As Marlyn Jorgensen drives his truck through the fields he’s farmed for more than 50 years, he pauses at the base of one of the rolling hills that makes up his 640 acre property. It’s March and the landscape consists of barren trees and a monochromatic field of brown earth. It’s hard to see anything that you might find remarkable.
“If we do our part at the start,” he says, pointing at the hill, “if everyone does their part, we can improve the water quality and its speed of travel.”
He then explains the implications of the different shades of brown that stripe the hill. He points out the terraces that hold soil in place, and the small growth of green cover crops that sheet strips of ground. Patches of grass, still a golden brown, also zigzag around the field. These seemingly random and almost invisible barriers keep nutrients and nitrogen in the field, and out of the water. And they keep the water in the ground, instead of rushing south. Marlyn draws a line with his finger in the air from the terraces on the hill to the creek at its base. He explains that the creek will eventually make its way into the Cedar River.
These conservation practices exist all around the Jorgensen farm, because Marlyn and Ann believe strongly in their responsibility to conserve the earth’s resources. “Everything is connected. We have to take care of the resources we have so they can continue to exist for future generations,” Ann says.
Ann currently serves as a member of the board of trustees for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. It’s not her first step into service – throughout her life she’s been involved in numerous organizations and efforts to strengthen the relationship between conservationists and farmers. Marlyn too, has been involved on and off his farm – he was previously the president of the National Soybean Association. The couple has farmed soybeans and corn, and raised cattle and hogs; though they stopped raising livestock years earlier.
“Our vision for Iowa is to have healthy and productive lands that benefit both people and nature,” explains Nick Longbucco, The Nature Conservancy staff. “Throughout the state we do prairie restoration work, flood plain protection and restoration, and fresh water conservation work. We also engage with the agricultural community to encourage best practices back on the landscape.”
These practices include cover crop and no-till, practices that keep nutrients in the soil and decrease the chances of them getting into creeks and rivers. In addition, The Nature Conservancy works with land owners to reestablish the wetlands that are needed to store and slow water to minimize the risk of flooding.
In many ways, Marlyn and Ann are the perfect Nature Conservancy advocates. They’ve eagerly used conservation best practices on their land for years – even reestablishing miles of timber, walnut trees and a pond on their property – and they’re eager to talk about it with other farmers and land owners.
“These practices are new to a lot of farmers,” explains Longbucco, “and we aren’t always sure of the impact on the bottom line. They have been doing it a certain way for generations and so changing to a different way takes time, education and resources.”
But Marlyn and Ann say that it’s inevitable that these practices will be needed, and they think most folks would rather integrate them on their own rather than to be required to do it later. “Water quality is such a critical issue,” Marlyn explains. “Either we can change how we do things here, over time, or we’re going to be forced to suddenly by regulations when the issue gets bad enough.”
“Anything we can do upstream of Cedar Rapids is going to have a big impact on the community here,” agrees Nick. “The Nature Conservancy’s goal for Iowa and for the Cedar River basin is to have lands that are productive for farmers and provide benefits to communities downstream; in Linn County that means improving water quality and mitigating floods and flood risk.”
To accomplish those goals, it’s essential that The Nature Conservancy partner effectively with landowners upstream. Marlyn and Ann think this is an achievable goal. “People want their land to pass on to the next generation, and I think, once they learn about these practices, they realize this is the way to go,” says Marlyn. “The Nature Conservancy makes that easier.”