No one understands the importance and the pressures of keeping our Earth healthy and clean better than farmers. For local farmers like Jo and Tim Heidt, Larry, Tim and Brad Marek, and Thom and Mary Miller, conservation is less of a question and more of a given. The farmers and their businesses received the Iowa Farm Environmental Leaders Awards on Aug. 14 in Des Moines, an award given and recognized by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The three southeast Iowan families are among 53 from across the state that were recognized this year. According to the award program, “recipients have made environmental stewardship a priority by utilizing conservation practices that prevent soil erosion and improve water quality.” The Heidts were awarded for their work in Henry and Jefferson counties; the Mareks were recognized for their work in Washington County; and the Millers were awarded for their work in Washington and Henry counties.
A top concern for farmers in the state is nutrient runoff from soil into streams that contribute to water pollution. Runoff from Iowa farms produce large amounts of nitrogen that eventually exit into the Gulf of Mexico and contribute to “dead zones” that destroy ecosystems and deplete ocean life of oxygen. According to an Iowa State study, in 2016, farmers from the state contributed to 618 million pounds of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico.
Miranda Haes, the Skunk River Project Coordinator from the Henry County Natural Resources Conservation Services office, says that conservation efforts have become more of a priority in the county in recent years, especially in light of understanding the effect and damage certain practices can have on the environment.
Tom and Jo Heidt
Haes nominated Tom and Jo Heidt for the award for both their contributions to her project as well as their involvement with the community.
The Heidts have been raising and breeding cattle with the goal of improving genetics and the quality of beef for 45 years. Their business, K7 Herefords, was started in Wisconsin and moved to Iowa in 2006. The family also grows corn on their 170 acre farm, which is split between Lockridge and Mt. Pleasant.
“Tom and Jo have been really awesome. They’ve hosted field days for other farmers on rotational grazing and they do a lot with cover crops,” Haes said as she explained why she felt the Heidts deserved to be recognized. And while Tom and Jo were honored to receive the award, they didn’t see their efforts as anything out of the ordinary.
“I’m just doing what’s right,” Tom said. “I didn’t start doing these things because I was looking for awards. They really work, and a lot of the practices I would do even if there wasn’t any sort of incentive.”
Tom began working extensively with his local NRCS about 10 years ago after adopting a plan for cover crops that brought him remarkable yield results. Tom credits the NRCS for helping him learn about and get acquainted with new conservation strategies, many of which are aimed at reducing soil loss and controlling runoff.
“There’s a direct link to us … whatever runs off from our fields ends up in our drinking water and we want to keep it clean,” Jo said, “God put us here to take care of the land and that means taking good care of what has been given to us including the animals and the soil.”
New farming techniques
Tom and Jo, in addition to rotational grazing and cover crops, also make use of terraces to prevent soil from entering waterways and maintain soil quality. While they are firm believers of the strategies now, the initial process of adopting the new farming techniques included a lot of trial-and-error.
The Heidts’ willingness to try new conservation practices is part of a slow but growing tide in Henry County, according to district conservationist Doug Ensminger.
“There’s about a 95 percent participation in our programs and programs with the United States Department of Agriculture. The county has a lot of highly eroding lands and is expected to be part of the programs,” Ensminger said. “There are farmers out there who are very traditional and will continue what they’ve been doing for years, and then there are others who are more open to trying new practices,” he concluded.
Larry, Tim and Brad Marek
Like the Heidts, the Mareks, when adopting new farming techniques, look at strategies that will allow them to curb their environmental impact. The family credits a sense of duty in preserving the land for the next generation as a major motivator.
The family first began farming in Washington in 1896 and since then, six generations of the Mareks have grown up on the family farm. Larry Marek alongside his sons Tim and Brad, who own Marek Land and Livestock, grow corn and soybeans. Tim also raises cattle and swine.
Like the Heidts, the Mareks also make use of cover crops, terraces and rotational grazing. In addition to the more popular conservation practices, the Mareks also leave land unfarmed, renting out acres to conservation offices, as well as creating trails for local birds and wildlife. The Marek farm is home to a butterfly sanctuary. While farming, the men try to keep in mind those who will come after them.
Here today, gone tomorrow
“Soil is a one-time deal. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever so you want to do what you can to save it,” Tim said. “If we don’t take care of it now, there won’t be any left for those we leave the farm behind to,” he continued.
Tim has four daughters who are also involved with the farm and believes they will help carry it on down the road.
“We really try to stay on top of new strategies and practices. Washington County is very progressive with its conservation practices. Most of the farmers out here are using cover crops and no till,” Larry added.
Tony Maxwell, who has worked as the Washington County district conservationist for 28 years, says that Washington County has been a leader in conservation practices throughout history.
“Washington County has had lots of early innovators and adopters. The farmers here really try to make things work and they will try and, even if they fail, they will try again,” Maxwell noted.
Larry, who was on the board of directors of the Iowa Soybean Association and previously served as a representative in the Iowa House of Representatives, has been a big proponent of conservation methods since he began farming in the 70s. Furthermore, his willingness to advocate for and share ideas on how to implement conservation practices is what inspired Ed Ulch, who also served on the board of directors of the Iowa Soybean Association, to nominate the family for the award.
“I’ve known Larry for about eight to 10 years now and as farmers we get around to talking. I was really impressed seeing what he was doing with his farm and hearing about his conservation efforts,” Ulch said. Ulch himself has looked to Mareks for advice on the conservation practices that have worked for them.
“Throughout [Larry’s] farming career, he has always advocated for conservation whenever given the chance,” Ulch said.
Thom and Mary Miller
Much like the Mareks, Thom and Mary Miller have also worked to inform and educate other farmers. The couple run Miller Seed and Miller Farms.
“I try to talk to people about what I’ve done and learned, hopefully I can help out other farmers learn from my mistakes, and tell them about my experiences so they can take from my success as well because I’d hate to see people do things and fail,” Thom said.
Barb Shelman, a conservation assistant with the Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District, noted on her nomination of the Millers that the family actively participated in their local NRCS, hosting field days for fellow farmers as well as for youth organization including 4-H and the National FFA Organization.
“I feel honored to get [the award] and doing what I feel is right … my priority is to help other farmers get involved and more and more people are taking on conservation practices because they understand what the practices do, the negative and positive effects,” Thom said.
A small cost for a big benefit
There are few downsides to conservation according to the Heidts, Mareks and Millers, but all three families noted that conservation comes with a cost to farmers, who often spend money building terraces or planting cover crops, or simply leaving land unfarmed. The cost of conservation can be a major deterrent for many, but the families also acknowledged that the cost paid today will prevent a larger cost down the road.
“No one wants to see the land destroyed and so we have to try new things to save it,” Tim Marek noted.
Similarly, Tom Heidt pointed to people outside of agriculture to consider adopting more environmentally friendly habits.
“You have golf courses that fertilize their grass and allow that stuff to run off into sewers. We just all have to all be doing our part,” Tom said. “It’s easy for people to point the finger at agriculture, but there’s a lot that happens in cities that contributes to [pollution].”