Lessons from SOIL 2018

You can’t predict exactly what will happen when you bring together 150 dedicated Iowans and ask a dozen farmers, scientists, conservationists, and community leaders to share their visions for Iowa’s water and land – but you can be sure it will be interesting.  That was very true at SOIL 2018.

To begin – speakers and attendees agreed on several key points.

First, Iowa is seriously underfunding any real efforts at protecting water quality and soil.  There was strong support for raising the sales tax to provide permanent funding for the natural resource protection efforts Iowa needs.

Second, we have the farming practices needed to help improve soil health and protect water quality – the two most valuable are widespread adoption of cover crops and using wetlands and riparian buffer strips to filter water and build soil.

Third, there is a growing recognition we need to focus on soil health, especially improving water infiltration capacity so the soil can withstand the frequent large rains we are experiencing.

Fourth, changing our attitude to the soil means ridding ourselves of the notion there is a tolerable level of soil loss.

Fifth, we need opportunities for people to get outdoors, to be on our rivers in we want them to understand how land and water are part of our eco-system and to recognize how a healthy environment is one of our most effective tools for economic development.

Here are some specific ideas shared by speakers:

Dr. Jerry Hatfield of the USDA explained our need to promote biologic activity in the soil.  Soil degradation is limiting the ability of soil to absorb water, which is why we have terrible surface runoff from large rains.

Liz Garst, a farmer and banker from Coon Rapids, said we need to develop realistic views on soil regeneration and get rid of the idea of tolerable soil loss.  She reminded us we are trying to do what no civilization been able to – solve soil erosion. Doing so will require us to overcome what her grandfather called “the despotism of custom.”

Seth Watkins, a cattleman from Southwest Iowa, focused on rural economies and community life; for example, expanding opportunities for tourism from hunting.  Seth said, “We have never filled our hotels for corn season.”  Grazing the way Seth does allows him to employ a variety of conservation and soil health building practices.

Jennifer Terry, the Iowa farm girl heading the Iowa Environmental Council, said our lakes are sick and we need to restore them to health.  She invited us to learn what neighboring states are doing.  Her most powerful suggestion was out need for more diversity of voices and involving women leaders in our efforts.

Larry Weber from the University of Iowa reminded us how critical it is to take a watershed approach. He highlighted the growing number of Presidential disaster declarations from flooding in Iowa and the frequency of 10 inch rains.  He left us with sobering data how trend lines show Iowa’s nutrient export has increased in recent years.

Matt Russell from Interfaith Power and Light brought a hopeful message for how farmers can lead our nation’s response to climate change.  Doing so may unlock significant economic opportunities and pay for the healthy soil and water quality central to addressing climate change.

Jim Pease, a wildlife biologist, explained Iowa does have a vision plan for wildlife.  It is based largely on having more permanently protected public land with larger blocks and contiguous corridors of riparian buffers to continue the wildlife restoration work underway.

Hannah Inman of the Greater Outdoor Fund detailed the Central Iowa water trails plan and how business community supports outdoor amenities to aid in job creation, recruitment and retention.

The great news coming from SOIL 2018 is that Iowans have a vision for our resource future and are looking for ways to bring their hopes alive.  We will keep exploring their stories.

ALC Quarterly Update

The Agricultural Law Center team has been busy in the second quarter of 2018.  We’ve launched multi-episode video project Our Water Our Land, hired Anna Jordan to act as Policy and Outreach Coordinator, travelled to Cuba, prepared to host the 2018 SOIL Conference, and much more!


Director Neil Hamilton launched the weekly educational video series Our Water Our Land, which is now up to 19 episodes. The series is featured on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter.


Hamilton and Assistant Director Jennifer Zwagerman spent five days in Cuba participating in the International Congress on Agrarian Law.  The conference was attended by over 90 lawyers from at least 15 nations. Hamilton was honored by the Cubans for his work in agricultural law and received an award from the Cuban Agrarian Law Society. Hamilton presented on the topic of “Feeding Our Future: Reflections on Forty Years of Agricultural Law in a Changing Agriculture,” which was then translated and published by journals in Cuba and Argentina.


Hamilton and Policy and Outreach Coordinator Anna Jordan continued drafting on new installments for the “Landowners Legal Guide” video series being funded with a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Hamilton spent several days at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville teaching the introductory class on food and agricultural law to the new LLM students.

Looking Forward

On September 19, the Center will sponsor SOIL 2018: Turning Our Vision for Iowa’s Water and Land in to Action, at the Olmsted Center.  The conference is the third in the series of SOIL – Sustaining Our Iowa Land conferences organized by the Center. To register, click here.

In October, Hamilton will visit Harvard Law School to take part in the First Annual Conference on Food Law and Policy, organized by the Academy of Food Law and Policy, for which he is a founding board member.  Later in October he and Assistant Director Jennifer Zwagerman, AALA President, will attend the American Agricultural Law Association conference in Portland, Oregon. Hamilton will participate on a panel on the topic of Sustainability in Agriculture: Legal & Policy Considerations for Economic and Community Development.






ALC to Issue Guide for Farmers and Landowners on Navigating Public Programs to Improve Water Quality

The Drake University Agricultural Law Center will release a new report “How to Improve Water Quality on Iowa Farms: A Step-by-Step Guide for Navigating Conservation Programs for Farmers and Landowners” next week. The 65-page report will be available for download from the Center’s web site at http://aglawcenter.wp.drake.edu/research/.

“Our goal is to make it easier for Iowa farmers and landowners to understand the public cost-sharing programs available to protect our soil and water,” said Professor Neil Hamilton, director of the Center. The Guide was developed under a 2017 grant from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, which is now coordinated by the Iowa Nutrient Center.

Matt Russell, who helped create the Guide in his role as the Resilient Agriculture Coordinator with Drake, noted, “Iowa has a wide range of programs to assist those interested in putting conservation on the land, but being able to understand who administers the programs and the process for applying can be confusing.”

The Guide examines the programs in two ways: first, the discussion describes various conservation and water quality practices available—such as cover crops or installing grass waterway—and lists which federal or state agencies have financial assistance programs that can help support each practice. Secondly, the report takes a detailed look at federal and state conservation and water quality programs to explain how they actually work for interested farmers and landowners.

Popular federal efforts such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are explained in detail. Similarly, various state cost sharing programs such as the Water Quality Initiative, Financial Incentive Program for Soil Erosion Control, and the Iowa conservation practices revolving fund are explained, including how they are administered. The Guide uniquely features a set of common questions for each program, including who is eligible, how one applies, what documents are required, how selections are made, how practices are implemented, how payments happen, and how programs are enforced.

“If we expect farmers and landowners to use public programs to protect soil and water, we feel it is important to take the mystery out of how to actually apply to use them,” Hamilton said.

The Guide explains how many programs are delivered through the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. It gives suggestions for working with the districts, especially the value of developing a personal relationship with the conservation professionals so an effective plan can be developed for a farm.

The final section of the Guide covers Private Conservation Initiatives. These are typically programs where a private business involved with food or agriculture works with farmers to implement a soil or water conservation project. The Guide is one of the first efforts to evaluate and discuss the potential these programs may have for providing additional support for soil and water conservation.  A case study of how one Iowa farm is using both public and private programs to improve soil health and water quality is used to demonstrate this potential.

For more information and to find other resources for farmers and landowners, visit http://aglawcenter.wp.drake.edu/research/

ALC Quarterly Update

The Agricultural Law Center team has been busy in the first quarter of 2018.  We’ve traveled north of the Arctic Circle, spoken at numerous conferences, appeared in stories in multiple media outlets, screened a new documentary film and even hosted a former U.S. ambassador.


Associate Director Jennifer Zwagerman is quoted in an Event Driven article, BG/ADM: Soybean Crushing and Grain Handling Markets Raise Antitrust Questions on January 24.  She also spoke to Farm World about food safety and regulatory oversite.

In January, Resilient Agriculture Coordinator Matt Russell gave an interview to Harvest Public Media about the need for farmers to partner with others to ensure conservation, disaster assistance, and nutrition assistance are supported in the 2018 farm bill.


Director Neil Hamilton was a guest on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River on February 20.  The hour-long program explored the history of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and implications of implementing America’s Harvest Box.  He argued the proposed change to SNAP looks like a solution in search of a problem.

The Center collaborated with the Drake University College of Arts and Sciences on their 2018 Engaged Citizen Experience Conference, Nourishing the World, on Feb. 22-23.  Neil facilitated a panel discussion following the screening of the new film “Farmers for America.”

At the Engaged Citizen Conference, Matt invited Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, to help lead the breakout session “Iowa Agriculture Reality Check—Environmental Sustainability.”  Drake University alumna and former Ambassador Darci Vetter gave the keynote address.  She is a strategic consultant on International Trade and Agriculture, diplomat in residence at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and the former chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.


Neil traveled near the North Pole to pay homage to thousands of years of agricultural development and a million seeds stored at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, on March 2.

“Being inside the Vault makes real the stories I have read,” Neil said. “It also brings a new appreciation and understanding of the work of many people – the plant collectors, the seed breeders, the farmers, and the gene bank officials who have collected, improved and saved these seeds.  One does not need to be a person of faith to feel a visit to the Vault is moving in a spiritual way.”

Matt spoke at the 9th Annual Feed Greater Des Moines conference about local food policy and advocacy on March 3.  He also spoke about working-land conservation programs, CSP and EQIP at the National Farmers Union convention in Kansas City on March 5.

Looking Forward

Our project, Guide on How to Improve Water Quality on Iowa Farms, will be published in the next month.

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