Soil saver

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Jennifer Turner helps save Scott County top soil one federal dollar at a time.

She’s the county agent for the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Services program, and helps landowners find tax dollars to preserve ground, limit erosion and keep natural and applied nitrogen out of Iowa lakes, streams and rivers.

The job is a dream come true for a farm girl who uprooted herself from her Indiana hometown, friends and family specifically to become an NRCS agent in farm country.

At age 40, she left to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and find work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She succeeded in Iowa. Now she’s a Jackson County farm owner with a livestock menagerie she assembled mainly for her 3-year-old granddaughter, Rebel, of DeWitt.

Her passion is letting landowners – rural and urban – in on federal funding programs that pay for conservation improvements.

“Yes, there is bureaucracy in this. But, I deal with the bureaucracy. I deal with trying to figure out how a person’s project fits. Farming is really tough now; every little bit helps. If you can get cost share and do a conservation project that helps out the environment,” she said.

She’s found landowners ready and willing, but not always able to figure out how.

“A lot of these people really do want to help the environment and soil health, and not over-apply fertilizer. We’re all on the same side,” she said.

Her realm includes the tax-funded subsidies: Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), an easement program.

Combined, the programs brought $70 million in tax dollars to Iowa private landowners last fiscal year.

A lot of that assistance came through program contracts negotiated by Turner and others.

Statewide in 2022, the agents obligated landowners to projects, then provided subsidies ranging from 18 cents to $21,063.68, according to the CSP project list for this fiscal year.

The 18-cens-per-acre subsidy helped provide fencing over many acres. The top amount helped pay to submerge wooden structures to create fish habitat in small streams. 

Turner looks for projects landowners are interested in, and capable of accomplishing. “I try to find ways that will help them, but not make it something they can’t do; make it in manageable chunks, so we’re not forcing improvements. Don’t take on 10 acres, then have to say I bit off more than I can chew.”

Her work made Scott County tops in Iowa for CSP contracts. In her first year in the county, she secured more federal CSP dollars than any other county agent.

“One guy in the Wapsi bottoms didn’t know about our programs of any type, but he had some derecho damage. He reached out. We were able to send a forester out there, and they worked on a forest plan, where he could cut out vines, take out a couple farmed rows and trees that weren’t desirable, so that his desirable trees would have more light and space to grow.”

Tax dollars covered a portion of the costs and inspired the landowner to do more. “He decided to put in duck nesting boxes. He did a tree planting, also,” Turner said.

She and other NCRS county agents assess what landowners want to do, then go looking for the right federal program to fund it.

Another Scott County landowner got federal help to buy a smart sprayer that uses GPS data to direct weed killers. “We chose an activity that worked for him. We chose an activity where we know he can get paid. A lot have GPS technology anyway, so adding this can really save them money by limiting spraying. They apply and get compensated for that activity.”

NCRS organizes the activities into different pools for subsidies. They include pools for high-tunnel greenhouse, wildlife, livestock and soil preservation.

Agents find the pool that best fits the project, and still has funds.

Next year, the federal government will add an urban agriculture pool.

“Say you have a home garden, selling vegetables at a farmer’s market or stand, and you think, ‘I’d like to get a high tunnel greenhouse.’ We can help you,” Turner said.

A landowner in Davenport city limits reached out for help on a five-acre forestry plan with nesting boxes and native plants. “We’re working on that plan,” Turner said.

Organizations are welcome, too.

“We have a church that would like to do a food forest.”

The EQUIP program has even more latitude.

“One guy had an energy plan, then he got new lights in his shop building, energy efficient ones,” Turner said. He got federal help, too.

Turner grew up on an Indiana farm. She’s the youngest of 10 children. Her 97-year-old mother remains in Fowler, Ind.

At age 40, she began her education to land this job. 

"I wanted to work for the NRCS," she said.

Turner earned a bachelor's degree at Purdue, near her Indiana home, then a master's at Illinois. She began NRCS career in southern Illinois, the moved to Jackson County in 2014.

Her son, Nick, is in Fowler. Daughter McKenzie lives in DeWitt, with her own daughter, Rebel, 3. The Jackson County farm gives Rebel the same kind of experiences Turner treasured as a child.

“I bought the farm really for Rebel. She loves the animals. Of course, I have a horse named Skip. We have bottle calves,” Turner said.

Last year, Turner was hired as the Scott County agent. In her first year, she secured more CSP subsidies than any other agent in Iowa.

“I have been working to find out-of-the-box opportunities. Last year, four of the funded contracts were for practices to help wildlife.  Many don’t consider Scott County as having much forest land, but it does.”

Those contracts are being used by Scott County landowners to “plant trees and pollinators and native grass plantings, install nesting boxes for ducks and birds, do timber stand improvement where they cut undesirable trees and vines to give the more desirable trees room to grow. 

Scott County supervisor John Maxwell is among Turner’s clients. He has gotten NRCS assistance for cover crops, pollinator plots, fertilizer management and reduction.

He estimates the aid totals about $10,000 per year.

“We’re targeting nutrients where plants use it, not spreading it all over the field. It’s helpful keeping nitrogen and phosphorous in place,” he said.

Tax dollars helped pay for rye seed, sprayer nozzles and the field work for the pollinator plots.

He said Turner’s NRCS work also keeps him updated on information he shares with tourists at his Cinnamon Ridge Dairy Farm in Donahue.

“What it does more than anything else for me — which doesn’t exist for others --  it brings me up to speed in my tours to educate people, especially, non farmers, as to what government programs are doing and what things we farmers are trying to accomplish for cleaner water, cleaner air and soil conservation.”

“This year we are looking at ways we can help more urban landowners fund projects that will help them grow more food for themselves and for the farmer’s market.”

Jennifer Turner, Natural Resources Conservation Services, US Department of Agriculture, John Maxwell, Cinnamon Ridge Dairy Farm

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