From Plowing to No-Till: How a Generation of Farmers Improved Iowa’s Landscape

Vintage plow sm
  • Farmers recall drastic changes over their careers
  • Some ditched the plow as early as the 1970s
  • Soil protection expands to water quality efforts

Many Iowa farmers recall a very different time in the fields: the sight of a tractor pulling a moldboard plow and turning over rich, black topsoil. Whether watching as children or driving the tractor themselves early in their careers, some farmers remember looking at the freshly turned black soil with a sense of satisfaction.

The same sight today may produce a feeling of angst, thinking of the erosion and nutrient loss that would result from it.


Though plowing in preparation for the next year’s corn and soybean crop fell out of fashion some time ago, it is a reminder how much practices have changed over the course of a farmer’s career. No-till is becoming common, cover crops protect millions of acres of soil and edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors and saturated buffers that didn’t even exist a generation ago are now being installed by the hundreds annually.

(A bioreactor is a buried trench filled with woodchips that removes nitrates from tile water, like the way a water filter at home purifies water before drinking. A saturated buffer diverts tile water to a perforated distribution pipe that runs along the buffer. The soil in the buffer filters out nutrients before the water flows into local waterways.)

“There’s a lot less tillage than there was ten or 15 years ago,” observed Mike Bravard, a farmer in Greene County who had the state’s first bioreactor installed in 2008.

Less tillage and more bioreactors are among an array of farming practices contributing to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which marks its tenth anniversary in May. The aim of the NRS is to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen from getting into Iowa waters and eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The drastic changes in tillage over a generation have led to a significant reduction in soil erosion and the accompanying phosphorus losses, which are down an estimated 27% from the 1980-1996 baseline. Because phosphorus attaches to soil particles, tillage changes are the biggest factor in field-to-stream delivery.

The same values, a shift in perspective

Dean Sponheim, a farmer in Mitchell County in northern Iowa, remembers the days of heavy tillage but has since become a vocal advocate for conservation practices.

“I grew up on a moldboard plow,” he said after hosting a cover crop meeting in February. “It was a competition between neighbors for how clean our fields could be — and how black. You had to have black ground. And boy, we took pride in that because we thought the corn looked healthy and the fields clean.”

But his current mindset has flipped entirely from his early days of farming. “Right now, when I see a bare black field, I cringe because I know what we are losing,” he said, referencing heavy tillage that exposes the topsoil to the elements.

Sponheim calls himself an “accidental conservationist” because his practices started for reasons other than conservation, but he now also sees conservation as a worthy pursuit in itself. These days, he has about 800 acres of cover crops, and he spends plenty of weekends during the winter speaking at meetings to teach other farmers about the benefits of protecting their soil.

Plow-less pioneers

For Tim Smith, the concern about soil erosion started as a child. Growing up on a farm near Eagle Grove, he remembers some early springs in the 1960s when the snow melted, the ground dried out and strong winds led to dust storms.

“I can still remember the black silt on my mom’s windowsills,” he said, revealing the impact it had on him. “That was probably my first exposure to true erosion.”

That kind of wind erosion was a result of soil left vulnerable by plowing, similar to the factors contributing to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

About a decade later, he convinced his dad to do what many farmers in the 1970s considered unthinkable: sell the plow, a piece of equipment viewed as essential at the time.

The elder Smith didn’t need to look far to find a buyer. A neighbor was immediately interested, if not confused. As he showed up to buy the plow, he asked a simple question revealing the understanding of the day: “How are you going to farm without a plow?” he wondered.

Smith spent the next few decades showing how, and his list of conservation practices only grew.

Before his retirement in 2020, Smith planted 400 acres of cereal rye cover crops annually, installed a bioreactor, implemented no-till and most recently planted prairie strips. He notes of lot of incentives and cost sharing made some of those practices possible.

Variable rate manure and fertilizer application also enabled Smith and this generation of farmers to be precise in the nutrients they put on their fields.

Justin Hanson

Another leader in conservation practices is Justin Hanson, who farms with his cousin north of Roland in Story County. A creek runs through their farm, and in 2010, the state’s first saturated buffer was installed on the property. A second one was installed upstream in 2016.

But he was unaware how those practices have expanded since the first installation. Hundreds of saturated buffers and bioreactors are now in use across Iowa.

“I didn’t know there was that many, but it’s really cool,” he said.

Accessible conservation

The adoption of conservation practices is a snapshot of the NRS at work, which has scaled up significantly within the last few years with assistance from local, state and federal partnerships.

“We’ve got more projects planned over the next three years than we’ve built to date,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “That alone should demonstrate the kind of acceleration that we’re seeing.”

Each farm is different, and over the last decade farmers have learned what practices work for them to both protect the soil and water as well as maintain profitability.

“Obviously, it’s a business for us,” Hanson said of the need to consider both conservation practices and the financials of the farm. “But I am the third generation to be on this farm, and we view it as — once that soil is gone, it’s not coming back.

“So, whether my children choose to farm or not, conservation is a huge value to us, for our operation going forward and to the larger community.”

To mark 10 years of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we are telling stories about Iowa farmers, the practices they employ and the programs that support them in the effort to protect soil and improve water quality.