The Strange Case of Rattlesnake Ridge

There are few things that are certain in life, big or small. Big like the stock market, trade deals, and elections. Small like, well . . . that all depends on your perspective. A change in a school schedule, a bus route, or the weather can be huge if your family schedule or your way of making a living depends on it. Here in the Midwest, the rolling hills and wide plains, sculpted by glaciers, water, and wind, are one of the few items that fall into the pretty darn reliable category. When we wake up in the morning and look out the window, the leaves on the trees change color, the corn grows higher and then it’s gone, the cattle slowly chase the best forage in the pasture, but the landform is essentially the same.

Rattlesnake Ridge Landslide, Credit: Washington DNR

For the 6,000+ residents of Union Gap, Washington State, the land is changing beneath their feet – or rather over their heads. In October 2017, they learned that a 20-acre chunk of Rattlesnake Ridge, a large bluff overlooking the town, was headed in their direction at the rate of 2.5 inches per day, or over a foot a week. While this landslide is bad news for Union Gap, knowing about it ahead of time is far better than the prospect of being buried by an amount of land that would fill Lake Mendota (a lake just north of the UW-Madison campus) over 6,000 times. The warning has allowed people time to evacuate and given scientists a chance to study the ridge’s movement as gravity propels it downward.

This luxury of time is unfortunately rare where landslides are concerned, leading to thousands of deaths annually and substantial loss of property worldwide. For many water-related issues, the slow pace of change is both a blessing and a curse. Whether it’s the slow leak of nutrients into lakes and streams, the steady march of pavement across the landscape leading to increasing runoff volumes, or the aging of water infrastructure, there is an underlying pattern: a slow decrease in stability triggering event, collapse – or at least overwhelming damage.

The relatively slow pace of changes in water supply and quality are tough for people to comprehend and manage. Our wiring for long-term thinking is there, but it can be overwhelmed by signals that seem, and perhaps are, more urgent. Big urgent things like passing a federal budget, and small(ish) urgent things like waking up to no hot water this morning and needing to trouble-shoot (thankfully, just a tripped GFI outlet in the basement) can overpower longer-term things like sufficient funding for agriculture and water quality research and outreach or water infrastructure.

Fortunately, like the case of Union Gap and Rattlesnake Ridge, we often have early warnings of potential system failures, failures that can have catastrophic and expensive consequences. Lake systems, river systems, drinking water systems, and urban stormwater management systems all send signals that something needs to change. Sometimes these signals are detected by scientists with big grants and expensive monitoring equipment. Sometimes they are detected by local anglers who notice changes in fish habitat quality, or a homeowner whose basement floods every year instead of every ten. These signals inform management and outreach efforts like Kara Salazar‘s work as a Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist for Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. While we know that large-scale water infrastructure improvements are essential, the Purdue Rainscaping Education Program reminds us that we all have a vital role to play in water stewardship. Small water infrastructure projects can make a big difference when placed strategically and with enough participants.

In addition to reducing stormwater runoff volume by over 170,000 gallons a year, rainscaping projects like Salazar’s and similar projects that engage citizens are helping combat the kind of social challenges that arise from what Daniel Kahneman and Glen Klein (2009) call a world of “fractionated expertise.” These projects bring people with different backgrounds and skill sets together around common goals. When we bring water stewardship back into the community, we learn new things about the places we live and work and we learn about each other. Perhaps we learn to trust one another just a little bit more – a seemingly small change that is a big win in today’s world. These are the kinds of changes that Extension educators and other local leaders are working toward every day. They are improving our water and renewing community relationships essential for long-term certainty and stability – something we could all use a little more of these days.


Rebecca Power, Network Director


Telling the Story of Conservation in the Fox River Valley

Northeast Wisconsin is home to Green Bay, the world ‘ s largest freshwater estuary. The region is also responsible for 30 percent of the state ‘ s milk production. Historically, ” big dairy ” and ” clean water ” would have been viewed as the ultimate contradiction. However, there are six local producers who are working hard to implement conservation practices to reduce their impact on our shared water resources. They are the six participating farms in the Lower Fox Demonstration Farms Network (otherwise known as Fox Demo Farms). At the end of 2016, Whitney Passint, a Natural Resources Educator with UW-Extension, was brought on to tell the Fox Demo Farms story.


The Fox Demo Farms project is a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded project, designed to demonstrate leading edge conservation practices that reduce sediment and phosphorus loading into the Fox River and bay of Green Bay. Since the project ‘ s inception in 2014, the producers have made great strides to improve soil health and water quality by planting cover crops and adopting no-till practices. Whitney’s first task was to design and implement a comprehensive outreach plan that would reach the project ‘ s primary audience, producers in the Lower Fox River Watershed.


To ensure maximum reach, Whitney’s outreach plan utilized a wide range of media outlets, including traditional news outlets (i.e., radio and television), as well as modern technology (i.e., website, social media, mass text messaging services). During the 2017 growing season, the Fox Demo Farms teamed up with a local radio station to produce a semi-monthly segment, ” Lessons Learned on the Fox Demo Farms “. The segments featured a farmer or other agricultural professional, who shared their experiences with a specific and timely topic. Partnering with Mike Austin, a trusted agricultural reporter, helped reach our target audience while bringing a sense of reliability to these practices.


Modern technology has allowed the Fox Demo Farms to communicate with a broad audience through social media and mass text messaging services. Through Facebookand Twitter, they have reached thousands of people with educational content and videos, which demonstrate the importance of conservation agriculture and how our producers are making it work on their land. One of the most effective ways to reach agricultural producers is via text message, which has led to the development of ” Field Days on the Fly “.  More than 100 producers have signed on to their list to receive alerts about spontaneous field days.


Additionally, Fox Demo Farms initiated a watershed-wide effort to distribute field signs that promote cover crops and no-till practices, while linking these practices to clean water. The signs serve as a social norming tool encouraging neighboring farms to implement conservation practices on their land. Furthermore, they act as an educational tool for the community who may not recognize the actions that producers are taking to protect our local water resources. Building community support for conservation agriculture is an important element of the comprehensive outreach plan and one that we look forward to working on in the future.


2017 Network Milestones

As a new year begins, and we take time to set new goals and resolutions, we would also like to take a moment and recognize the great work of our network initiatives in 2017. Each initiative is taking steps to ensure increased capacity, outreach, and education within our region in order to assure safe and sufficient water supplies for everyone.


Listed below are some of our network initiatives who had major milestones in 2017.  Read more about each of these initiatives and others on the Network Initiative page .


Building Collaboration Between State Land Grant Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities in the North Central Region
With 20 Tribal Land-grant colleges and universities across the North Central Region, there are ample opportunities for collaboration on water-related issues.  In 2017, a team from state land-grants, tribal land-grants, and partners including the First Americans Land-grant Consortium (FALCON) hosted a summit to bridge communication and connections between diverse institutions. Six different tribal institutions, a number of state universities, and partner organizations attended and combined their perspectives to identify priority issues surrounding overlapping water issues. The team is now hard at work building on the opportunities discussed at the summit, developing a working group of diverse stakeholders and building action plans for the identified priorities.


Establishing an Aquatic Invasive Species Working Group for the North Central Region Water Network
The negative impacts of aquatic invasive species (AIS) on communities and aquatic ecosystems are well-documented, but many states outside the Great Lakes Basin lack both resources and engagement around this issue. Last year, the North Central Region AIS working group hosted a Current Webinar on the impact of AIS in the region to combat these aquaculture problems. The team has also been working to conduct an audit on existing AIS programming as well as continuing to hold meetings that lead to collaborative discussions and workshops around resources, both new and existing.


Online Stormwater Core Curriculum: Enhancing Course Development
The North Central Region stormwater collaborative group is striving to establish a publicly-available, uniform, comprehensive stormwater core curriculum that is suitable for region-wide utilization. Together the team developed a five module course for stormwater professionals that is now available online. Last year, the team built off their previous success by conducting a core course collaboration workshop to review existing materials and starting the process of integrating enhanced multi-media content to the stormwater courses.


Regional Climate Team: Providing the Foundation for Lasting Climate Education in the North Central Region
The regional climate team of the North Central Region Water Network is utilizing their diverse expertise to engineer education around agriculture, water, and climate in the region. Collectively, the team is working to inform and influence decision makers who manage agriculture and natural resources. Additionally, the team is striving to promote climate-smart practices with an eye towards water management while still maintaining profitability. The climate team met last April to launch their initiative and are working to bring their expertise together to create comprehensive resources for the region.


Soil Health Nexus: Improving Water Quality through Soil Science
The North Central Region Soil Health Nexus is dedicated to increasing soil-health related research, knowledge, extension and resources throughout the region. Last year, the team created a website dedicated to soil health communication within the region, developed data briefs on the findings of critical soil health research, and gathered at the National Conference on Cover Crops to set the stage for this year’s work.


Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrate Loss From Drained Lands: A Comprehensive Multimedia Outreach Package
There are a number of practices to help reduce nitrate loss on drained cropland, each with varying degrees of effectiveness, suitability, impacts, and cost. The nitrate reduction team finalized a comprehensive booklet focusing on the ten ways to reduce nitrogen loads and the benefits each practice yields. In 2017, the team has been busy sharing the Ten Ways booklet with stakeholders throughout the region and is in the process of creating a factsheet on the booklet to advance awareness surrounding their program.


Youth Water Education Needs Assessment: Determining the gaps in Youth Water Education in the North Central Region
The North Central Region youth working group is committed to increasing the number and quality of resources that educators and communities can use to support youth water education. The first step is to implement a comprehensive evaluation of the youth education programs already being conducted and compare those to the best practices available. The team is well on their way, and just last month submitted a survey to extension educators throughout the region to gather information on youth programming.

Making Connections through Cover Crops

Indiana is ground zero for cover crop adoption in the US, which made Indianapolis a great place to host this year’s National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health. The Soil and Water Conservation Society and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation provided a valuable forum for many different voices to talk about revitalizing our soil, the continuous learning that we do in agriculture, and cover crops as one critical tool in our toolbox.

The North Central Region Soil Health Nexus met before the conference, making great strides on their research and outreach objectives. This land-grant led team will be conducting a multi-state soil health needs assessment early in 2018; watch for your opportunity to request research, outreach, and professional development products!

Kicking off the conference, David Montgomery reminded us just how wide and deep our soil degradation problems are. The next morning, Keith Berns told the story of carbon, soil, and our economy in a new way, hopefully opening the door for more of us to consider carbon, not as something to shy away from, but as more foundational to our economy than the dollars and cents we’re used to measuring, saving, and spending. There was a lot to learn and be inspired by in between – research on nitrogen management for crops and water quality; presentations about how cover crops pencil out in different farm operations; and economic opportunities for ag retailers and advisors.

Of all the thoughts and words exchanged during those two days, the ones I was most deeply moved by and curious about are those of farmers Dan DeSutter (Indiana), Trey Hill (Maryland) and Jimmy Emmons (Oklahoma). All three farmers have experienced the value of cover crops and healthy soils on improving their operations. They are all astute and successful businessmen, originally getting into cover crops and soil health for bottom-line reasons. They described their early forays into cover crops mechanistically, in terms of engineering, chemistry, and accounting. As they sat up on that stage in Indianapolis, they described how their thinking and practices evolved.  They talked about how they now are thinking more than ever before about the biology of their farm, how the organisms in the soil, the plants, animals, and people are in relationship and need to work together for the system to produce and to produce efficiently.

The window into how three people, three families, and three farming systems learned and adapted over time is priceless. Every farmer knows how complex their jobs are – how every thread they pull influences every other in ways that are sometimes difficult to predict.  Thanks again to these three for sharing not just how they’re farming now, but the paths they took to get to where they are today. Hopefully, the more we share stories like these, the easier it will be for other farmers to restore our soil and maintaining our ability to grow food, fiber, and fuel for future generations.


Rebecca Power, Network Director

Eastern South Dakota Water Conference Brings Diverse Stakeholders to Discuss Future Water-Resources

State and regional water conferences bringing stakeholders together to learn about various water-related issues are a common occurrence. One such conference, the Eastern South Dakota Water Conference, has been held for over ten years.

This year’s event, which took take place on November 8, 2017, featured a unique component. A conversation between conference planning committee chair, David Kringen, and South Dakota NRCS State Conservationist, Jeff Zimprich, sparked the idea. Further work by the planning committee yielded the “Stakeholder Working Conference” format which incorporated input from a diversity of stakeholder groups to develop an action plan for the future of South Dakota water resources.

The conference’s morning session was similar to traditional conferences in that it featured presentations outlining the state of South Dakota water resources, data collection and monitoring efforts, and overviewed current research efforts and success stories. Posters featuring university research and private industry water projects were also displayed throughout the day. The keynote speaker was EPA Region 8 Agricultural Advisor, Rebecca Perrin who gave examples of successful collaborations. She used the Iowa Nutrient Plan, amongst other projects, as an example of current efforts between groups from different backgrounds to improve water quality.

The afternoon session featured stakeholders coming together for a moderated roundtable discussion to answer a series of challenging questions. The discussion started with defining the biggest challenges facing South Dakota’s water resources. The discussion then turned to stakeholders characterizing what success looks like and reasonable goals for the future. To bridge the gap between current conditions and the picture of success, stakeholders were asked to consider how to optimize current efforts and what action they can take as individuals or groups to meet the previously defined goals.

Following last month’s conference, the South Dakota Water Resources Institute plans to publish a white paper outlining the state’s needs and the action plan developed by conference participants. To ensure the plan served all of South Dakota’s interests, stakeholders from all industries and perspectives were invited to participate, collaborate, and share their ideas. The action plan could impact the future direction of research, monitoring, and management of South Dakota’s water resources, so it is critical all voices were incorporated.

Story by John McMaine.  John is an assistant professor and extension water management engineer in the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering department at South Dakota State University and a member of the North Central Region Water Network Leadership Team.

November 2017 Director’s Update

A Plate Full of Thanks

My Thanksgiving plate was full this year, and for that, I am grateful. I am grateful to all of the people who made the meal possible – the turkey farmer, the cranberry grower, and how could I forget our Wisconsin cheese producers? Then there is my sister’s friend, now my friend too, who shared her family’s delicious Nigerian fish stew, and my husband’s north Indian dal and seasoned rice. While I fondly remember Thanksgivings at home with the simpler Midwestern menu, I am grateful for the eclectic mix of flavors we now have at our table. Finally, I am grateful for the time my sister and I spent together baking pumpkin pie, though I must confess I’m not as grateful for the pie still tempting me from my refrigerator!

In this newsletter, we share stories with you about people and projects that are accomplishing all kinds of things on the front lines of water research, education, and management. There are also folks behind the scenes who make immeasurable contributions. This month, I want to extend a special thank you to someone who’s leaving his current role with the Network as well as the folks who provide support for the North Central Region Water Network.

Who are the people in your professional life that deserve extra thanks? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Joe Bonnell, The Ohio State University – Joe Bonnell is one of the longest serving extension water coordinators in the North Central Region. At the end of this year, he will embark on a new adventure and career with his family in the Dominican Republic. During his time in Ohio, Joe trained and mentored hundreds of watershed leaders and made substantial contributions to our understanding of the core knowledge and skills that are necessary for watershed leaders to be successful.

Jamey Burns, University of Wisconsin – Jamey helps keep the North Central Region Water Network website up and running and created the Soil Health Nexus website. Jamey comes from a graphic design background but loves the technical aspect of web development. He loves the pace at which the industry progresses and he is always learning new skills. When not in front of a computer screen, Jamey enjoys photography, screen printing, woodworking, skiing and especially spending time with his family.Sarah Congdon, University of Wisconsin – Sarah is a Senior Artist at the UW Environmental Resources Center (ERC). She brings visual life to North Central Region Water Network reports, fact sheets, and websites. Sarah combines an artistic eye with a talent for communicating ideas clearly and elegantly. She makes the most challenging job seem easy!

Janice Kepka, University of Wisconsin – Janice’s expertise in instructional design makes the North Central Region Water Network’s signature webinar series possible. She has a knack for explaining educational technology to a diversity of users, and she combines her technical skills with a love of conservation and agriculture. Janice manages family farmland in southwest Minnesota, a responsibility that enhances her appreciation of the ongoing need to engage and connect farmers, landowners, conservationists, and citizens in a common goal to protect natural resources.

Brian Kline, University of Wisconsin – Brian grew up on the shores of Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh. He seamlessly blends his love for Wisconsin’s natural resources with his support for ERC programs, including the North Central Region Water Network. He keeps our budgets on track and provides critical human resources services with a can-do attitude carried over from his time in the U.S. Marine Corps and private industry.

Martha Martin, University of Wisconsin – Martha keeps us organized and does it with a sparkle of humor that makes the most mundane tasks more fun. She and our colleague Leah Leighty at CALS Conference Services are the reasons our events run smoothly and on budget. She is an extraordinary editor. She keeps us on track by taking notes for our meetings and reminding us if we’ve missed a “to-do” or are about to miss a deadline.  Who could ask for more?!

Amber Mase, University of Wisconsin –  Amber helps all of us in the North Central Region Water Network measure and communicate the impact of our programs. While some of us avoid evaluation like we avoid the last of the leftover turkey, Amber provides a helping hand and a good dose of laughter to get us through.

Anne Nardi, University of Wisconsin – Anne is the newest addition to our team. With a diverse communications background, she has been learning lightning-fast what the North Central Region Water Network is all about. Anne is doing great work to support Network members addressing climate, soil health, manure and nutrient management, watershed management, stormwater, youth water programming, and a host of other issues.

Hunter Reed, University of Wisconsin – Hunter is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying communication arts, digital studies and environmental studies. He has experience in journalistic writing, editing and online production through his work at the Badger Herald student newspaper. As an undergraduate, Hunter helped fill a short-term gap in our communication team and did amazing work to keep us up and running. Thank you, Hunter!


Rebecca Power, Network Director

10 Exceptional Extension Specialists

At NCRWN, we are proud to be an Extension-led partnership.  Extension provides a critical bridge between applied research and the people, organizations, and communities that can use that research to strengthen decision-making.  Below are ten examples of exceptional extension specialists making a difference in communities across the nation.  Seven out of the ten are from the North Central Region and a number have collaborated with the NCRWN!

The following story was written by Gene Johnson. It has been published by Successful Farming at and republished here.

For more than 100 years, Cooperative Extension Service has been extending the science and knowledge of land-grant universities to the citizens of America. Some say this unique system of remote science application has outlived its usefulness. Bigger farm operations, private business experts, budget cuts, and cyber communications have passed it by, they say.

Well, not so fast! Here are 10 examples of Extension specialists (of the 10,000 Extension employees) and the programs they lead across the country. In most cases, no one else is doing the work they do, and no one is doing it independently – no biases, nothing for sale.

It is still exceptional Extension.


Ron-Graber The biggest issue in agriculture? It might be water quality, where rural and urban meet and sometimes clash.

Ron Graber sees that one close up. The Kansas State University Extension watershed specialist educates on the topic to both rural and urban audiences and provides technical assistance, as well.

He and Kansas State Extension helped achieve success involving better stewardship of the herbicide atrazine in the watershed around Wichita. “Sometimes, atrazine spikes to levels above the drinking water standard,” he says.

“Through a partnership of farmers and the city, we minimized those spikes by implementing best-management practices from Extension. The city provides funds to help the farmers, and that saves thousands in treatment costs,” he says.

Extension remains the primary source of unbiased, science-based solutions to issues affecting people and their livelihood, he says. “We don’t tell anyone what to do. We only provide facts enabling them to make informed decisions.”


Deborah-ZakTribal leaders from the White Earth Nation in northwest Minnesota had a simple request for Deborah Zak and her University of Minnesota Extension colleagues: Help us lower our high school dropout rate. The tribe asked Zak to use the natural resources of the reservation to teach tribal youth that math and science have always been in the Ojibwe traditions.

That was in 1998, and they’ve offered the White Earth Academy of Math and Science for 4th through 8th graders for the past 19 summers. Students measure forests and trees, test lake water, inspect for invasive aquatic species, and keep nature journals to record changes they observe.

“They also record podcasts of tribal elders talking about changes in their lifetimes,” says Zak.

In 2017, the Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine shared career possibilities in that field.

“Extension’s future is bright as long as we keep current with changing demographics and issues that are important to our citizens,” Zak believes.


Zach-GrantThis is Extension like you’ve never imagined it. Zach Grant is an urban agriculture Extension specialist for Cook County. Yes, that’s Chicago, with 5.28 million people, six University of Illinois Extension offices, and 75 employees!

“The transition to urban agriculture has been spearheaded by major cities, Chicago included,” says Grant of his specialty. “We help entrepreneurs establish urban food systems.”

Most city farmers grow fruits and vegetables on vacant lots and less-than-acre parcels of land tucked among buildings. Some use high-tunnel greenhouses; others use storage containers to grow micro-greens (small vegetables) for specialty markets.

One of Grant’s initiatives is connecting urban food growers and bankers, a link that hasn’t existed before. He’s also launched a Master Urban Farmer Training Program, patterned after the Master Gardener Program.

“There aren’t enough of us in Extension for the population we serve,” he says. “So we concentrate on underserved needs and areas of real food insecurity.”


matt-smithAfter petroleum, what’s the next greatest natural resource deficit of the U.S.?

If you said seafood, bingo! Matt Smith, the Extension aquaculture specialist for Ohio State University, is changing that by bringing his aquaculture experience from Alabama and Arkansas (both fish-farming leaders) to the Midwest.

Ohio State just launched a three year USDA-funded project called Aquaculture Boot Camp for beginning aquaculture or aquaponics (fish combined with soilless plant production) farmers. Applicants dedicate one day a month for a year to learn the business.

“Students come to our South Centers for hands-on learning opportunities and even farm tours and internships. This will assist aquaculture expansion in the Midwest and, hopefully, reduce our seafood deficit,”
Smith says.


Kent-ShannonWhen Missouri corn and soybean growers wanted to implement a technology-based, on-farm research program, they found the perfect partner in Extension agricultural engineering specialist Kent Shannon. He’s been helping farmers harness technology throughout his 25-year Extension career.

The two-year-old Missouri Strip Trial Program brings together GPS technology, yield monitors, variable-rate controllers, and drones. “Once you program the strip trial instructions into the equipment, then you just plant and harvest and get a printout of results. Technology does the work,” says Shannon.

“This is an Extension niche in providing unbiased, research-based information. I like helping farmers see what works on their farms.”

Shannon has also worked with farm drones since 2013 to get in-season crop images to verify ground cover and crop stands.

There’s much more to come, he predicts. “New multispectral cameras will tell you when a field is under stress from lack of nutrients or pests.”


Melissa-ORourkeMelissa O’Rourke spent 20 years as a private attorney, working with Midwest farm families on estate and succession planning, litigation, and other issues.

“I did some contract work for Iowa State University Extension, and then I had the opportunity to join them full time as an Extension farm business management specialist,” she says. “It was the perfect storm of combining my background in agriculture, education, and law. I help farmers plan for the future.”

Estate and succession planning are the bulk of that consulting, but she also helps farmers find and keep good employees. “When I can help a farm family think about the future, solve problems, mend relationships, and start on a good path to the future, that’s very satisfying,” she says.

“I have no monetary gain from the work I do,” she says in support of Extension. “This service is not available to agriculture anywhere else.”



Stephen-BrownIt was a match made in heaven 10 years ago, when Stephen Brown signed on as the new Extension agent on the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer, Alaska. The avid wilderness hiker now works with many pioneer farmers in the river valley and travels to some of the remotest spots in the U.S.

“Teaching people how to be self-reliant gets me excited,” he says. “How many Extension agents get to snowmobile hundreds of miles up a frozen river and camp in the snow to teach Arctic gardening to an isolated Eskimo community?”

With the warming climate, some think Alaska could become the new Midwest, he says, not the least bit in jest.

Early in his career, Brown did a two-year Extension stint in New York City. “People are very uninformed about how food is produced,” he says of the experience. “If I wasn’t in Alaska, I’d go back to New York in a heartbeat.”


larry-mooreheadThere’s a lot of be said for finding your niche and sticking with it. That’s Larry Moorehead, the County Extension director in Moore County, Tennessee, for 40 years. “We’re in the business of helping people, and that’s why I’m still doing it,” says the Extension veteran.

With his animal science background, Moorehead helped a lot of cattle producers use science-based nutrition to triple daily gains on backgrounded steers. However, hay wastage is the issue that made his reputation.

“When round bales came on, we stored them outside and wasted over a third, proven by a test I conducted here in Moore County,” he says. “We started building storage barns, and I’ve carried that story from one end of this state to the other. I’m known as the Hay Barn Man in Tennessee.

He believes local demonstrations of new farming practices set Extension apart. “We bring the university to the farmers,” he says.



Tony-CookYes, Extension reaches outer space. Tony Cook, an Extension 4-H specialist at Auburn University in Alabama and a lifelong space dreamer, has led more than 20,000 youngsters from 45 states through 4-H Space Camps in Alabama and Florida.

With recent renewed interest in space and technology, in general, farming in space is a hot topic, he says. “If we’re going to Mars, we have to take a farm with us.”

He marvels that space-worthy food technology – hydroponics and vertical farming, for instance – is leading a food revolution on Earth, particularly in urban environments.

Cook dreams big about the potential for science in 4-H programs. “We can do a learning program about space agriculture with online classes and offline applications. Access to the knowledge is in the palm of our hand,” he says.

For him, it’s not happening fast enough. “The technology is here now!” he says with some frustration. “I see so much opportunity for even greater things in Extension.”



Nathan-MuellerNathan Mueller, a Nebraska Extension educator for cropping systems in two counties of northeast Nebraska, opened a café for farmers in his region.

His Crop Tech Cafe doesn’t have coffee or donuts, as it exists only in the cyberworld as an agronomy blog. It’s a place farmers can hear from experts, ask questions, and chat with neighbors.

“We post audio recordings from radio interviews, highlight upcoming events and university resources, share presentations, and much more,” Mueller explains.

Other Nebraska Extension crop educators have joined the effort, and last year, they served 3,000 Nebraska users in the Crop Tech Cafe.

Mueller says helping farm growers interpret research from the University of Nebraska and neighboring state institutions is the most satisfying thing he does. Farmers know how quickly climate and soils change as you go east to west and north to south, especially in a state like Nebraska, he says.

“We have 29 distinct ecoregions, and that brings lots of additional questions, such as ‘Will the results be the same on my farm, in my fields, with my equipment, and with my management?’ ”

Helping farmers find those answers can be the most impactful thing an Extension agent does, Mueller thinks. He likes to use the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network, coordinated by two other Extension educators, to evaluate practices and products locally and to share results with all farmers.

“We provide unbiased, science-based agronomic information to growers,” Mueller says. “Any potential conflict of interest is removed. Nebraska Extension is a great partner for that third-party service.”

October 2017 Director Upate

Impossible Tasks

I was in Biloxi, Mississippi for a meeting last month, just before Hurricane Nate. While I was disheartened to see images of floodwaters where I’d been walking just a week before, I was grateful the damage was not worse. At that meeting, we were addressing a challenge that seems nearly as impossible as keeping the Mississippi Sound at bay as hurricane force winds push the water inland: substantially reducing the hypoxic zone in that same body of water, while still producing food, housing, and other services important for human life on the land that funnels water to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to nutrient management challenges before us, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recent Infrastructure Report Card tells us that funding gaps for water infrastructure from 2015-2025 include $105 billion for drinking water and wastewater, $15 billion for inland waterways and marine ports, $39.4 billion for dams, and $70 billion for levees. Total: nearly $340 billion. And if that’s not enough, the stories we hear on the news are less about Herculean accomplishments, and more about clashes of the Titans.

Clearly, we are not the first people in history to face challenges that at times feel insurmountable. Before the internet and the expansion of retail therapy, we used great stories to comfort ourselves and gain insights on how to get through the seemingly impossible tasks in our lives. Consider Hercules, who had to complete the twelve labors – including killing a formidable lion, cleaning vast stables in a day (his solution was a precursor to today’s manure management systems!), and stealing Zeus’s golden apples. In these stories, “impossible tasks” often required super-human powers (like the strength of Hercules) or divine intervention. Others required mere mortal smarts and cleverness, such as carrying water in a sieve, filling an entire room with an object that can be bought with a single coin (solution: buy a candle, which fills the room with light), or sorting spilled lentils from the ashes of a cooking fire. But no matter what the “impossible task” may be, they all required a dogged commitment to getting the job done.

Which brings me to the potential upside of all this. News aside, in the Great Lakes, in the Mississippi River Basin, and in my local watershed, I see a marked willingness to compile accurate data about the water challenges we face, and to collaborate among farmers, ag industry representatives, watershed organizers, state and federal agency personnel, and others to find solutions that work for everyone. And while there are no guarantees that our current plans will work, it’s the accurate and transparent information about performance that will give us the ability to collectively examine whether our efforts are succeeding, or if we are, like Sisyphus, continuing to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again day after day. Hopefully we will have the courage to chart a new course if required.

Rebecca Power, Network Director

Imagine a Day Without Water: What it means to the North Central Region?

“Imagine: No water to drink, or even make coffee with. No water to shower, flush the toilet, or do laundry.  Hospitals would close without water.  Firefighters couldn’t put out fires and farmers couldn’t water their crops”.  

That statement was taken from The Value of Water: Imagine a Day Without Water Campaign website.  Here in the North Central Region Water Network, that last sentence rings especially poignantly.  After all, what is agriculture and farming without water?  Although seemingly a simple question, the possibility of having to face this question head-on may become more real as our climate continues to change.

It is important now to be aware of the role of water in our world, our country, and our state levels.  Without water, many of the everyday aspects of life we often take for granted may suffer.  By supporting water education, agriculture research, and water programs in our region, the NCRWN is helping to make sure an actual day without water never comes to fruition.  

We asked some key members of our organization three important questions:

  • What does water mean to your state or in your profession? Explain the role of water.
  • What would a day without water look like in your respective state or from your professional perspective?
  • Why do you think awareness of water issues is important not only to professionals but also the general public?

Naeem Kalwar, Extension Area Specialist/Soil Health at North Dakota State University

  1. Overall, like other States, water is very important for North Dakota to have green pastures and fields to produce healthy animals and record yielding crops. As a soil health specialist, I look at water being essential for life both under and above the soils. However, it needs to be managed if in excess, like North East North Dakota.
  2. A day without water under drought will be painstakingly long, however, if the crops are mature, it could be a blessing.
  3. It is very important that general public and professionals are aware of the water issues. Without public support, professional cannot address the issues.

Chad Watts, Conservation Technology Information Center

  1. Water is an essential component of life.  In Indiana, water is a valuable resource to help produce feed, fuel and fiber, and to sustain aquatic communities.  Some of the most diverse freshwater communities in the world reside in the Midwest, including many rare and threatened species of freshwater mussels.  These communities rely on clean freshwater systems for their existence.  All of these communities, including the human community, need water to survive, making water a critical component of everyday life.
  2. A day without water is something hard to grasp.  Water is so essential to our everyday lives, and we are blessed with such an abundance of freshwater in the Midwest that not having water would be a major impediment to daily life.  No flowing rivers, no aquifers, and no lakes or puddles would be akin to living on another planet for a day compared to what we are used to.  However, I do think that we take water for granted, especially in the Midwest where we have so much and it is such a part of our daily lives.  A day without water would be a wake-up call for the public to protect the water we do have and would raise awareness of water’s importance to our everyday lives.  Even in times of drought, when we hear so much about the lack of water, we still have flowing rivers and while our lakes may be below normal levels, there is still water in them.  In our climate, a drought is something that garners a lot of attention.  Imagine the attention that having no water would generate and the importance that the public would then place on protecting such a needed resource that we so often take for granted.
  3. Often, in the humid climates of the Midwest, we discount the value of rain or flowing waters because we are so accustomed to having an abundance of water.  To those who don’t get the amount and frequency of rainfall that we do, water is a highly valued commodity.  Often in the Midwest, we worry about having too much water and are always looking for ways to manage water such that it doesn’t impact our basements, farm fields and infrastructure.  Our concern isn’t that we don’t have enough, rather often that we have too much water.  Thus, it is difficult to get people behind considering strategies that protect water that we have because not having enough water, or not enough clean water, seems not to be a real threat to people.  Awareness of water as a precious resource is very important to getting people onboard with protecting water.

Nathan Meyer, Program Leader in Natural Resources for the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

  1. Water is a deep and consistent element of Minnesota’s heritage and identity. For our state, it means our position at the headwaters of multiple national waterways. It means fishing, family cabins, boating and skiing. It waters millions of acres of cropland. It gives rise to the world-class wilderness that we call dear. For my profession, it entails innovative efforts to tackle the grand challenge of sustainable agricultural production, social-ecological challenges like mining and shipping in close proximity to vulnerable waters, managing impacts of urban livelihoods, recreation and transit.
  2. Inconceivable, but perhaps more common. For just a day, statewide agricultural fields and forests would wither. Dredges might be on-the-ready to dig deeper shipping channels. Lake home and cabin owners, other recreationists might worry over diminishing lake levels. Unfortunately, we have suffered more recent and frequent drought in the state.
  3. It is the public who ultimately demands water resources, drives wise use/management decisions, and supports sustainable and innovative management. Public awareness is critical for their understanding, support and involvement in sustaining water resources.

Imagine a Day Without Water is simply a campaign to raise awareness, to spark discussions, and to have people question our water systems and how they function.  Continue supporting water programs, continue furthering agricultural research, and continue developing smarter ways to structure water so we never have to imagine a day without our most precious resource.

Soil and Water Conservation Society: Looking Ahead

The following interviews have been edited for style and clarity. 


Conservation is a word that has sparked in popularity over the past few years.  Often paired within stories around climate change, pollution, and negative narratives, conservation is seen as a modern necessity to a modern problem.  While conservation is most definitely an important part of modern society, it has been around longer than most people think.  In agricultural states, conservation has been an essential tool in educating, modernizing, and sustaining farming industries.

One organization that has been pivotal in tackling the multi-tiered challenge of conservation is the Soil and Water Conservation Society (or SWCS).  The science-based natural resource conservation organization was established nearly 75 years ago and was initially developed as an organization to educate on simple agricultural practices like erosion control.  SWCS has taken its deep-rooted history in farmland conservation and combined it with communication and advocacy efforts to increase awareness of the latest conservation research.  With an ever-evolving climate, planet, and population, the organization is continually adapting to meet the new demands of each generation.

One way SWCS keeps on top of cutting-edge research and technologies is through their International Annual Conference which brings together agriculture, conservation, research, and scientific professionals together to share information and educate each other.

The SWCS International Annual Conference was recently hosted in Madison, Wisconsin and brought leaders from a variety of backgrounds to focus on the value of their connections. The conference centered on how collaboration and communication are vital in SWCS and in all areas of conservation.

SCWS President Jim Gulliford has been actively serving in the organization for over 30 years and has helped SWSC adapt to new challenges, while still remaining firm on the organization’s core values.  Gulliford notes the SWSC annual conferences as one of the primary strengths of the organization.

“We gather once a year in what we call our annual conference to share information: what we’ve learned over the past year, the results of projects, research, activities, all of those things because just to perform a project complete a project isn’t nearly as important as to interact and network with people who can find value from it.  The purpose of our conference is to add value to individuals’ work as they share it with others,” Gulliford said.

“We chose the title Conservation Connections [for this year’s conference] because it really gets to the heart of the challenge we face,” Gulliford said in response to the meaning of this year’s theme.  “None of our issues can be singularly solved, by the farmer, the scientist, the conservation professional in the field, the agribusiness, the university, the government agencies.  The connections are important, how they collaborate to take advantage of their specific skills.  All of these things have to come together.  The problems we face are complex.  The solutions are complex and requires multiple disciplines and individuals to make it happen.  We really wanted to make a point this year that it’s all about how these agencies and organizations connect to make a difference.”

 Although Gulliford has completed his run as Executive Director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, new leaders are rising to the challenge to keep SWCS a key player in conservation.  Rest assured, even though Gulliford’s experience is unmatched, he’s not worried about the future of the organization.

The conference highlighted the future of SWCS and the next steps, including the announcement of Clare Lindahl as the new Chief Executive Officer.  Not only did the conference connect organizations, address important water issues, and showcase speakers presenting on a variety of conservation topics, but it also recognized members of SWSC who have shown exemplary commitment to the organization.  UW-Madison and UW-Extension’s very own Francisco Arriaga became an SWCS Fellow at this year’s conference.

“[The Fellow Award] recognizes the work and activities of members in [the Soil and Water Conservation Society] who fulfilled the mission of the society,” Arriaga said. “It goes beyond just having publications or things like that.  It also looks at all the activities that you’ve done: communication, international activities, [and] other things you’ve been involved with.”

Arriaga was recognized through his work over the past ten years.  After volunteering as vice president and eventually president of the SWCS Alabama chapter, he came to UW-Madison in 2012.  He currently serves as the Wisconsin chapter president.

“I’ve been a member [of the SWCS] since about 1996.  Being a state specialist with extension, a lot of activities I do are actually not only helping farmers but also educating all of our peers on issues related to soil and water conservation and water quality issues around the state and beyond,” Arriaga said.  “So I’ve been invited regionally to go and talk in different states in the Midwest.  I’ve also been invited to speak internationally, in Brazil for example. [The Fellow Award] is kind of a combination of all those activities and all that work.”

The 2017 SWCS Conference recognized the individual contributions of great leaders like Gulliford and Arriaga while emphasizing the bright future of SWCS and the power in its connections.