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100 Peno and Spencer Creek watershed farmers learn about soil health
In Pike County, Missouri, strong working relationships have contributed to a dramatic increase in cover cropped acres. Here, more than 100 Peno and Spencer Creek watershed farmers learn about soil health thanks to shared work by Peno/Spencer Landowner Council, NRCS, MDC and Pike County SWCD.

Pike County landowners John and Sandy Scherder and Chris Williamson, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) biologist, have heard peers in other states say they’re weary of working with people who aren’t proactive, policies that slow projects down, and programs that don’t deliver what’s needed. Missouri has some of the same programs, they say, but the increase in cover cropped acres in Peno Creek watershed has everything to do with cooperation between local partners and the will to connect.

women talking about importance to connect
Sandy Scherder tells Katie Rock, Center For Rural Affairs, why it’s important to her to connect with people who are also working to sustain farms and streams near their own homes.

Shared leadership, shared work, and clear priorities are the difference, say Williamson and MDC Fisheries Division Stream and Watershed Chief, Sherry Fischer. Landowners and technical staff are listening, talking to each other, bringing what they can to the work, and asking community partners to do the same.

“We have good participation from farmers and landowners, the University, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Pike County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Department of Conservation,” said John Scherder. “Now we want more local groups in the community involved, because the watershed belongs to all of us, not just landowners. As far as I’m concerned, getting more people using practices for water quality and erosion control, and more acres in those practices is the point.”

An impaired stream
An impaired stream cannot support a five-pound bass. Soil retention in Peno Creek watershed sustains farms and life in this high quality stream. Photo: MDC

Missouri Department of Conservation imagined this kind of involvement 10 to 15 years ago when staff looked across the state to ask: What will it take to maintain 200 fish species for another 200 years? Their answer: Identify high quality streams and spend time in those watersheds. One priority area was Peno Creek, which sustains 40 fish species.

More recently, Pike County conservation and agriculture staff looked at 30 to 50 years of work with farmers and asked: How are we going to get past what we’re already doing? Then they invited 30 landowners to a listening session and asked: What are the issues? What do you need help with?

The answer was soil health—work that takes time, but is a win for farms and streams. Staff obtained grants for cover crop seed. Growers started using it. Public demonstration plots were planted. A farmer advisory group was established.

watershed cover
Learn by doing! John Scherder planted this warm-season cover crop blend of pearl millet, soybean, oats, and tillage radish after wheat harvest. By experimenting in a field that may have sat idle, John gained valuable forage and soil health benefits that ultimately benefit the aquatic resources of Peno Creek.

In 2016 a leadership team including MDC staff and landowners John and Sandy Scherder participated in two three-day Watershed Leaders Network (WLN) workshops. That was a turning point, according to Fischer.

“The workshops energized what was already happening. Local staff were just pushing and pulling, one inch at a time, to get things going. But once the work got its own momentum, we didn’t have to push and pull any more.”

Momentum built on next steps defined at the workshop and the willingness of John and Sandy Scherder not only to use identified practices on their farm, but to tell about them.

Participants share experiences
Participants share experiences and ask questions at the 2017 Watershed Leaders Network workshop in Dubuque. Later, local groups set their own priorities.

“After the WLN workshops, John took pictures of his land and gave a 25-minute presentation at a local meeting,” says Chris Williamson. “To see him in a room with 75-100 people was great—sharing what he knows with neighbors, up front instead of me or other staff. Most of the time his leadership is less formal, but in every situation he brings knowledge of the land and authority we don’t have.

“It’s inspiring to see what’s happened between that first meeting and now. We’ve funded 4,556 acres of cover crops. Seeing it works, growers have jumped in to buy more seed at their own cost—several report planting 500-800 acres last fall.

“A lot of groups are interested in the issues we’re talking about. The simple fact is, when we’re at the same table, working on the same ideas and toward the same goals, we get more done.”

local soil samples
Seeing is believing. Landowners and NRCS staff use local soil samples to show how management practices affect runoff and infiltration in Pike County.

— Story by Nancy North, NewGround, Inc.