Ruffs among Iowa farm families recognized for environmental stewardship

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Edmund and Barbara Ruff were one of 89 farm families recognized for their environmental stewardship during a ceremony at this year’s Iowa State Fair. Ed and Barb (center) are pictured with daughter Katie Ruff and daughter and son-in-law Leah Ruff Maeder and Curtis Maeder. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Julie Kenney and Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon recognized the recipients. (Submitted photo)

The Ruffs were nominated by Eric Palas, on behalf of the Clayton Soil and Water Conservation District, for their efforts—most notably no-till farming and cover crops—that help ensure healthy soil and improve water quality. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

Edmund and Barbara Ruff were one of 89 farm families recognized for their environmental stewardship during a ceremony at this year’s Iowa State Fair. The Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award acknowledges farmers who take voluntary actions to improve and protect the environment and the state’s natural resources while serving as leaders in their farming communities.

 

The Ruffs were nominated by Eric Palas, on behalf of the Clayton Soil and Water Conservation District, for their efforts—most notably no-till farming and cover crops—that help ensure healthy soil and improve water quality.

 

“It’s a great honor to be recognized for an effort to apply new ideas, to have people see what you’re doing. Sometimes farmers forget the impact of what they’re doing to the environment,” said Ed. “It’s an environmental leadership award, and the leadership is that I’m doing something. Hopefully the practices I’m choosing fit the environment and make this a better place to live. Hopefully there’s a benefit beyond our family.”

 

The Ruff farm is located off Highway 52, near the Clayton County Fairgrounds. It was purchased by Ed’s great-grandfather in 1913 and later passed to his grandmother and father. Ed grew up there and has been involved in farming since 1976. When his mother passed in 2008, he and Barb purchased the small farm from his siblings, and have lived there since 2017.

 

“It was operated as a livestock farm until about 2005,” said Ed, “and since then it’s been more or less a hobby grain farm. We don’t make our full-time living on the grain farm, but we do operate it and grow our own crops.”

 

As far as soil erosion, Ed said the farm has had a structural practice in place for decades.

 

“My mother told me the farm was the first in Clayton County to be completely terraced,” he recalled. “We have some photos where my grandfather and dad are on a tractor with a pull type grader, building the terraces. I think those pictures date back to the late 1930s.”

 

Terraces alone aren’t the answer to soil erosion and conservation, however. In 1989, Ed, who was also an agriculture instructor and crop consultant, adopted no-till techniques after learning about the practice at workshops.

 

When converting to no-till, he said it’s important to give the practice time. Researchers often didn’t find it was better than tillage until after the fifth crop year.

 

“That gave me the courage to keep doing it because, initially, I think the yields were a little lower. Over time, you learn to manage the system, and I felt yields were comparable,” Ed said.

 

In 2006, while working at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, Ed started to introduce cover crops.

 

“I was privileged to attend a lot of national trainings and get to know some leading authorities and practitioners of cover crop management,” he shared. “We engaged in cover crops more fully in 2013-2014, and we’ve been doing full no-till and cover crops for the last four seasons.”

 

Through his practices, Ed said he’s recognized cost savings and used fewer chemicals. There’s also less soil loss—and the soil that remains is improved.

 

According to Ed, the standard used in soil conservation is called “T value,” with “T” representing tolerable soil loss. That means soil is being regenerated at least equal to the speed at which it’s being eroded. 

 

“Different soil types have different T values, and on the farm I have, they’re all 5T soils. What that means is you’re losing a thickness of a dime of soil annually. In 10 years, that’s an inch,” he explained. “I felt it was important to adopt practices that would reduce or minimize that soil loss.”

 

When cover crops came into play, Ed said the focus was to improve the biology of the soil—micro-organisms and the tilth and infiltration rate of water. 

 

“Since I’ve been doing it long enough, I feel I’ve gained those benefits, which in the long run should make the farm more productive,” he added. “If you’re after the biggest crop in the shortest amount of time, I would do tillage and use more synthetic inputs. By using the cover crop technique, I’m building organic matter, and that’s a longer term investment and payback.”

 

Ed said soil tests, which are performed every three years, have revealed a 1 to 1.5 percent increase in organic matter over the past 10 years. That organic matter absorbs moisture.

 

“So I’m storing more water, which means there’s less running off and causing flood issues,” he noted. “Also, as soil warms up, plants demand more water. If you have a cover on top of the soil, whether it’s living or residue from the previous year’s crop, that helps to lessen the buildup of heat in the soil. That’s one of the ways we stretch, in dry periods of time, our moisture supply. Hopefully that’s one of the factors that leads to higher yields.”

 

With the farm visible from Highway 52, Ed said other local farmers have noticed his farm looks different. In the spring, you can see the previous year’s crop residue with a green cover crop growing in between.

 

“And I’ve had farmers note that I’m planting corn into the previous year’s corn stalks. The first question is, ‘Does that work?’” he said. “The practice is not common, and there is a hesitancy for farmers not to want to break away from the status quo. There’s a comfort level—this is the way we’ve always done it.”

 

But looking at agriculture’s impact on the environment, Ed said it’s important to recognize some practices need to change.

 

“A lot of the things we’re doing in farming are not natural,” he reflected. “You want to work with nature. And now we have some technologies that allow us to be more natural and take advantage of the soil biology.”

 

By the time July rolls around, Ed said it’s not noticeable that his farm is managed differently.

 

“My general feeling is the crop looks as good or better than other fields in the area in September,” he shared. “When I worked as a crop consultant, we told our customers it’s not what your crops look like in June—it’s what they look like in September and October, when you’re going to reap the harvest.”

 

Looking back on his agricultural journey, Ed said he often reflects on a Daniel Webster quote that was part of a mural in a stairwell at the Iowa State University library. It read: “When tillage begins, the other arts follow.”

 

“The mural was a turn of the century painting of agriculture. As a student, I always took that to heart,” he stated. “With this management system I’m using, we’re not doing tillage. But the scholarly part is there’s a farmer who’s holding the books, and he’s learned something.”

 

“Maybe no-till farming isn’t an art,” Ed added, “but we’re using education and recognizing  some of the tillage we’re doing may not be necessary. As farmers, I think it’s important we recognize the value of the resource we have in our soil and try to take care of it.”

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