Outside Again! Returning to In-Person Collaboration
by Ingrid Gronstal on Friday, June 18, 2021
IEC is, at its core, a coalition organization. Connecting diverse people and organizations is essential to our mission. Because the health of the environment affects everyone, we work to build awareness and identify shared values the importance of the environment to folks’ daily lives.
Coalition building can be many things: a one-on-one discussion, collaborating on problem solving, partnering to host an event, sharing content with respective audiences, or finding common ground from which to work. But most importantly, it is about listening, educating others, sharing the work, and including all voices in the solution.
Covid-19 may have stretched our definition of coalition-building, but it definitely didn’t stop it. And now that we can get outdoors and mingle with other vaccinated Iowans, we’re excited to be back into building mode once again.
This past week was an excellent example of IEC’s coalition building work. Brian Campbell, Executive Director, joined me to attend a regenerative agriculture field day hosted by Mitchell Hora and Continuum Ag at the Washington County Fairgrounds. The event featured presentations and panel discussions about cover crops, soil health, emerging markets, diversifying operations, and carbon sequestration. Our partners from Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, Trees Forever, Iowa Farmer’s Union, and The Nature Conservancy also attended, along with hundreds of farmers from across the state and across the country who are embracing regenerative practices. We had the chance to speak with Sec. Mike Naig about opportunities to support conservation practices, farmers, and rural communities, and what lessons can be learned from the shortcomings of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as we look toward potential carbon reduction policies. After the event, the Hora family graciously invited attendees to their farm to see cover cropping in action, share a meal, and discuss transforming agriculture operations across the state for the better.
June 10 marked the start of the Mississippi River Network’s (MRN) River Days of Action, a 10-day series of events hosted by MRN and its member organizations, including IEC. I traveled to St. Louis for the River Days of Action kickoff event – a nationwide town hall in support of the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative (MRRRI), including a push to get 5,000 signatures in support of MRRRI by the end of June. It was wonderful to get together with colleagues from MRN, American Rivers, Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) to share information and ideas about protecting waterways in our respective states.
IEC hosted two of our own River Days of Action events on Friday, June 11. In the morning, state Sen. Chris Cournoyer (R-LeClaire), IEC Water Program government relations counsel Angela Davis, and Brian Campbell flew with LightHawk to see land use practices in the Four Mile Creek and Raccoon River watersheds from above. In the afternoon, together with NCEL, IEC hosted a farm tour at Tesdell Century Farm. Six state legislators and three members of Rep. Cindy Axne’s staff attended and heard from landowner Lee Tesdell and his tenant farmers about the many conservation practices installed at the farm. Additionally, the decision makers heard from John Swanson about the Polk County blitz project to install significantly more practices in Polk County. It can sometimes be difficult to have water quality-related “sights” for legislators to tour, but this was an excellent opportunity to connect with and educate legislators about the value of conservation.
Following this flurry of events, what are the takeaways? First, connections in this space are vitally important. Sharing information with groups that do similar work in Iowa and in different states helps generate new ideas, keeps us from re-inventing the wheel, and provides support and community for work that is not always encouraging on its own.
Second, learning from agriculture producers about their operations, needs, and perspectives is vital for developing policy proposals that can get buy-in and support from farmers. The field day in Washington County showed that many producers are interested in protecting their lands, diversifying their operations, and trying new crops and methods. There is real momentum on the ground for change, and working with and empowering farmers to lead that change is imperative.
Third, to achieve policy change, we must continue connecting with and educating legislators and decision makers about the importance of land use change. The LightHawk flight was a unique opportunity for a decision maker to see the landscape from a literal new perspective. At the farm tour, we brought legislators from both political parties together to discuss conservation practices, renewable energy, and water quality. We also connected those legislators with farmers who are doing the work, and they were able to see the benefits of those practices first-hand. These experiences and connections will help to contextualize policy discussions with these same legislators during session.
One of my favorite parts of my job is having interesting conversations with folks from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Policy work often feels like putting together a puzzle of conflicting and complementary perspectives, but often we can develop solutions that provide layered benefits for everyone involved. I am excited and energized to continue getting out across the state this summer to meet with people about water quality, outdoor recreation, land use change, and to hear from Iowans on the ground about their concerns and ideas.