Alisha Bower

Midwest Cover Crop Associate

 Alisha Bower joined the PFI team as the Midwest Cover Crop Associate in the first days of 2017. Her work supports cover crops and small grains programs and involves grant tracking and reporting, event planning, data collection and management, and communications.
A native Wisconsinite, Alisha was raised on a small hobby farm in Southwest Wisconsin’s picturesque Driftless region. She attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities majoring in Political Science and Spanish, then returned to school for her Master of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing her studies on nonprofit administration and designing and managing research projects in agriculture and food systems. While working on her Masters she served as a Project Coordinator at the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America and collected on-farm data from diversified organic vegetable operations. After completing her graduate degree, she moved to Lima, Peru for a brief internship with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service where she paused between bowls of ceviche and lomo saltado to interact with producers, agribusiness representatives, and policy makers to support U.S. farmers’ and ranchers’ interests abroad.

After work, Alisha enjoys singing show tunes while gardening, fermenting anything remotely edible (or drinkable!), and biding her time until her next international adventure by reading books that explore different cultures.

Blog posts

“We have an infiltration problem, not a runoff problem.” This Ray Archuleta quote was much discussed on third and final installment in the American Society of Agronomy’s 2017 webinar series “Cover Crops – Looking Beyond the Basics.” The webinar, which took place on February 9, featured Anne Verhallen, a soil scientist from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Dave Brandt, a farmer from Ohio, describing their scouting strategies for cover crops, and how these practices help them get to the root of production challenges on their farm.

A farmer scouts any time he or she goes out into the field and takes data on environmental and crop conditions. Taking data can mean many things from taking pictures to performing simple tests and recording the outcomes. For example, in order to determine if you have an infiltration problem — which as Archuleta reminds us, is really the source of runoff — Anne suggests performing an infiltration test, driving a plumbing pipe or coffee can with the bottom removed into the soil and then timing how long it take 1 inch of water to infiltrate until the surface is just glistening. Results will vary based upon soil type, but you ideally want to measure an inch of infiltration in minutes rather than hours. Anne says, “The soil needs pores from earth worms or cover crop roots to open space for infiltration. If it crusts then you’re going to start seeing erosion and loss of soil.”

Water Runoff

Run off like this is caused by a lack of pores in the soil which serve as the entry point for water.

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Roots of cereal rye in early April (pictured) can be a food source for harmful pathogens and insects if not managed carefully.

We don’t often think of our cover crops as gun slinging cowboys and cowgirls of the old west, staring down their pistols at villains of agriculture: diseases, insects, and weeds. But by the end of the webinar “Cover Crops and Pest Management: The Good and the Bad,” I was pretty convinced that while cover crops are no silver bullet for the big bads of agriculture, they mostly fall into the good category – even if they have a glint of the bad in their eye.

This first installment in the American Society of Agronomy’s “Cover Crop 2017 Webinars – Beyond the Basics” series explored the relationship between pests and cover crops. The two speakers showed that cover crops can be effective for combating pests (particularly weeds), but their potential to double-cross the farmer and become a host for insects and diseases should always inform management decisions.

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Today I’d like to introduce you to two farmers: Jenny Quiner and Dusty Farnsworth. Jenny runs a ¼ acre urban vegetable farm in Des Moines while Dusty farms several hundred acres of organic and conventional row crops with integrated hogs and cattle. What do these two have in common besides their membership in Practical Farmers of Iowa? They both use the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to develop infrastructure and implement environmental protection measures on their farms.

EQIP logo

EQIP is a federal cost-share program for farmers who implement any one (or more!) of  a large list of approved practices. Though EQIP applications are accepted on a continuous basis, March 17, 2017 is the deadline to submit mid-year 2017 applications for timely response. In 2016, 122 approved practices included projects such as installing windbreaks, bioreactors, and pollinator habitat or writing grazing and nutrient management plans. Approved practices are determined on a county by county basis depending on the environmental and conservation needs of the area. This map shows the 2017 lists of approved practices by clicking through for each county.

All approved practices qualify for 50% cost share, but certain factors such as historically under-served farmer status and/or alignment with federal initiative policies cause the cost-share rate to climb to a maximum of 90% (specifics on page 1 of this document). Though formulated as a percent, the payment is actually a flat rate based on the cost of implementing the practice in your area.

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One of the benefits of small grains is that they are very versatile crops. As we discussed in our previous blog about variety selection, a farmer can have many different end uses in mind when planting a small grain. One of the uses is to bale the straw for sale or for their own use. On our Feb 3 shared learning call, Extension educator and farmer Margaret Smith talked us through the costs of baling straw and market outlets for this product, advising that you have to do your math homework to see if it will fit in your business plan.


Oat straw windrows at harvest on the Fleishman’s farm in 2016

There are three main costs involved in baling straw. The labor and equipment costs are the biggest line items, but — Margaret cautions — don’t forget that by removing straw you’re taking nutrients off the field. Straw yields vary, but we’ll use a typical yield of 1 ton/A for the following discussion. The current cost to replace macro-nutrients removed in a ton of straw is $9 for potassium (K) and $2.20 for phosphorus (P). In addition, carbon is lost from the system (800 lbs C/ton of straw) limiting potential positive impact on soil organic matter, though this aspect of soil health has no immediate, out-of-pocket dollar value. She estimates the costs per ton per acre for custom baling range from $67 to $77, but only about $60 if you own the equipment and are baling yourself, as shown in the table below.

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Growing Money

Do you plant cover crops on your farm? Then you know that they improve your soil health and clean your water, but do you ever wonder what they do for your bottom line? While many scientific studies have been done that quantify environmental benefits of cover crops, there just isn’t the same research regarding the economic benefits. With funding from the SARE program, Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa State University are trying to fill this gap but we need your help.

We have developed an online survey to quantify the economic return on investment of your cover crops. If you farm in the Midwest and have used cover crops please take a moment of your time to fill out this survey before March 1, 2017. Your participation will help us tell the story of how we can take positive steps for farm incomes without compromising the opportunities of future generations. Thank You.

Visit this URL to participate today:

When considering whether or not to grow small grains, one of the main things farmers consider is: can I sell them? In order to answer this big question, farmers often have to answer several smaller questions about who they can sell to, the logistics of how to sell, and what quality metrics and thresholds are expected. To help farmers answer these questions, we convened the second Small Grains Shared Learning Call on February 3. Jessie VanderPoel from Grain Millers in IA, Tim Marlin from the DeLong Company in WI and
Scott Woodside from Cargill in MO all talked about how they price and buy small grains for their milling facilities to answer the following frequently asked questions about small grains markets.

Grain in Hand

Where are you located and what small grains do you buy at your facility?

Grain Millers has a large mill in St. Ansgar Iowa that mainly buys conventional and organic oats. They also buy organic and conventional barley, rye, hard red wheat, and soft white wheat. Additionally, they buy conventional triticale. DeLong Company buys some oats, but mainly deals with soft red winter wheat in their elevators throughout Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. Cargill has two locations that accept both soft and hard wheat in Kansas City, Missouri. They also buy oats and wheat at their feed mill. Continue reading

On Thursday February 2, Practical Farmers held a cover crop field day at Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa. Thirty or so attendees at the field day tuned in to the second webinar in the Agronomy Society of America’s “Cover Crops 2017 – Looking Beyond the Basics” series sponsored by SARE. Practical Farmers member Chris Teachout presented on his experience using cover crops or as he describes it, “keeping the soil fully armored year round.”

AckleyFieldDay_09082015 (192)

Practical Farmer Chris Teachout speaks about cover crops at a 2015 PFI field day on the farm of fellow Practical Farmer Paul Ackley

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“Since the last people to grow small grains in this area were our grandparents or our great-grandparents a lot of small grains production [knowledge] seems like it’s through story telling. Some people say, well I’ve heard from my grandfather, that if you let small grains go down, it means they have a higher test weight. Is that true? Is that a myth? One would only know through many years of experience.”  – Farmer Wendy Johnson of Jóia Food Farm and Vice President of the Practial Farmers Board of Directors

To help farmers like Wendy sort through the truth and the myths about farming small grains, we sought out someone with many years of experience. Small grains specialist Jochum Wiersma from University of Minnesota Extension gave a session at the Practical Farmers’ Annual Conference titled “Growing Profitable Small Grains in Iowa.” One of the stories Wendy has heard is that farmers in her area used to grow oats after corn, heading into the session last week she hoped to learn from an expert if this was a good practice.

Jochum Wiersma in Wheat

Small Grains Specialist Jochum Wiersma from the University of Minnesota Northwest Research and Outreach Center. Photo:

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In my new role at Practical Farmers, one of the really exciting projects I’ll be working on is developing a small grains marketing pilot. Practical Farmers has gathered a group of farmers and small grains buyers throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to work through the logistics of growing and selling these crops in the upper Mississippi basin. Last Friday we had our kick-off shared learning call where our pilot participants gathered to learn about variety selection for small grains on their farms. Mac Ehrhardt of Albert Lea Seed was our guest star, guiding us through the process of selecting the best small grain for each farmer’s operation.

Speaker Mac Ehrhardt poses with wheat and barley seed at Albert Lea Seed House

Speaker Mac Ehrhardt poses with wheat and barley seed at Albert Lea Seed House. Photo Credit: Marie Wood. Nov 28, 2016. “Albert Lea Seed House Finds Success with Non-GMO and Organics.”

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There’s a buzz of anticipation in the air as we approach our annual conference — especially for our potluck! Please join us Friday January 20 from 7-11 pm for a shared meal hosted by Ty and Bobbie Gustafson of Story City Locker. As the night wears on we’ll welcome Iowa’s own blues musician Matt Woods to the stage (video below). Practical Farmers will provide a main dish, coffee, water and tableware. Please bring a side dish and beverage to share. Sign up your potluck dish here:

Potluck is held at CMPI Event Center in Ames. Friday January 20, 7:00-11:00 pm. Matt Woods performs 9:00-11:00 pm. 

PFI will provide:
  • meat main course
  • salad greens
  • polenta
  • coffee, water and lemonade
  • tableware

Don’t want to keep food cold or warm all day? You may drop food off at Scheman when you arrive for the conference and we will transport it for you! Items can be dropped off on a designated table on the ground floor at Scheman. We will transport food from there until 5 pm 1/20/17. We can plug in crock pots and refrigerate dishes.

Need to pick something up last-minute? Visit one of these local establishments: