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Batch and Build strategy makes conservation more convenient in central Iowa

Conservation programs can be difficult to navigate for farmers, landowners, and the agencies implementing them, says John Swanson, a Water Resources Supervisor from Polk County, Iowa. His territory covers rural watersheds, such as the Beaver and Mud Creek watersheds, as well as the urban Walnut Creek watershed. Swanson has employed a novel approach he calls “Batch and Build” to simplify the process of finding new water quality projects and getting them built. He recently outlined his strategy during a webinar hosted by the Center for Rural Affairs.

When Swanson first attempted to get landowners to install bioreactors and saturated buffers, which, according to Swanson, can reduce nitrates in tile drainage by 60%, he found it to be a challenge. Farmers were more interested in practices that showed direct yield or erosion control benefits, landowners were concerned about tax implications, and there were many communication issues between state and federal programs. The process was full of hassle for everyone involved. 

“People were well intentioned and they wanted to participate, but they were busy folks,” Swanson explains. “The hassle of trying to do conservation was not getting them to the finish line.”

In all, Swanson and collaborators installed six projects from 2015 to 2020, far from the goal set by local watershed plans. A new approach was needed. 

Making conservation convenient

The Batch and Build method sprung from a “chance meeting” between a watershed coordinator, soil and water district commissioner, and a local ag business leader, Swanson says. They recognized outreach was primarily facilitated through poorly attended field days and most of the burden for both paperwork and coordinating with contractors fell on the landowner. Two of the biggest factors holding back implementation of saturated buffers and bioreactors were time and convenience. The team developed the Batch and Build method to remedy that.

The team began by identifying priority fields via the Agriculture Conservation Planning Framework Tool, which gives the probability a specific practice will work in that field. A letter and map was sent to the targeted landowner outlining the program as well as telling them to expect a follow-up call from a member of the team within the week. This greatly improved response over the previous broad spectrum approach. 

In the past, “landowners told us every time they would call the office they’d get a different answer, they don’t know who to talk to, a lot of indecisiveness,” explains Swanson. After implementing Batch and Build, landowners were assigned project managers. That same person guides the landowner all the way to construction.

The team also standardized the survey and design process to make projects, and therefore bidding, streamlined and consistent.

Fixing Funding Frustrations

This all requires funding of course, so the team approached projects from a different angle. The conventional funding model is incredibly complex and puts a large burden on the landowner for both paperwork and coordination with contractors. 

The team instead approaches it as a public improvement project, bundling projects together to be more attractive to contractors, and greatly simplifying communication. All funding goes through a Central Fiscal Agent. This allows the blending of state and federal funds as well as removing any potential tax issues for the landowner.

“We had the question, how does a county hired contractor go on to private lands? We learned all about a temporary construction and access easement. It’s a temporary easement, we come onto the land, we build the practice. When it’s all done, the landowner signs off, we leave, and it’s a privately owned practice,” Swanson explains. He adds, his watershed management authority offered landowners a $1,000 temporary easement payment for each tile outlet they treated.

The Build and Batch method has proven successful with 136 projects completed in the last two years. A remarkable leap from the six that were completed the five years prior. Swanson gives credit to his team for the success and says it opens doors for other conservation projects such as constructed wetlands, oxbow restorations, and cover crops. He hopes other areas and agencies can learn from his team’s experience and have success of their own.

“Every county is different. Every team is different. But, in every county we’ve worked, the landowners appreciate the simplicity of how this works,” Swanson says.

Learn More

A recording of the webinar is available on YouTube

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