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Lighting a fire for farm conservation

Prairie management sparks absentee landowner interest.

Larry Roadman, a self-proclaimed city boy from Baltimore, Maryland, remembers working on his grandparents’ farm in Grundy County, Iowa, for three weeks each summer between the ages of 10 and 12.

John H. Roadman, Larry’s great-grandfather, drove a covered wagon from Pennsylvania to settle the land in the 1870s, which is now a 400-acre seed corn and bean farm with myriad conservation practices in place.

Absentee landowners, Larry and his wife, Betsy, live in Maine, and their sons, Keene and Christian, reside in Maine and Illinois, respectively. Their passion for conservation and sustaining the farm legacy, however, has spanned the distance.

To fulfill their vision, the Roadmans have relied upon generations of local families to manage and operate the farm. Jeff and Morgan Troendle, a father-and-son team with Hertz Farm Management, have served as farm managers for the past 30 years. Only two families have operated the farm over the past 90 years: the Petersens since 1927 and the Dudden family, who took over operations in 1994.

“We’ve been blessed with partnerships,” Larry Roadman says. “We started building the partnership with Hertz in 1990 and have been through two generations of farm management. Hopefully, this makes us all aware that no one person ever did anything alone. They always had a lot of help.”

Partnering for success

To preserve their farm’s legacy and to fulfill the Roadmans’ goals, their operators, managers, and other agriculture organizations have implemented a suite of conservation practices.

One of the newest strategies was to incorporate prairie strips in the fields, which improve the soil and water quality while providing a habitat for wildlife.

Roadman recalls getting a call from his son, Christian, one day after he had read an article about prairie strips in the New York Times. “He asked if we could do this, and if we could do it soon.”

Morgan Troendle, farm manager with Hertz, contacted Iowa State University’s Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) team and the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center to explore the possibility. He says, “When it comes to conservation, we gather information on the practices that might make sense to implement, give the family recommendations, and they give us final direction.”

That collaboration led to the seeding of the strips in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017.

“It’s a constant quest in absentee ownership to get the next generation not only interested but also involved,” Roadman says. “I have a feeling we’re best when we have the land to contribute and our priorities to be met. But we’re better off when we let the experts decide what they’re doing.”

Building conservation on the farm

Prairie strips aren’t the only conservation practice in place.

For Roadman, the family legacy of conservation began on the farm when his grandfather, Earl Roadman, donated a 10-acre corner to Grundy County to convert into a park – now called the John H. Roadman Memorial Park.

“Now, that doesn’t sound like a conservation effort, but to me, it is. My explanation of our conservation efforts starts there,” he says.

Surrounding that 10 acres is about 45 acres of what used to be pasture for cattle until the early 1990s. North and east of that area are the corn and soybean fields, which have been tiled over time (the second conservation effort). When there were no longer cattle on the farm, they enrolled the pastureland into the CRP, which Roadman considers the third conservation practice.

Because of the fertilizer runoff into the creek by the pasture, the Roadmans and Hertz Farm Management implemented a saturated buffer, which diverts tile water through a vegetated buffer to remove nitrates, the fourth conservation practice.

Using prairie strips is the fifth practice, and even now, those strips and the pastureland are being used as a site for local beekeepers to set up beehives and as a site for Pheasants Forever to conduct a study on pheasant habitat.

Team approach

Over the years, the Roadmans and Troendle have worked with many partners to fulfill the stewardship goals and to keep the farm operating sustainably.

“If I were to say what Hertz Farm Management does, in my mind, we’re more of a facilitator. We enable families to hold onto the land for multiple generations when maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Troendle says. “We are not experts in conservation, but we have a lot of different experiences and a lot of resources that allow us to bring experts in a particular area together to help us make good decisions.”

At the Roadman farm, that includes the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center.

For some absentee owners over time, the farm becomes more of a significant part of their income, but as Roadman says, he and his family see it as a win-win.

“We have the opportunity, like anybody else in the partnership, but particularly on the economics. Yet, it is not just an economic decision for us. We really look at what our priorities are for sustainability and stewardship, and it’s not just the financial return,” he says. “We have said over the years that it isn’t a hobby. This farm has to pay for itself throughout transitions and generations.”

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