Conservation & Innovation in Agriculture

Cliff Callis and Erin Ogle's headshots in circles with green border on top of a green field. OUTdrive episode 59: Conservation and Innovation in Agriculture across the bottom in white text. Available on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

OUTdrive Episode 59 with Erin Ogle

Agriculture is the backbone of rural America, and there is a significant amount of science and technology at work behind the scenes. In this episode of OUTdrive, Cliff visits with Erin Ogle about her work in the agriculture and environmental fields and her position as the Watershed Project Coordinator for Taylor County, Iowa Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD).

Erin is passionate about conservation and joined the Taylor County SWCD to implement the Taylor County Water Quality Initiative project in 2016. Her team partners with farmers and producers to prevent erosion, improve soil health and educate community members each step of the way. Through strategic analysis, planning and implementation, they’re improving land and water quality and fostering the growth of rural communities and businesses.

Listen along or read the transcription as Erin shares what it’s like to partner with rural Americans to improve their operations and foster growth for years to come.

Show/Hide Transcript

Cliff Callis 00:25
Hey, folks, welcome to OUTdrive. I’m Cliff Callis, and we’ve got another great story to share with you today about life and work in rural America, and the opportunities to enjoy a way of life that you’re not gonna find anywhere else. Here in the Midwest, we’re surrounded by 1000s of acres of high quality farmland, beautiful lakes and streams, forests, hillsides, and the cities and towns they surround. God has trusted us to manage and preserve these natural assets, so they perpetuate from generation to generation. Scientists study how to not only perpetuate them, but how to make them even more valuable, and that’s not an easy task because not all farm ground is the same. Specific lakes and streams are impacted by different things, and forest and hillsides change and evolve over time. And that brings us to our guest today. Erin Ogle is the Watershed Project Coordinator for Taylor County, Iowa SWCD, Erin grew up in Hopkins, Missouri and earned her B.S. in Biological Systems Engineering with an Environmental emphasis from Kansas State University. She’s also worked in the agriculture and environmental field as an environmental specialist with the Iowa DNR in Atlantic, Iowa. Erin joined the Taylor County SWCD to implement the Taylor County Water Quality Initiative project in 2016. She enjoys the outdoors, gardening, sewing, canning, reading and spending time with her family, and I’m pleased she’s agreed to be with us today to talk about conservation in the Midwest. Welcome to OUTdrive Erin.

Erin Ogle 01:56
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Cliff Callis 01:58
I’ve been looking forward to our conversation. You seem like a really great fit with your background and education for the role you’re playing in Taylor County. One of the questions I always like to ask is, did you ever think you’d be doing something like this when you were growing up?

Erin Ogle 02:12
Oh, my gosh, no, this is almost the complete opposite. I actually didn’t take any ag classes in high school. I think because I grew up in an ag community, I wanted to be removed from that. I wanted to do something completely different. But as I got older, I realized no, this is probably what I would want to do. You know, I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to do all these different things, but agriculture was definitely not one of them at first.

Cliff Callis 02:38
So tell us about growing up in Hopkins, Missouri.

Erin Ogle 02:41
Yeah. So I lived on an acreage, just outside of town in Northwest Missouri. I have a younger sister and a younger brother. And we both had teachers as parents. So in the summertime, we were stuck outside. Our parents kept us pretty busy doing all sorts of things outside. And so I think that’s kind of where I gained my love for the outdoors. I’m just used to it. I love it. Like I said, we grew up on an acreage, we had a pond, we’d go fishing, we had pets, we had a garden, we had an orchard. So we just have all sorts of things to do outside. It was a lot of fun. I have a lot of good memories.

Cliff Callis 03:15
Sounds like it, that’s a great way to grow up, really. And we kind of sometimes take that for granted out in rural America when we grew up in that environment. And you look back upon it, and you say, “Wow, that was really a great opportunity.” I had a lot of fun as a kid, because I remember all those same things. Well, what took you to Kansas State?

Erin Ogle 03:31
My boyfriend, actually. I followed my boyfriend and husband now. So it worked out. So yeah, I followed Josh. He went into engineering as well, and he loved it and he thought that it would be a great fit for me. I was still unsure of what I wanted to do as a senior in high school, so I thought, “Oh, sure. I’ll try it. And maybe I’ll find something else that interests me more.” But no, I loved it. It was something that I felt like I could really fit into and apply later. Yeah, I followed my boyfriend.

Cliff Callis 03:59
I had a good friend in high school that went to Kansas State and took a similar path, career wise, that you did. And I know she went there because K-State offered a really specialty program in that field. Is that right?

Erin Ogle 04:11
Yes, K-State is a great ag school. It’s a great engineering school. So I loved it. It was a perfect fit for my ag engineering degree that I ended up getting. And it was far enough away from home that I didn’t feel like I was just in the backyard at my parents, so it was a great decision. I loved it.

Cliff Callis 04:28
So was the Iowa DNR your first job right out of college?

Erin Ogle 04:32
It was. It was not an engineering degree or engineering career. And actually, I was probably halfway through my engineering course that I decided no, engineering is not what I want to do, but I want to stay in the environmental field. But I’d already taken my calculus and my physics courses, so I thought, “Well, geez, I don’t want to stop now. I don’t want to waste all that.” So I went ahead and just stuck it through and I’m finished with my degree and hoped that I would be able to land somewhere that I could feel like I was being useful in a career. So yeah, the Iowa DNR, I loved it. It was definitely the environmental focus and environmental related field that I wanted. I was able to help with the entire southwest corner of Iowa as far as working with producers and cattle confinements and animal feeding operations and really helping keep in control the erosion from feedlots. So it was a great, great experience. I loved it.

Cliff Callis 05:25
Well, sounds like it was good preparation for what you’re doing now. How did you transition or move over to Taylor County?

Erin Ogle 05:32
Yeah, it was a great, great intro. And really again, my husband, he was kind of the one that got me into this, this position now. It’s where his family’s from, so he and I had always talked about how we would eventually go back to the family farm. We wanted to get away, see what else was out there and then come back. So it worked out perfectly and I love it. I couldn’t imagine not being close to family, having the kids grow up with their Grandma and Grandpa, cousins and aunts. And so it was a great, great decision. I’m so glad we did it. But I was scared to do the change, because I had loved my job with the DNR so much. I thought, “Why change a good thing? Why? Why try something new?” but oh, man, I’m so glad I did, because this job is everything and more from what I had wanted, or thought I would want.

Cliff Callis 06:14
Our focus with our podcast is really all about helping people understand the people who live and work in rural America. So when you talk about how you really loved your job at DNR, but then made this change, what motivated you to make that change?

Erin Ogle 06:30
I think it was because it was a home, or closer to home. I wanted to do something that would impact where I lived, and not that the DNR didn’t, but I felt like this would be something that I would be able to maybe feel more connected or feel more more connected to my community and to what I was doing would have been an influence or a positive difference. I was hopeful anyway. It sounded like it was something that I would be able to really make a difference in. And since it was close to home, I knew people and I wanted people to know me, so that was a big part of it.

Cliff Callis 07:04
Yeah, you know, the opportunity to make a difference is important. And you don’t get that with every job, so I think that that bodes well for that. And I lived in Iowa for a couple of years, and through my job at the time, I had the opportunity to travel all over the state and that part of Iowa is gorgeous.

Erin Ogle 07:22
I mean, I’m biased, but I do love the rolling hills, the livestock. I mean, Iowa is just like every state, we’ve got our different perks and different landscapes. So yeah, I love Iowa.

Cliff Callis 07:35
So, did you go there specifically for the WQI project?

Erin Ogle 07:40
I did. My husband saw that there was a position opening and he talked me into it. So we moved, I got the job, and then we eventually found a house and moved to Bedford.

Cliff Callis 07:50
Well tell us about that project.

Erin Ogle 07:52
So I love talking about this project. So a little bit of background first – Iowa and several states that border the Mississippi River, and so those states make up the Mississippi River Basin. And so that watershed or that basin, drains into the Gulf of Mexico. So I’m sure you’ve heard of the dead zone or the hypoxia zone. That’s kind of what stemmed this project. Iowa has created its own Iowa Nutrient Reduction Plan. So within that plan, these water quality projects come in. So throughout the state, they have different projects that focus on different nutrient reduction strategies to help reduce the nutrients that would be leaving the farms and would be entering the streams and the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s where this project comes in. This is a county wide project, the only one in this state that is countywide. The others are watershed based. So they follow their watershed border, whereas this one has a political county border. So it’s pretty unique in that sense. We offer two primary programs, or options, for producers. Our main focus is to seed down side hills, so we want to seed down side hills that would normally be farmed year after year and they would be more likely to erode. And whenever you have erosion, you take soil, or sediment, nutrients, chemicals and they get washed into the streams, so that’s what we want to prevent or reduce. So the five hills are our primary focus and we are offering a financial incentive to help producers make those land management changes in their business because farming is their business. So we offer $250 an acre to see down side hills for hay or pasture for five years, or we offer $80 an acre for them to seed a summer fall grazer, which is implementing small grains, or I guess a longer term living root system. If they didn’t want to do the five year crop to hay or pasture program they can do a shorter term where they can implement small grains into their rotation. Primarily in Iowa, we have corn bean rotations. We have corn and beans, those are our two main crops. So this is kind of a new idea for some people to implement small grains. And a small grain would be wheat or rye or triticale. So that way with this third crop, they would be able to earn another cash crop. So it would be a benefit, not only to the land, but also to their pocketbook. That’s what we’re hoping to educate and to show that there is a benefit there as well.

Cliff Callis 10:30
So what’s the response been from producers?

Erin Ogle 10:33
Oh, it’s been great. We are very livestock friendly. We have rolling hills, so we have the side hills, and we have the livestock already. So the fact that we are helping provide additional forage for the livestock, they’ve loved it. The producers have really been supportive with the project, they understand what we’re trying to do. They’re appreciative of what we’re providing for them, and we’re helping the market. Not only the cattle market, but for those that are reallocating the working capital and not losing money on the side hills where they would crop their acres. They’re reallocating their dollars to produce a better crop on the bottom ground. So it’s helping in that sense too, to amount market. So overall, they’ve loved it. We’ve seeded 3,500 acres, and we’re still going, so it’s been a huge success. The State of Iowa has been very pleased. This was actually a demonstration project. They weren’t sure how it would take off, so they wanted to expand this model to other parts of the state. So I’m very, very excited about that.

Cliff Callis 11:37
Yeah. So it’ll continue on for the next few years?

Erin Ogle 11:41
I think so. These water quality grants are three years. So I’m actually on the end of my third year for this phase, and so I’m working on renewing my grant to hopefully get another three years. But I think with our success that we’ve had, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I think we’ve got some good ideas to help enhance the project so that it doesn’t stay the same, but we’ve got a good foundation of what we have created so far, so I think I’m feeling really good about it.

Cliff Callis 12:06
Great. Well, it sounds like a really cool and very innovative program and a win win.

Erin Ogle 12:10
Yeah, it is. I’m glad.

Cliff Callis 12:12
So as someone who loves agriculture and the environment, this sounds like an awesome job. Tell us about some of the things that you do specifically in your role.

Erin Ogle 12:21
Sure, yeah, I love it. It’s different every day, I do field work, so I go out to the field and I take soil samples and water samples of the fields that are participating in this seeding program so we can justify that this is working, we are reducing nutrients, we are improving the organic matter in the soil, because these are public funds. So these are state dollars that we are distributing throughout the county, so we need to be able to justify where we’re spending the dollars and why we’re spending the dollars. So it’s very important to me to show that yes, this is working and we need to continue this, there’s a reason we’re doing this. So I enjoy doing those. It’s nice to get out of the office and get your hands dirty. I get to go out to the field with producers and do some soil health examples. We just take a shovel and dig up a spot and we look at it. We look to see if there’s earthworms, we look to see how the infiltration or how compaction is taking effect on their field. And, you know, producers, they’ve been great. They like to learn about their field. They like to see what their field looks like, you know from below, in that root level. So it’s fun, it’s very different. The outreach, we do outreach and field days and education. Through that, we do elementary education days, so it’s always fun to do soil health and water quality activities with the kids. They’re the best audience. I mean, they’re just so honest with their reaction. So it’s fun to teach them to get them to think about the soil life that’s in the soil, the water quality and the impacts of keeping it clean so that you can have clean water to drink. The hope is that they’ll go home and they’ll tell their parents, and then they’ll want to, you know, do these conservation tips and things that will help not only maybe their farm, but you know their neighbors’ or their grandparents’. And so it’s always fun to do that. And then like I mentioned, this is public funds. So I do have to do reporting and the financials to show how much money we’re spending, what it’s being spent on and reporting to the public so that they could see what we’re doing.

Cliff Callis 14:25
Yes, what a great project. So what’s it like to work with producers on a daily basis?

Erin Ogle 14:32
It’s never boring. The stories that they share with me, their experiences. I’ve learned a lot just from what they have done, you know, year after year, because some of these are century farms. And so they’ve been doing this family business for years, and the things that they’ve been able to do to keep it sustainable for that long, it’s impressive. So I love to learn about how grandpa did it or how great grandpa started and bought the farm with everything he had. And you know, then we had to keep it going. And so those are very inspiring stories, but you have to remember that their farm is their office desk. So most people have an office that, you know, has its four walls, and you know, if you have a messy desk, who’s gonna see? But with a former, their desk is their field. So if they have a really bad year, their desk or their field, everybody’s gonna see it. So they’re pretty brave. I mean, they, it’s risky to be a farmer. I mean, their business is out and open for, for people to critique. And so if they want to try a new seeding, or new hybrid, everybody’s gonna see it. So it’s always fun to not just drive by but to visit and to see, you know, ask questions. You know, “Why are you trying it this year?” or, “How long have you been wanting to try this?” It’s fun, it’s fun.

Cliff Callis 15:51
Well, and you come across as a good listener.

Erin Ogle 15:54
I hope so. I try. Sometimes that’s what a producer needs, somebody to listen to their ideas, or somebody to bounce ideas off of, because there are some new technologies out there, some new tips, new soil health topics that, you know, maybe they’re not sure about. And they want to know, our take. I work out of the USDA NRCS office in our county. So I think whenever they come to our office, they expect feedback. They expect that knowledge, that information, to be, you know, backed up with some sort of research or experience. So I think it’s important that, you know, if, if they do have a question, and yes, I want to be able to listen and be able to make sure that I understand what their question is, and make sure that I can help them because I want them to come back. I want them to come back to our office and be a customer so that we can have that relationship.

Cliff Callis 16:44
So you go out and you do the analysis and determine the best approach, best plan and then present that to them as a recommendation? Is that how that works?

Erin Ogle 16:54
Yeah, so some of us in the office do only that. And you know, sometimes it’s not always what they want to hear. Sometimes it’s a little intimidating to try something new. So it’s a slow process sometimes. But getting that conversation started after realizing, “Okay, so this is what you currently do in your system or in your business. These are some suggestions or some options that would maybe help improve your return on investment, or help reduce some of the erosion. What baby steps do you want to take to get to where we need to be?” So it’s, it can be a process, sometimes we set up five year plans, just like other businesses do, so it’s just a different approach. We get to play with Mother Nature that way.

Cliff Callis 17:39
Nothing better.

Erin Ogle 17:40

Cliff Callis 17:41
So I think many times when I talk to people that are not familiar with rural America, they’re surprised by the amount of innovation that’s occurring here, and you mentioned some new technologies and tools that you guys are using. Talk a little bit about that.

Erin Ogle 17:57
So with this project, like I said, we want to focus on where the problem is. In a lot of cases, it’s the side hills, and sometimes a producer has a lot of side hills. Other times they have a few or sometimes they just have bottom ground. And we don’t want to discourage any producer to participate in our program. So what we have is, we have an internet web based program called Profit Zone Manager. And it is a program where we can look at their operation, their entire operation, all of their fields that they touch, or that they partake in. Based on their inputs, based on their land management practices that they currently use, we’re able to determine how much money or what their return on investment would be, and then we can create scenarios to show what would change if you changed this or if you change that. So it can compare, and it can show some pretty valuable numbers and it’s pretty eye opening. Some people may not realize, you know, no till, that’s whenever you don’t till before or after a crop is harvested, that saves a lot, whether it’s fuel, your time and in soil erosion. So we start with that sometimes, just showing what the difference is whenever you participate in no till. And so that’s the land management change that a lot of producers can start with as far as a baby step. With that program, they can literally see and can make side by side comparisons on the return on investment on making that no till change. Another one would be if they decided to seed down with our program, what those numbers look like. So it’s a pretty valuable tool. It’s very eye opening, and sometimes it’s a little scary to see, so some producers are very shocked and others kind of knew that it was going to kind of look like that. So it’s a tool that we have used in our program. It’s been very valuable. I guess another tool is our soil health bucket that we go out and sometimes show like I mentioned out in the field with producers and so it’s not really a new idea. But it’s something that hasn’t always been done, I guess. As far as in this soil health bucket, we have ways to, to measure, you know, pH. I mean, that’s pretty typical, even sometimes people like to test their pH in their yard, so that’s nothing really new, but being able to use tools together, and then making the decision to to make a change, that’s what we’re trying to help educate and help make that mindset or change that mindset. So a lot of times we do infiltration tests, where we take a circular ring, like a PVC or a metal ring, and then we fill it with water and we time it. We stick the ring in the ground, we pound it into the ground, and then we fill it with water and then we time it to determine how compacted it is, how the infiltration, you know, are roots getting water whenever it rains or does it just wash off? So those are important things that producers need to know. You know, if it’s something that they could change, or if it’s something that they need to, you know, implement cover crops to help with that infiltration, then we make those suggestions. Those tools in our toolbox, or soil health bucket, they’re very helpful. And they’re kind of fun to do too, so it’s something that the producer can do on their own, they don’t have to wait for somebody from our office to come out. It’s something that they can feel empowered to do themselves. And I think a lot of them do.

Cliff Callis 21:19
So if somebody was driving by and they saw you out in the field, I bet they’d have no idea what all you were gonna do once you get that soil.

Erin Ogle 21:26
Yeah, so many possibilities.

Cliff Callis 21:28
So if someone wanted to learn more about the project and some of the things that you’re doing, is there a place online they could go to read more about it?

Erin Ogle 21:37
Yes, we do have a website. It’s And it’ll show what our project is about, what we’ve done so far. It’ll talk about what our office does as a whole and then there’s pictures of some things that we’ve done in the past. So it’s a good starting point, if somebody is interested.

Cliff Callis 22:00
Good. Okay, listeners, head on over there right now. Not now, but after this is over. So let’s talk a little bit about you as a consumer living in rural America. If I was an advertiser, if I was a company, and I was trying to get my message to you, as a consumer, what would be the best way to do that? Where do you get your news and information?

Erin Ogle 22:21
I am pretty old school. I go to the newspaper and word of mouth and flyers from the cafe. I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do a lot of social media and part of me is okay with that because my producers or my customers really don’t either. As far as you know, we do have a Facebook page for our office that we share information with, but for the most part, our guys have indicated that they prefer the mailing, the newspaper information flyers at the cafe where they drink coffee in the morning. So you know, I fit in right right in there with them. But yeah, I look right to the newspaper or word of mouth.

Cliff Callis 22:59
In our discussions this morning, it seems like the internet service that you have is pretty good, because it’s coming across clearly we’re not getting any lag time that sometimes I experience with others. You must have pretty good broadband service there.

Erin Ogle 23:12
Yes and no. Whenever it rains, we have trouble with our internet at the office. So I think it’s getting there. I think it’s getting there

Cliff Callis 23:22
And is that because it’s coming in via satellite?

Erin Ogle 23:25
Well, we don’t have fiber optics yet here. So I think it’s still, part of the town has satellite and part of it comes through the phone lines. So I’m hopeful that we’ll get fiber optics. I know some of the surrounding towns are getting it. So I’m hopeful that Bedford will get it.

Cliff Callis 23:38
I bet you do. You know, there’s a big initiative in rural America to bring broadband, and the opportunities that technology will provide for people going forward is a good way for rural America to grow and to attract people from the cities out to live and enjoy the quality of life that we do. You know, as I mentioned earlier, the focus of our podcast is to really help people understand the people of rural America and you know how to better market to them. When you think about rural America, what kinds of words and images come to your mind?

Erin Ogle 24:11
I think of agriculture. I think of where I am now. I think of livestock. I think of a sunset. I mean, I guess I just think of outdoors. I don’t know how biased that might be, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind. And beauty, I guess it’s just something that is beautiful. I love being in rural America in the rural communities.

Cliff Callis 24:38
How would you describe the people of rural America?

Erin Ogle 24:41
Again, I think of people here in southwest Iowa and I, again, I think whenever I moved here, I was completely welcomed. So I think that they, I know that they’re friendly and I think that they’re very flexible whenever it comes to livestock, which is very prominent in Taylor County and southwest Iowa. We have to work with Mother Nature like I’d mentioned, and so we have to be flexible. For those that just work in the office or in cities, you know, you have you know, you may have deadlines or you may have your plan to get something done and with farmers, the people out here you have to be flexible. I mean, not that they don’t have to be flexible in the cities, but you know, if you wanted to plant on Tuesday, heck it could rain on Tuesday. You need to be able to be flexible. It’s something that we’re just easy going, I feel like. You know, we have soccer practice or baseball practice, and you come with muck boots and mud all over and you know, we don’t care. It’s the way of life.

Cliff Callis 25:43
It’s just the way it is.

Erin Ogle 26:44
It is.

Cliff Callis 25:46
Yeah, well, you know, I’ve really enjoyed visiting with you and really learning more about the WQI project. It’s very cool and very innovative and a great benefit for farmers and producers. What else would you like to share with our audience this morning that you think they might find interesting?

Erin Ogle 26:03
Well, I kind of touched on it earlier, how a farmer’s desk or their office is their field. So I guess I just want to point out that it’s kind of, not really scary, to be a farmer, but it’s risky. And so I think people need to realize and appreciate what farmers do as their business, their livelihood. They have it all out there, and you know, people may criticize and critique all they want, you know, let them. Producers, they’ve got these ideas, and they’ve got these plans, just like everybody else may have. And I think it’s important that people really take time to appreciate what a farmer, what a producer does whether it is row crop or livestock or a combination. Their office space is for everyone to see, and with that, I think something that we’ve kind of come to realize is that if the livestock stay, the people stay. And we’re finding that that’s very true with this project. We have a lot of absentee landowners, so meaning people own ground, but they don’t live in the county or they don’t live in the state. They live maybe in New York or California, just away. Whether they’ve inherited the ground, they’ve bought it through auction, you know, whatever the case may be, they’re less likely to take care of the ground if it’s not in their backyard. And I think that if we have livestock, we have found that people are more likely to stay and more likely to stay in a community, that community can grow, the businesses can grow and they have more of a bit more of a stake in the game I feel like, because their livestock are here, their business is here. So I think that’s important for rural America, especially in these areas. Because like I said, it’s their business. They want it to grow. They want it to thrive. And whenever businesses thrive, people tend to stay.

Cliff Callis 27:48
Yeah, absolutely. You did a great job of characterizing the importance of agriculture to really our world. And I always think that every day is a good day to thank a farmer for what they do.

Erin Ogle 28:00
That’s right. We all like to eat. Absolutely.

Cliff Callis 28:03
Erin, thank you. I appreciate you being on the show this morning.

Erin Ogle 28:06
Oh, thank you so much for having me!

Cliff Callis 28:07
Folks, thanks for listening to OUTdrive. I hope you’ve enjoyed our visit today with Erin Ogle with the Taylor County, Iowa SWCD. Come back again next week and I’ll take you down the roads of rural America, where it’s heaven on earth.

Close Transcript