Farmers, Landowners Help Advance Research by Iowa Nutrient Research Center

Rob Stout speaking to field day group.
Rob Stout speaking at a cover crop field day on his Washington County farm. Photo by Iowa Learning Farms. 

AMES, Iowa - The long-term success of water quality research often depends on private cooperators who work with scientists to fine-tune research questions and host field trials.

“Farmers and landowners are important partners who help make it possible to test research in different farming and geographic situations,” said Matt Helmers, director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University. “Rob Stout and Eric Hoien are two excellent examples of cooperators whose support has benefited INRC-related water quality research."

Always learning

Stout is an active farmer and conservation leader in southeast Iowa’s Washington County where he farms about 1,100 acres and manages a large hog operation.

His involvement with research started when he returned to the farm after getting a degree in farm operations from Iowa State University. He got involved with a study looking at manure utilization and nitrogen uptake, coordinated by Greg Brenneman, a friend who was the area’s agricultural engineering specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“The results of that study changed my mindset. I had been no-tilling for a while and thought I was doing my part to benefit water quality,” said Stout, known as a leader in watershed protection efforts. “But I had some things to learn – especially as the intensity of spring rains were increasing in my area. The research has ended up saving me money over time: I was getting more fertilizer value from manure than I realized and also could reduce nitrogen loss significantly by fine-tuning application timing. That experience helped get me hooked and showed me that getting involved in research can have value to the farmer.”   

Since then, research projects he’s been part of include a 10-year study of cover crop impact on cash crop yield that concluded last year. His woodchip bioreactor has been studied for its water quality impacts, as well as the potential to establish pollinator habitat on bioreactors. Another research project still underway on the farm is looking at cover crops’ impact on grassland birds.

Sometimes there is a payment to help cover extra time or costs for setting up or managing a research plot. “That’s great,” he said, “but it doesn’t determine whether I choose to participate. I keep doing it because I enjoy working with the researchers and graduate students, and I’m always learning something.

He emphasized he also learns from other farmers. “But if it wasn’t for field days and networking that came as a result of the research, I would likely have missed some of those opportunities,” he said.

Lakeside leader

Eric Hoien, owner of Hoien Realty in Spirit Lake, has several farms in the area. His father, who started the family business, was one of the first in northwest Iowa to put land into the federal Conservation Reserve Program in the mid-1980s. 

Hoien has followed in his father’s footsteps to put additional land into CRP prairie, pollinator seedings and wetlands. He and his wife Kelly also have helped support development of a trail on 129 acres they own along Big Spirit Lake’s east edge.

The Hoiens got involved in water quality research because of concerns partly spurred by the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit blaming several northwest Iowa counties for polluting drinking water. At first, like many, Eric was angry. “Eventually, though, it helped me realize these are serious issues,” he said.

Then, he read an article about the STRIPS (Iowa State-based Science-based Trials of Row Crops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project and thought it sounded like a practice that made sense for the Midwest.

“I decided if I want to see others doing this, we might as well be using our farm as a spot for this kind of research,” Hoien said.

His local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office, and Jim Sholly, then Iowa Great Lakes Watershed Coordinator, helped him get started. He was eventually connected to Matt Helmers, one of the researchers on the study, “Water Quality Evaluation of Prairie Strips Across Iowa.” It wasn’t long before several shallow wells and flumes and flow sensors were installed for monitoring on the Hoiens’ property, making their northwest Iowa land one of 34 research sites. 

“It wasn’t free, but it’s been pretty easy to be involved,” Hoien said. “Much of the cost of the strips was covered through cost-share, and all the data collection is done by staff with ISU and Iowa Lakeside Laboratory.”

“The project holds an annual meeting for cooperators at different locations in Iowa, which I appreciate,” he said.

“Our biggest challenge has been arranging for someone to come in and do burns to manage the strips, especially where the land is close to homes,” he said. “It’s also required some extra effort to work with our farm operator to keep him informed and get him engaged.”

This year, if the pandemic allows, the Hoiens expect to host a second field day to highlight the prairie strips and the research results.

Real-world questions

In addition to testing research in real-world scenarios, input from cooperators helps frame the INRC’s research agenda, Helmers said.

Earlier this year, the INRC held stakeholder meetings to gain input for its 2020 Request for Proposals. Stout and Hoien were there, along with agency officials, representatives of farm and conservation groups and water quality researchers from the state’s Regents institutions and federal partners. They worked together to discuss and prioritize the next round of questions on nutrients and water quality they want research to answer.  

“Input from farmers and landowners is valuable to help identify their interests related to answering water quality questions. Those who have been involved in research projects often have especially valuable input since they have had a close look at what’s involved in gathering credible data,” Helmers said. “They also often play a critical role in helping disseminate the results of research to their peers.”

Eric and Kelly Hoien in front of recently burned prairie and wetland
Eric and Kelly Hoien with recently burned prairie strips and a wetland restoration on their land near Big Spirit Lake in Dickinson County. Photo by David Thoreson.