Iowa farmer out in field

Through no-till and cover crops, Loran Steinlage has seen improvements in soil health. (Submitted photo: Sand County Foundation).

Steinlage recognized as a good steward of the land

September 14, 2023 | Kriss Nelson

and     Sand County Foundation

Loran Steinlage, owner and operator of FLOLO Farms of West Union in Fayette County has been selected as the recipient of the 2023 Iowa Leopold Conservation award.

The Leopold Conservation Award is given to farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners across the U.S. in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage.

“It is humbling,” says Steinlage. “I was nominated last year, and I said they picked the best candidate (Seth Watkins of Clarinda) and I hope someone is saying the same now. I hope my work inspires others.”

He’s open-minded to innovation, yet patient with the process of trial and error. He welcomes researchers to measure the impact and efficacy of each conservation practice he adopts on his 900-acre farm in Fayette County.

Steinlage, who is recognized as a Iowa Front Forty member  is the first to admit he wasn’t always this way, according to the Sand County Foundation. He was once a “conventional” corn and soybean grower focused on yields and renting as much land as possible. When he and his wife Brenda learned their son was diagnosed with brain cancer, he scaled back his rented acreage to spend more time at home. He started looking differently at the land his parents had passed on to him.

While experimenting with cover crops and no-till practices, Steinlage saw an improvement in his soil’s health. He realized the cover crops would be more robust and beneficial if they were planted sooner. This led him to explore ways to interseed cover crops into standing fields of corn and soybeans.

“We started learning what diversity could do for us,” he says. “The easy transition was interseeding, then we added soybeans into our corn-on-corn and tried relay cropping.”

Before becoming a pioneer in the practice of relay cropping, Steinlage drew inspiration by connecting with farmers across the nation through social channels and peer groups. Among the farmer mentors he credits with advancing his conservation ethic was the late Dave Brandt of Ohio.

Steinlage was able to find a strong mentor – something he advises everyone to do.

“I learned what it is like to help people through him,” says Steinlage.

Steinlage is most passionate about sharing what he’s learned with others, from local youth to farmers from Iowa, Ukraine or Australia. Whether participating in soil health field days or podcasts, he’s helping forge a new path for modern agriculture.

Through global travels and interactions, Steinlage recognized there’s no room for complacency within mainstream agriculture in the face of environmental challenges ranging from climate change to water pollution. He believes it’s up to farmers to be ahead of the curve and drive the change.

“We realize we have done wrong in the past and we have decided to help others learn by working with them to help make these practices work,” he says.

In most cases, there was no blueprint for the changes Loran saw as important, nor did his practices fit within available conservation programs. Undaunted, he cobbled ideas together with his network of peers and brought them home.

Steinlage works with a variety of organizations to host field trials at his family’s FLOLO Farms. The data collected is used to study the agronomics of conservation practices, water quality impacts, flood mitigation, crop insurance provisions, and market viability of alternative crops and methods.

“We not only won this award, the whole team we work with also won,” he says. “That includes my family, landlords, the Postville RC&D and other organizations like the Iowa Soybean Association. They help us to collect and share the data and once the data can show success, it is easier for others to jump on board.”

As an innovator, after altering a row-crop combine to be able to harvest cereal grains in his relay-cropped fields, Loran saw the need to marry agribusiness with stewardship efforts. He works with an agricultural manufacturer to bridge a gap between farmers and the engineers designing farm machinery.

 In 2021, when Steinlage welcomed Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to survey a stream on his farm, they discovered it was full of trout. Without proper stewardship in the surrounding fields, this stream would not support fish that are extremely sensitive to contaminants in water.

 Steinlage credits growing heritage varieties of corn for a nearby brewery with making his farm ecologically and economically resilient. However, it’s not just an anecdotal success. He believes growing diverse crops, regenerating soil, and ensuring clean water, leads to increased farm profitability, environmental regeneration, and rural invigoration.

As Steinlage grows his 38th crop of corn this year, he’s as committed as ever to helping others see how conservation advances will impact future crops. He will be formally presented with the $10,000 award this December at The Big Soil Health Event in Cedar Falls.

About the Leopold Conservation Award

The Iowa Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of American Farmland Trust, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Farmers National Company, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Sand County Foundation, Soil Regen, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nancy and Marc DeLong, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, and Leopold Landscape Alliance.