Northeast Iowans of all ages learn from renowned scientist Dr. Jill Clapperton

Dr. Jill Clapperton, along with Neil Sass, Area Agronomist for the NRCS, speaks to over 65 attendees gathered at a Soil Health Workshop at the Norman Borlaug Boyhood Farm near Cresco. A rainfall simulator demonstrated the effect of ground cover on water run-off and soil erosion. Submitted photo.

World renowned plant physiologist and soil ecologist Dr. Jill Clapperton shared knowledge and strategies to promote soil health with NE Iowa farmers, landowners, and youth over the course of three public events and a five-day trip to the region.

Dr. Clapperton, the Principal Scientist and Co-founder of Rhizoterra Inc., is a well-known researcher, lecturer and advocate of farm practices that promote soil health who has conducted research and consulted with farmers around the globe. In 2013, she was the Syngenta No-Till Innovator for Research and Education.

Dr. Clapperton’s trip to Northeast Iowa was originally inspired by cover cropper, strip tiller, and companion planter Loran Steinlage of West Union, whose innovative practices have drawn the attention of soil health experts. When Dr. Clapperton was interested in a visit to his farm, Loran knew he couldn’t miss the opportunity. So, with support from ISU Extension Regional Food Systems Specialist Kayla Koether, Loran and partners including Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, IowaCorn, Practical Farmers of Iowa, 4-H, and ISU Extension and Outreach- Region 4 hosted Dr. Clapperton for three separate events and many farm visits.

The first event, a full day Soil Health Workshop at Norman Borlaug’s boyhood farm near Cresco, drew over 65 attendees from throughout the state and beyond- including participants from Arkansas, central South Dakota, and Canada. Dr. Clapperton spoke on the principles of soil health and creating active soil biology. Mary Damm, a Ph.D. candidate based in McGregor, Iowa, shared her research on soils from the Borlaug farm and native prairies. Area Agronomist Neil Sass and Area Resource Conservationist Jered Finley of the NRCS showed the crowd how different soil cover affects rainfall infiltration with a rainfall simulator. More discussion and questions were shared after lunch at The Place in Protivin.

On Sunday, August 14, the Growing Greener 4-H Greenhouse near West Union hosted Jill for a youth field day, which again surpassed organizers’ expectations for attendance. Around 30 adults and 40 youth participated. Dr. Clapperton shared a state-of-the art PXRF (Portable X-ray Fluorescence) tracer, which allowed youth to test and compare the elements in plants, soil, and other materials in real time. She also showed how to test for beneficial predators in the field. Participants learned about tomato varieties and greenhouse growing principles from local grower Mike Bollinger of River Root Farm, examined cotton soil tests with Blake Vince of Ontario, Canada, and pedaled a bike blender with Kayla Koether of ISU Extension and Outreach.

A final field day Tuesday evening in one of Loran Steinlage’s fields near West Union drew a crowd of nearly 70. Attendees made stops in the waterway to see Loran’s crops, companion plantings, and equipment and hear from representatives of Pioneer, Dawn Biologic, and Montag.

Farmer Blake Vince of Ontario showed how cotton fabric rapidly breaks down in healthy soils; he and other light-hearted farmers have taken to using cotton underpants for the test and calling the endeavor “Soil Your Undies.”

In a 4 foot deep pit dug at the edge of Loran’s cornfield, Dr. Clapperton was able to show how earthworms, an indicator of soil health at the top of the soil food web, mix soils and add organic matter at surprising depths. Roots of corn and companion crops were visible at different depths, and Dr. Clapperton explained that the companion plants and crops have created a root canopy which stores moisture and stimulates soil biology.

“We as scientists don’t fully understand why yet, but when we plant mixed species cover crops and companions with our cash crops the whole stand of plants uses less water, and sometimes as much as 25% less water. With poor management, we create drought conditions on our farms and in our soils; with good management, the opposite can be true,” Dr. Clapperton shared.

Attendees also brought samples of their own soil and plant tissues, which were tested in Dr. Clapperton’s tracer, and enjoyed a panel discussion from some of the area’s most senior farmers, who farmed during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

“It’s all about learning, sharing experiences and bringing people together to learn from Jill, one of the brightest scientists out there, and to learn from each other too,” said Loran Steinlage.

These events certainly did bring people together- young and old, crop farmers, livestock graziers, vegetable growers, and prairie enthusiasts were all in attendance, swapping ideas, asking questions, and drawing on Dr. Clapperton’s deep well of knowledge to better understand their farms and soils.

Apart from presenting at three events, Dr. Clapperton was also able to make personal connections to Northeast Iowa as she visited Seed Savers Exchange and a host of local farms. Visits included swine producer and cover cropper Chad Ingels near Fayette, no-till and cover crop farmer Craig Jensen near Postville, the Deering Brothers of Postville, vegetable producer Barb Kraus of rural Decorah, and intensive livestock grazier Greg Koether of McGregor.

Participants went away commenting on how much they learned, and how motivated they were to better understand their soils and improve their soil health. Many were inspired, including 9-year-old Laci Lauer of West Union. After attending two events and spending a day with Jill in the 4-H Greenhouse, Laci said “When I grow up, I want to be a soil scientist. I didn’t realize soil could be this exciting!”