast pace, McCabe says she’s excited as she lives out a life dream and learns about conservation all over the world. The conclusion of her travels won’t be the end, however.

“Once you’re accepted as a scholar, it’s really a lifelong thing because you are involved in the community going forward forever,” she says. “I have three scholars who want to visit with me over the summer and winter because they have certain topics to research. Many scholars ask Nuffield alumni, ‘can I crash at your place?’ The answer is almost always yes. Farmers want to help, too. You’ll never lack people to feed you and give you a place to sleep.”

New Beginnings

Being a Nuffield Scholar is full of new beginnings.

“Because of my job in Iowa, our partnership with ISA as a conservation agronomist and what I do to inform policymakers, I’m excited about the themes I’m seeing and what I’m learning about conservation adoption,” McCabe says. “When I publish my report next summer, I want to get it in front of as many people as possible in Iowa. I’m seeing there are some things we could do differently, which could really increase conservation adoption. I’m going to be banging the drums next summer.”

Once the report is completed, McCabe plans to make it widely available.

“I want everyone to read it,” she says. “This research is something every Iowan should be able to access.”