Sparking students’ interest in sciences through agriculture

February 4, 2016

 ffa3Back during my college days, when I was taking freshman classes in huge lecture halls at Iowa State University (ISU), I studied biology before I switched majors to journalism.

Admittedly, looking back, it wasn’t my smartest life decision. But I remember sitting in lab classes, sorting ugly fruit flies to determine which had the genetic trait for red eyes versus white eyes, thinking I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life. Plus, I wanted to live close to family after graduation, and I couldn’t imagine finding a job with a biology degree in Iowa.

Fast-forward to a year ago, when I met an ISU food science graduate who completed a research project on the different characteristics of cold-hardy wine grape varieties.

Even though she didn’t grow up on a farm or plan on a career in agriculture, she now works in a lab at the Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute at ISU, testing the quality of grape and wine samples sent in from wineries across the state.

If someone had told my 19-year-old self that working in a lab might mean testing wines all day, helping build the reputation of Iowa’s wineries as some of the best in the country, then I wouldn’t have switched my major to a career that’s being taken over by blogs and tweets.

ffa2Now science, technology and agriculture are the fastest growing careers in Iowa. A few weeks back, a pre-caucus New York Times story  even highlighted how Iowa companies like Kemin Industries can’t find enough skilled workers in science and technology to fill their needs.

Recognizing the career opportunities close to home, Iowa schools are focused on introducing science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – curriculum in classrooms as soon as students enter kindergarten.

But that doesn’t mean kids are doing boring lab experiments growing tiny fruit flies in test tubes anymore. Instead, many teachers are using agriculture to spark their students’ interest in STEM careers.

John Seiser, a fifth- and sixth-grade science and math teacher at Northeast Hamilton Community Schools, recently received the Iowa Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award from the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and supported through a grant from the CHS Foundation.

In Seiser’s classroom, students are raising turkeys, starting heirloom pepper seeds  and growing a school garden to learn about science and math.

“I’m a very hands-on teacher, and I think kids learn best by being hands-on,” Seiser said. “It’s very important that the kids learn where their food is coming from. We probably spend half of our time incorporating agriculture while studying science. You can incorporate agriculture in so many ways.”

Plus, his young students are discovering the many ag-related career opportunities available here in Iowa, even if they don’t live or work on a farm.

ffa1“We always talk about possible careers in agriculture for them. They can grow their own produce and sell it at a farmers market or become an agronomist or work at a bank as an ag loan officer. If you’re a kid and you’re from Iowa, you’re tied to agriculture,” he said.

And keeping more young families in the state makes Iowa a better place to live for all us, generating income for rural areas and creating more cultural opportunities – like a summer evening relaxing at an Iowa winery, enjoying a glass of award-winning wine made possible, in part, by a scientist.

To learn more about the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation, check out or follow along as Iowa students learn about ag in the classroom on Facebook at

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.






Democracy on full display in Iowa

February 2, 2016

Malcom-caucus-night1Democracy was on full display this week in Iowa’s small towns and big cities, in school gyms, churches and many other sites around the states as citizens gathered for the Iowa Caucuses. They came out on the chilly Monday night with a snowstorm threatening. They gathered to respectively listen to presentations and discuss attributes of all the candidates. Then, after careful consideration, each caucus goer marked down or stated his or her preference of who should be president of the United States.

The Iowa Farm Bureau’s photographer, Gary Fandel, looked in on a group of Iowans who caucused in a meeting room of the Heartland Co-op office in Malcolm. About 50 Republicans gathered at the Poweshiek County elevator, cast their votes and Melissa Doty kept the tally on an old-fashioned chalkboard.

Melissa-Doty-of-Malcom1In all, a record number of Iowans turned out for the caucuses on Feb. 1. The latest reports show the Republicans counted more than 180,000 caucus participants across the state, easily topping previous high mark of 121,503. Democrats also turned out in big numbers, but they were not expected to top 2008’s record of 240,000.

Electing a president in America is a long process there are bound to be many twists and turns before the final voting in November. But there’s really no better place to start the process than right at the grassroots: the Iowa Caucuses.


The caucuses: Iowa’s big chance to make a difference

January 25, 2016

votingtLike many of Iowans, I’ve been checking my caller ID pretty closely this month trying to avoid robocalls from political campaigns. (Sorry Aunt Bertha, if I don’t recognize your number, I’m not picking up.) I’ve also gotten pretty nimble with the mute button on my TV’s remote control. That way I don’t have to listen—again and again—to political attack ads that are jamming the airwaves these days.

Yes, presidential campaigns have shifted into overdrive here in the final days leading up to the Feb. 1 Iowa Caucuses. And, yes, it can definitely get to be overwhelming. I think I’m like a lot of people who are wondering aloud ‘isn’t Groundhog Day, the day when the campaigns will have moved on to other states.’

Still, it’s important to look beyond the robocalls and attack ads and remember the unique opportunity that we Iowans have every four years to have real impact on the national presidential debate. Few Americans, it seems, spend much time thinking about the people in the middle of the country. And they rarely think about Iowa’s prime economic drivers: farmers and others in agriculture who consistently provide them with a mind-boggling diversity of food that’s safe and nutritious; not to mention pitching in on supplying fuel and fiber. So it’s doubtful that presidential candidates would say much at all about issues important to Iowa throughout the long campaigns if it not for the caucuses.

caucus1If you want to check out the presidential candidates’ views on key issues for Iowans, such as trade, taxes, renewable fuels and environmental regulations, visit our Farmers Caucus 2016 site. We’ve also got a lot of useful information on how a caucus works (it’s not that hard once you get the hang of it), on how to find your caucus site and an updated list of announced campaign events around the state.

So read up on the issues, attend a rally and, by all means, show up at your caucus site on Feb. 1. It’s truly Iowa’s big chance to play an important role in shaping the direction of our country.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is News Services Manager and editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.


Young farmers, rural entrepreneurs full of fresh ideas for today’s problems

January 13, 2016
Dakota Hoben, American Farm Bureau Discussion Meet

Dakota Hoben (pictured right) participates in the 2016 American Farm Bureau Discussion Meet.

A fresh set of eyes can make all of the difference in finding solutions to persistent issues.

Luckily, Iowa has a growing group of young farmers and rural entrepreneurs with the vision and drive to take those challenges head-on.

Take for example, Dakota Hoben, a young agriculture professional from Ames. Dakota won Iowa Farm Bureau’s Discussion Meet and this week advanced to the Sweet 16 of the American Farm Bureau competition, on the strength of a clear and consistent message: let’s push ourselves.

Let’s push ourselves, as farmers and ag professionals, to explore new and better solutions to address existing issues, like water quality and the public’s misunderstanding of beneficial agriculture technology, such as GMOs. Let’s push ourselves and be proactive in addressing potential issues before they become problems because, as Dakota says, “it’s not going to be our dad’s and grandad’s generations that are going to solve these issues, it’s going to be our generation.”

The Discussion Meet is a competition to prepare young farmers and ag professionals for real-world conversations about the tough issues facing farmers and their non-farm neighbors. Last year’s Iowa champion reached the Final 4 of the national competition, and with 400-plus young farmers registered to attend Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual Young Farmer Conference later this month, Iowa is sure to produce yet another standout problem solver.

Speaking of problem solvers, Iowa had two entrepreneurs reach the Final 4 of American Farm Bureau’s Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge this week. AccuGrain of Rose Hill, Iowa won the competition for its use of X-ray technology to inventory flowing grain in real time, which, among other things, creates a safer work environment for farmers by reducing the need to climb into a grain bin.

Iowa’s other Final 4 representative, AgriSync of Dallas Center, Iowa impressed the judges with an app that (what else?) helps farmers solve equipment problems by connecting them with technicians via their smart phones.

Did I mention that last year’s Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge champion also came from Iowa?

It’s easy to point to the growth of our cities and assume that our best and brightest problem solvers hail from Des Moines or Cedar Rapids.

Hopefully, we’re reminded that there’s still greatness in the countryside, and we’re willing to accept our rural neighbors’ genuine invitation to work together on the big issues facing Iowa.

They’ll be ready, with fresh eyes and a vision for the future.

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

Water quality experts: farmers are cooperating, even when nature doesn’t

December 22, 2015
cover crops in Iowa

Cover crops are one of many science-based conservation practices farmers are embracing to protect water.

Don’t mistake this explanation for an excuse.

Weather causes nitrates to seep from Iowa’s naturally nitrogen-rich soils, and it’s the primary cause of the state’s water quality issues.

That’s not me talking. That’s Iowa State University soil scientist Michael Castellano and scientific data that’s been collected for years.

According to Castellano, “fertilizer applications really have very little to do with [Iowa’s water quality issues].”

A new case study from the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance backs him up. The study finds that even as farmers planted and fertilized more corn from 1999-2014, there was no correlation between increased fertilizer inputs and nitrate levels in the Raccoon River (the source of Des Moines’ drinking water). The study does show that nutrient runoff was best during the drought of 2012 and worst during the wet spring of 2013.

Finding science-based, collaborative solutions

So why is Des Moines Water Works trying to pin this complex problem on one group of people, by suing farmers in northwest Iowa?

Doesn’t it make more sense to listen to the scientific explanation and work together on proven practices that account for the variables (natural and man-made) that are impacting water quality?

That’s why you see so many farmers and national, state, and local leaders lining up to support and implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science and technology-based plan to conserve the state’s soils and protect water quality created by Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

The strategy includes a range of proven practices and the flexibility for farmers to choose the ones that will work best on their farms, based on local variables like weather and soil conditions.

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses Iowa’s plan and progress:

“My perception is Iowa’s been a real leader in the whole nutrient reduction effort. They’ve had a good, aggressive nutrient reduction strategy. We’ve been supportive of that moving forward, and want to be a partner with them and other federal agencies, academic institutions, state partners, and state stakeholders.”

Mark Hague
EPA Region 7 Administrator (covering Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri)

Other prominent supporters of Iowa’s farmers-led efforts include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and various other state and local leaders, including the mayor of Cedar Rapids (Iowa’s second largest city).

Even with such broad support, no one expects a quick and easy end to Iowa’s water quality challenges. It’s going to be an on-going process: one that requires widespread collaboration, education, implementation, measurement, and adjustment (based on how various practices respond to changing conditions on Iowa’s unique landscapes). Iowans are up to the challenge, led by groups like the just-announced Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC).

While organizations like INREC and communities around Iowa are choosing collaboration and rolling up their sleeves to implement activities that will make a meaningful impact, Des Moines Water Works is sticking with its decision to take its rural neighbors to court, further delaying conservation progress.

Unlike the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the utility can’t explain how its lawsuit will help improve water quality (it won’t) or by when, turning the argument for a lawsuit into one big, finger-pointing excuse.

By Zach Bader. Zach is Iowa Farm Bureau’s Online Community Manager.

Flooding in December? With Iowa weather, you just never know

December 15, 2015

JHL_logo_blue-wIs Iowa’s weather unpredictable? Just ask the folks organizing the Jolly Holiday Lights event in Des Moines’ Water Works Park. Record December rains forced them to cancel the event for the rest of the 2015 holiday season. The Jolly Holiday folks are always prepared for snow during the Christmas season, but unprecedented rain and flooding meant lights out for this year’s displays.

That’s too bad. Over the years, my family has enjoyed driving through the creative light displays, which raises money for a great cause: Make-A-Wish Iowa Foundation.

But with Iowa’s weather, you just never know what you’re going to get.

That’s why it’s so curious that the Des Moines Water Works, and its CEO Bill Stowe, continually dismiss the weather as a primary cause for nitrate issues in the Raccoon River and insists on blaming farmers. To see how unpredictable Iowa weather can be, he only needs to look out the window.

Last summer organizers were forced to move a two-day summer music festival because of flooding in Water Works Park. And now, five months later, another round of flooding forces an early shutdown of Jolly Holiday Lights.

Yet, Stowe has repeatedly criticized farmers over water quality, as he led the Water Works to sue three northwest Iowa counties, more than 100 miles upriver from Des Moines.

The Water Works’ accusations just don’t hold water, according to a new scientific study. The study by the Iowa Soybean Association, which measured more than 3,000 water samples over 15 years, highlighted the fact that Iowa’s roller coaster weather patterns were behind any nitrate issues in the Raccoon, not fertilizer applications or other farming practices. The study showed that nitrate levels in the Raccoon River actually trended lower during the 15 years ending in 2014, despite the fact that farmers planted more acres of corn, a crop that requires more fertilizer than soybeans.

Weather was behind the big fluctuation in nitrate levels in the Raccoon, the study showed. Specifically, the new study showed the Raccoon’s nitrate levels dropped very low during the very dry year of 2012, but jumped in 2013, when the rains suddenly switched on and flushed out fertilizer in the soil because drought-ravaged crops didn’t absorb it. You can read more about the study here.

cover cropsIowa farmers are taking steps through the state’s groundbreaking water quality initiative to keep nutrients on their fields and out of the state’s streams and rivers, no matter the weather.

They are planting cover crops to absorb nitrogen before planting and after harvest. It’s estimated that cover crop plantings in Iowa have soared at a compounded growth rate of 192 percent since 2009. Farmers are also adopting tillage practices that leave more cover on the soil surface to protect it. More and more Iowa farmers are using precision nitrogen programs, to provide nutrients to the crop on a just-in-time basis. And they are installing bioreactors and other structures to remove nitrates from excess drainage before it gets to streams.

As history shows, agriculture in Iowa is a continual learning process and farmers constantly adjust and adopt new practices as science and research reveal improvements.

It’s a long-term commitment which won’t show results overnight. But, unlike the Des Moines Water Works’ strategy of filing lawsuits and pointing fingers, it shows real promise in improving water quality, no matter what kind of wacky weather Iowa sees next.

By Dirck  Steimel. Dirck is the News Services Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Giving back

December 7, 2015

Rob Stewart, left, Carol Miler and Brad Moeckly (SP)One in eight Iowans experiences hunger; either there isn’t enough to go around after they get done paying heating bills, or they have to choose between their child’s school expenses or medications.  There are many paths in life that lead a hard-working person to need a little help from a food bank.   It’s especially tough for those who dedicate their lives to growing food; that ‘one in eight’ statistic weighs heavily on the minds of Iowa farmers, who are heralded around the world as leading food producers.

It’s probably why farmers have long supported their local food banks.  It’s lead to a new milestone for the America Needs Farmers (ANF) initiative by Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the University of Iowa Athletic’s Department; more than $100,000 has been raised for the Iowa Food Bank Association through the sale of ANF merchandise.  Polk County farmers who came to a Des Moines food bank to drop off a new donation, were moved to meet a client who once depended on the generosity of others during a hard time;

helmet1Commitment to helping the community is central to the core for many Iowa farmers.  “It’s getting a little colder, people are having a little trouble with utility bills and things like that.  So, it’s good to make sure that the food bank has plenty to give back.  I’m a farmer, I grow crops and take pride in what we grow and it’s good to see it put to good use,” says Rob Stewart, Polk county farmer.

It’s also why IFBF has, for generations, encouraged youth leadership as the title sponsor of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union and the Iowa High School Athletic Association.   It’s why IFBF provides nearly $500,000 in annual scholarships for students every year.  It’s why IFBF has also now provided $100,000 to the FFA foundation and long been a sponsor of 4-H programs across the state.

Being an Iowa farmer is about more than yields and ‘rate of gain’ for a market hog or how many acres are planted to corn or soybeans; it’s about what’s going on beyond the farm gate.  It’s about people.  It’s about community.  It’s about giving back.  ‘People, Progress, Pride’ means we’re all in this together, during good times and bad.   That’s what being an Iowan is all about.

By Laurie Johns. Laurie is public relations manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.




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