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Iowa Learning Farms Report: 15 Years of Conservation Outreach

Iowa Learning Farms, a hands-on education and outreach program for Iowa landowners and agricultural producers, published its 15-Year Summary Report highlighting the organization’s activities, successes and challenges since its inception in 2004. Using the visual communications style ILF has become known for, the report shows conservation practice trends of their field day attendees and impact of community outreach across the 15-year span.

Some of the key findings in the report include:

  • ILF farmer partners have steadily expanded to include 88 farmers located in 51 Iowa counties.
  • Field days have grown from five to 32 annually, and have engaged more than 32,500 attendees.
  • Twenty-two percent of field day attendees heard about the event through word-of-mouth.
  • Cover crops were planted on more than 880,000 acres in 2018.
  • ILF field day attendees, through networking, are extending ILF influence to 58 percent more farmers than attended an ILF event over the years.
  • ILF and the Water Rocks! youth education program reached some 185,000 Iowans through community events and school programs – including 42,000 in 2018 alone.

“ILF started with a simple idea, building a culture of conservation in Iowa through helping farmers talk to other farmers about protecting Iowa’s soil and water,” said Jacqueline Comito, ILF director. “Through the years our tactics and tools have evolved, but the fundamental strategy of applying a multidisciplinary approach to increase adoption of conservation practices has led to increased practices and greater natural resource protection.”

Feedback and research strategies employed by ILF to measure performance, inform program development and better understand needs, include surveys, post-event evaluations, and regular meetings with stakeholders statewide. The data included in this report also incorporates specific feedback gathered as a part of ILF’s 15-year anniversary activities.

In late December 2018, the ILF team mailed a one-page survey to 3,710 farmers and/or landowners who attended an ILF field day over the years. These attendees were asked about their efforts to protect their natural resources and their success in networking with other farmers and landowners. As of March 2019, 904 people have responded, representing a 24 percent response rate.

“This is a good response rate considering that we don’t know how many of those on our list are still farming,” said Comito. “We average at least a 40 percent response rate to our field day evaluations in any given year. In this case, the sample size is more important to me than the response rate. Our sample represents 2.5 percent of the farmers across Iowa who have 200 or more acres of cropland, as well as 2.5 percent of the overall acres of harvested cropland in the state. We estimate that our sample also represents 15 percent of all the farmers using cover crops in Iowa in 2018. I feel like our sample gives us insight into cover crop farmers as well as the innovators and early adopters of other water quality and conservation practices.”

The report includes challenging results such as the slowing of new acres planted in cover crops over the past two seasons. ILF recognizes that networking and leadership from within the farming community will be an important catalyst to increased adoption of conservation practices.

“The report contains a lot of good news, but also highlights some challenges we face in Iowa,” concluded Comito. “We’ve made a good start — we’ve built the foundation of this Culture of Conservation — but that is only the beginning. We’ve established difficult but attainable goals for the next five to 10 years for us to continue to be successful. These include engaging with a broader range of farmers with conservation ideals, nurturing and facilitating farmer-to-farmer influence, focusing development efforts on understanding why adoption is slowing and working to solve the problem, and increased outreach with the Conservation Stations and public events.”

The full ILF 15-Year Summary Report can be viewed or downloaded at www.iowalearningfarms.org/files/page/files/ilf-15yr-report-final-web_red…

To learn more about the Iowa Learning Farms outreach and education program, visit us on the web at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Source: Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms

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