Education and Outreach on Issues of Water and Soil Quality Across the State

Matt Helmers - Associate Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer, Mark Hanna - Extension Agricultural Engineer, Jackie Comito - Iowa Learning Farms Program Manager, Ann Staudt - Extension Program Specialist, and Aaron Andrews - Extension Program Specialist

Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Fiscal Year Submitted:

Supports Plan of Work Number:
161 Adoption and implementation of conservation practices
163 Water quality

Title of Success Story: 
Education and Outreach on Issues of Water and Soil Quality Across the State

Water quality and soil loss in Iowa are of ever increasing concern.  Recognizing that agricultural non-point source pollution is a major contributor to sediment and nutrient loads in Iowa waterbodies, coupled with an increased frequency of extreme rainfall and flooding events in recent years has resulted in increased attention on these issues.  Implementation of agricultural best management practices has the potential to protect soil resources and reduce sediment and nutrient loading to downstream waterbodies across the state.

Overall goal is to increase the awareness and understanding of water and soil quality issues, and increase implementation of best management crop production practices, including conservation tillage and residue management. Audiences of all backgrounds across the state are targeted.

As part of the Iowa Learning Farms project, a variety of educational materials have been developed to promote a better understanding of water and soil quality issues and improved environmental literacy of all Iowans.  Multiple innovative strategies have been utilized to reach these goals, including but not limited to (1) Conservation Station mobile educational unit and (2) Iowa Learning Farms video series.  

Since its launch in May 2010, the Conservation Station mobile educational unit has been seen by over 4000 people across the state at field days, county fairs, farmers markets, outdoor classrooms, and while traveling with the Ames Public Library Bookmobile.  The Its newly-designed rainfall simulator demonstrates surface runoff and subsurface drainage on multiple different surfaces, reflecting a variety of land management practices.  Its multimedia learning lab features interchangeable educational modules on wetlands, soil, and water, and an additional module was created specifically for elementary-aged audiences, featuring the Conservation Dogs.  The Conservation Station has been featured on WHO-TV, KWQC-TV, and in/on several local newspapers/radio broadcasts across the state.

The Iowa Learning Farms project has produced two separate educational video series as an additional outreach tool.  The How To/Why video series provides in-depth explanations and instructions for implementing various agricultural best management practices.  The first video in this series, “Converting Your Planter for No-Till,” has been hugely successful; requests for this film have been received from states across the U.S. as well as internationally.  This video has also been especially popular on YouTube, with over 2300 views from 24 countries.  (by what standards?  Just saying it’s successful isn’t really convincing.  Do you have some measure of ‘success’ we can describe?  The Culture of Conservation Video Series includes seven short videos featuring different topics encouraging an appreciation for the natural resources of our state, an increased understanding of the relationship between individual decisions and the cumulative effect on the environment, and promoting dialogue on water and soil quality issues and challenges.  The first six videos are short pieces, each 7-11 minutes long; the seventh video, “Troubled Waters,” is 30 minutes long and explores human relationships with our rivers.  “Troubled Waters” was recognized by the Iowa Motion Picture Association with an Award of Excellence for Educational Production, and Awards of Achievement for Script and Original Music Score.  To date, over 2500 total videos, from both series, are in circulation.  The films are also posted on YouTube, where the “Converting Your Planter for No-Till” video has been especially popular.

Iowa Learning Farms outreach and education programs have been very well received.  Both the Conservation Station trailer and the video series have generated significant discussion from both rural and urban audiences. What kind of discussion?  Do you have quotes, comments about specific aspects we can include?  

We document questions that are asked of our presenters at all events.  Below is a sampling of the discussions that occurred and questions that were asked over the course of the summer:

Why the differences in surface runoff and subsurface drainage waters with different land management practices?
Why is there so little surface runoff when using buffer strips?  How big does a buffer strip need to be in order to be effective?
What percentage of Iowa land is in no-till?  How do you plant in a no-till situation?  Impacts of no-till on crop yield?
What are the impacts of tile drainage?  It’s relationship to flooding?
How do nitrogen levels vary with the use of cover crops?
Do nitrate/phosphorus end up in drinking water?  How can we get rid of nitrate/phosphorus in our waters?
How do wetlands work?  What is denitrification?
How do you install rain gardens?
How does permeable pavement work?  What is its upkeep?  Where is permeable pavement being used?
Why don’t they promote the use of phosphorus-free fertilizers in town?
Is any of the water in our state safe for drinking?

Much positive feedback has been received from IDALS, DNR, NRCS, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Iowa Farm Bureau, as well as farmers, educators, and citizens across the state.  Audiences have often commented on how powerful of a visual tool the new rainfall simulator is. Does seeing what it does make people want to take action? If so, what potential action(s)?

[Post-event surveys (from field days in particular) indicate that many people are taking action.  Some of those actions include increased use of surface residue management (no-till or strip-till), installation of waterways, buffers, or terraces, using fall-seeded rye or other cover crops, and discussing conservation ideas with landowners/other farmers in the area.]

The youth education component, while relatively new, has been highly successful in educating youth across the state on soil and water quality issues and challenges. Successful in doing what? Ames High School educator De Anna Tibben described Iowa Learning Farms programs as the glue – the much-needed missing link between agriculture and the environment in our state:  bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together, celebrating the beauty of Iowa, encouraging a dialogue, educating, promoting best management practices, and inspiring action to enhance the health of our land and waters across the state.   That will do what?  Increase youth knowledge?  Stimulate teaching curriculum?  


161 Adoption and implementation of conservation practices
163 Water quality

Page last updated: November 7, 2010
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