Fellows Program Gives Extension Agents Insight into Sustaining Iowa's Agriculture

December 17, 2013
A group of men and woman standing together, smiling for a picture in front of a field.
The 2011 and 2012 SARE Fellows who toured Iowa included Brad Burbaugh, John Porter, Maud Powell, Nathan Winter, Lara Worden, Thomas Maloney, Marlin Bates and Aaron Esser (left to right). Photo by Marie Flanagan.


This fall, eight Cooperative Extension agents from around the United States were given a unique training opportunity in Iowa that enhanced their understanding of sustainable agriculture and gave them in-depth exposure to agricultural innovation.

The Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program provides Extension Agents from diverse backgrounds with hands-on experience in sustainable agriculture while offering meaningful networking opportunities and exposure to the diversity of U.S. agriculture. Each year, National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) and SARE select four NACAA members to be Fellows and travel to each of the four SARE regions over the course of two years.

The fall 2013 tour took the Fellows across Iowa’s gently rolling plains and along the banks of the Raccoon River. They saw the deep, dark soils and the agricultural technologies that make Iowa the first in the nation in corn and soybean production. But the Fellows also learned that there is more to Iowa’s agriculture than those two commodities.

Hansens Dairy with people looking at the cows

Santa Fe, NM County Extension Agent Patrick Torres (left) and Iowa Coordinator Andy Larson (right) at Hansen's Dairy in Hudson, Iowa. 

Led by Iowa State Coordinator Andy Larson, the Fellows met researchers seeking ways to reduce harmful runoff from corn fields; they met corn and soy producers who are modifying their practices to conserve natural resources; they talked with organic vegetable farmers involved in community supported agriculture; they met non-profit and community co-op organizers; they walked the fields with owners of a family-run dairy and creamery; and they sat down with chefs who make it their mission to source food locally.

Fellow and Horticulture Specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, Marlin Bates, found inspiration in the family-owned and operated enterprises that they visited in Iowa. At Hansen’s Farm Fresh Dairy, business has been thriving, in part, because of familial commitment—when three sons decided to return home to the family dairy business, they put in a farmstead creamery that added value to their milk, and helped expand the business.

“At Hansen’s, the sons in the family collectively said they wanted to come back, and that made a big difference” said Bates.

Salt Fork Farms 2

Fellows Aaron Esser and Nathan Winter stand next to peppers grown in Salt Fork Farms' high tunnel in Solon, Iowa.

The Fellows met with organizations like the Iowa Valley Food Co-op and Matthew 25 Ministry Hub, who work to foster the personal connection between consumers and local agriculture.

“The market is there [for local food], and the demand is there,” observed Fellow and Senior Extension Associate at Cornell University, Tom Maloney. “Consumers want to know the person who produced their food, and that’s incredibly powerful.”

As they spoke with experts conducting research in Iowa, the Fellows saw sustainable agriculture practices in the field. For instance, at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, they saw how strategic integration of perennial prairie cover within agricultural landscapes could benefit agroecosystem functions.

“My attitude has changed in the fact that I understand that it can be done incrementally — sustainable agriculture is a continuum,” said Fellow Brad Burbaugh, a former Agricultural Extension Agent in Jacksonville, Florida and current Agricultural and Extension Education PhD student at Virginia Tech. “There are different approaches people can take towards becoming more sustainable.”

But seeing a diversity of operations and interacting with farmers and ranchers wasn’t the only source of education for the Fellows—they learned an immense amount from the discussions they had with one another on the road.

“I’ve learned from other Fellows about farming in their region,” said Bates. “I’ve gained perspectives from other Fellows [I wouldn’t have had,] had it not been for the program.”

Salt Fork Farm

Brad Burbaugh, John Porter, Maud Powell, Sarah Lovett, Aaron Esser, Tom Maloney and Patrick Torres at Salt Fork Farms in Solon, Iowa.

As they left Iowa, the Fellows took with them a greater understanding for the dominant role that agriculture plays in the state, and why enhancing the sustainability of that agricultural system is so important. The innovative producers, researchers, and experts they met along the way illustrated the potential for the adoption of sustainable practices.Consequently, the Fellows became increasingly excited to bring some of the innovations back home to producers.

“We are a trusted source for information, and now I can say, ‘I’ve seen this work in the field.’ And that gives me increased credibility,” said Burbaugh.

Looking forward, the 2013 Sustainable Agriculture Fellows will be learning about sustainable agriculture in New Mexico later this year.

Watch the video below to hear Marlin Bates describe his experience as a Fellow in the program. 

Find more information about the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program, including biographies of current Fellows, online at sare.org/Fellows

Related Locations: North Central, Northeast, South, West