Published Oct 26, 2023

Creating a House for Nature: Precision Conservation on the Farm

By Vanya North

Ken Fawcett and his family have embraced precision conservation to improve their farm while making space for the rest of nature to thrive.

Ken Fawcett in buffer zone

Ken Fawcett

Ken Fawcett, of Springdale, Iowa, has a deep connection to the ground he and his family farm.

His great-grandfather, Thomas Fawcett, settled in Springdale in 1852. Now an unincorporated hamlet, the area was originally settled by Quakers and used as a waystation on the Underground Railroad. At the time of Thomas’ arrival, a small but thriving Main Street had been established, and Thomas opened a lucrative general store. By 1865, he had purchased the first 100 acres of the now 360-acre family farm.

“The general store was successful. We still have the ledgers of people that came and traded with him or what they bought,” Ken says. “That first 100 acres came from that prosperity. In the 1950s, my dad and uncle were able to add another 200 acres. The last 60 acres was purchased by myself right before the farm crisis in the ‘80s, but we stuck it out, and are still here.”

Spurred on by the rich farmland and economic opportunities that mid-19th century Iowa presented, Thomas, along with other hopefuls from east of the Mississippi River, settled onto a landscape consisting mainly of native tallgrass prairie. Though just a fraction of a percent of that original prairie remains today, Thomas’ descendants have found ways to honor both their farming heritage and the Iowa landscape through a variety of conservation practices on their farm.

“Farming has been my career and my passion,” Ken says. “This farm has been a part of me my entire life, and my family’s lives, since the 1850s. In that time, it has gone through several transformations, but the conservation taking place now moves it back in a way to that original prairie that Thomas first encountered.”

Evolving a Stewardship Ethic

Today, Ken Fawcett is continuing the farming legacy started by his great-grandfather by operating a thriving corn and soybean farm in the original location where Thomas settled 170 years ago. Ken grew up walking the bean rows, bringing in the corn harvest and watching the seasons pass. He recalls one spring thunderstorm from his childhood that highlighted the importance of conservation in agriculture.

“I vividly remember May 21, 1957. That day, I stood near the middle branch of Watson Creek after a violent thunderstorm and watched torrents of muddy water carrying our soil and seed and fertilizer off the farm,” Ken says. “Seeing the eroded soil leaving our farm, and the autumn profits with it, was a powerful lesson to me as a young boy of 8.”

Ken knew from then on that maximum profit in any farm venture is important, but equally important are the soil and natural resources that go into nourishing the crops on which farmers’ livelihoods depend. When he took over managing the farm in the ‘80s, a slow transition from traditional row cropping began, and what Ken describes as “a slow evolution of stewardship.” He began with cover crops to limit soil erosion in his corn and bean fields, with an emphasis on maintaining yields and profits.

“In ’85, we started hand-planting trees along the gully to stabilize the creek bank,” he says. “Then it just kept going from there.”

Embracing Precision Conservation

The Fawcetts started using precision conservation to increase the soil, water and habitat quality of their land. With this approach, farmers use a range of technologies and techniques – such as GPS, remote sensing, yield maps and other tools – to identify marginal or consistently low-yielding areas of farmland. These acres, which usually lose money for the farmer, are then taken out of crop production and used for targeted conservation practices like prairie plantings, wetlands or saturated buffers.

Fawcett saturated buffer zone edge of field 3

This definite boundary between the Fawcetts’ row crops and saturated buffers illustrates the “precision” in precision conservation.

Farmers typically place the marginal acres into federal programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Both offer incentive payments that, combined with cost savings on seed, fertilizer and other inputs, generate a positive net return on those acres – as well as better overall yield averages for the whole field.

Farmers using precision conservation also profit from the knowledge that they’re helping to care for the soil and water while providing habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects. These are the main reasons Ken and his family were inspired to use precision conservation in their fields. After deciding to try this approach, the next step was deciding which acres to remove from production. On any farm, that decision requires careful analysis.

Today’s technologies let farmers and their service providers study a field in exquisite depth – down to the inch – to understand the land’s patterns and history. This precision has a range of benefits. Farmers can get the most profit from the land that remains cropped and, depending on which acres are removed and the farmer’s goals, they can maximize habitat. Ken says this detailed analysis has been one of his favorite parts of his ongoing conservation efforts.

“I really embraced the technology of conservation. We worked with NRCS and various ag organizations using GPS and remote sensing to really get a sense of how much crop to keep and how much to set aside, down to practically the centimeter. Ensuring that you can still make a living while preserving and improving the environment is key, and all these new technologies are great for that.”

– Ken Fawcett

Creating a Home for All

The Fawcett farmscape is showing how it’s possible for farmers to realize both profit and preservation. Since first embarking on intentional habitat work in 1985, the Fawcetts have installed a pond that is home to several varieties of fish, including rainbow trout; planted 14 acres of prairie strips; and added 25 total acres of buffer strips along the creek that runs through their farm. They have also planted over 15,000 trees, mostly by hand.

“This land has been a labor of love. We still have family reunions where all the descendants of Thomas Fawcett still come here to gather and catch up, no matter where they live now,” Ken says. “Preserving this land has been about preserving that family legacy as well as the land. And just like families can have ups and downs, the conservation has had its share of setbacks as well, but we pushed through because the legacy of the land is what is important.”

One such setback was the introduction of Palmer amaranth, a weedy plant native to the U.S. southwest, that got mixed in with the prairie seed the Fawcetts used to establish their prairie strips. Fortunately, Palmer amaranth struggled to survive in Iowa’s climate and the invasive weed didn’t thrive in the field. But the Fawcetts have struggled with other invasive species, such as reed canary grass and the emerald ash borer, which has infected many of the ash trees Ken and his family planted by hand years ago.

“Conservation is a learning process. When we established our cover crops or planted our prairie strips, we had to learn, and sometimes we made mistakes or nature had other ideas,” Ken says. “But we kept learning and adapting, caring for this land like a family member.

“A farmer’s land is their most treasured asset. It needs to be tended and respected. It needs to not only house their family, but all of nature as well. We share this land with birds, deer, fox and even an otter. It’s their home too.”

Fawcett farm scenes