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How An Iowa County Installed Hundreds of Edge-of-Field Practices in Just Three Years

Let’s face it, paperwork is a reality for farmers seeking public funding to install a conservation practice on their operation. But the hassle of it can often be a barrier, particularly when it comes to practices that benefit the greater good but have less direct incentive otherwise for the farmer, such as edge-of-field practices like saturated buffers and bioreactors.

A team in Polk County, Iowa found an innovative way to ease this pain point through a model with the catchy name of Batch and Build. Their “crazy idea” doesn’t necessarily skip the paperwork, but it does simplify the process and reduce the time and financial costs to landowners.

In a nutshell, Batch and Build entails a methodical outreach strategy to recruit a group of landowners within a watershed to install edge-of-field practices and funneling local, state, and federal dollars for installation to a central fiscal agent – in their case, Polk County – who then bids out the projects in batches to contractors to install them at no cost to the landowner. 

Before Batch and Build, Polk County had been able to install only six saturated buffers and bioreactors in a five-year period. Facing a self-imposed goal of installing 100 edge-of-field practices in a single HUC-10 watershed, they knew they had to do something different.

“We wanted to make this as giant of an easy button as possible, at least for the landowners,” said John Swanson, Water Resources Supervisor at Polk County Public Works.

Easy button indeed. Their original goal for the first year of Batch and Build was 25 practice installations; they ended up with 52. In year two, they installed 85.

“And now I think it’s safe to say there are hundreds of sites across the state,” said Swanson.

The Polk County team is now developing a Batch and Build playbook, in collaboration with the Soil and Water Conservation Society, to help others replicate the model in their watersheds. In the meantime, here are the key components.

Be Methodical About Landowner Outreach

The Polk County team starts by developing a “hit list” of farm fields in priority watersheds they want to target for practice installation. They use a mapping tool called the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) that enables users to identify and prioritize fields where an edge-of-field practice would provide water quality benefits.

“[ACPF] is a great tool for focusing your efforts,” said Swanson, acknowledging how daunting it can be otherwise to know which of the many farm fields in a typical Midwestern watershed to target. (Check out this case study to learn more about how they used ACPF.)

Then they assign a project manager – typically a watershed coordinator – to each of those fields and send letters to the landowners that say they would like talk with them about installing a saturated buffer in that field and the project manager will call them within the next seven days to follow up. The letter includes a map of the field in question to give the landowner a visual reference, but it omits the exact place where an edge-of-field practice might go; they want to target the landowner without making them feel targeted.

And then, they follow through on that follow up.

“That first phone call is very exploratory. Like, ‘we’ve identified your field, we want to see if this really works, and there’s be lots of opportunities to talk more details’,” said Swanson.

That phone call is followed by a field survey to determine if a saturated buffer – or bioreactor – could work on that field.

“By the time you install [the practice], you’re on a first name basis with the landowner,” said Swanson. “There’s a trusting relationship that can be built.”

Establish A Fiscal Agent

In the traditional model for how a landowner acquires federal or state funds to install an edge-of-field practice, the landowner signs up for a cost-share program, hires the contractor themselves, pays for the practice themselves, and then gets reimbursed after installation.

“We heard from a lot of landowners that, even if they are interested in funding, they were having trouble finding a contractor to build one or two of these things,” said Swanson.

With Batch and Build, all of those responsibilities – and the cost-share money – are handed over, under an agreement, to a fiscal agent. That fiscal agent is typically a local government entity, such as a county or state agency, that is an old hand at bidding out projects to contractors.

The fiscal agent works with the landowner to put the field in a temporary construction easement that grants right of access for the practice installation. Upon completion, the engineer certifies everything was done properly, the landowner does an inspection to confirm, and the easement ends.

“It’s truly a privately owned practice after that point,” said Swanson.

Because the landowners aren’t paying a cent for the practice installation, they do sign a ten-year maintenance agreement up front so it’s clear the practice is privately owned post construction and ensuring it will function for its minimum lifespan. Although, the hope is the saturated buffers will stay in the ground, providing water quality benefits for decades.

Another advantage of using a fiscal agent, rather than the landowner fronting the cost, is that it encourages full adoption of the practice. Otherwise, it can be financially difficult for a landowner if they have multiple sites designated for practice installation.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

The fiscal agent is just one member of a greater Batch and Build team, which also includes the project manager, the contractor, and the site designer. Forming this team is essential to success.

Working together to batch projects also creates greater incentive – and more pressure, in a good way – for all involved. Contractors are incentivized by bigger bids, watershed coordinators by projects with a bigger bang, and designers by more designs to get done more quickly.

Good project management is also key for the team to stay on track. Swanson says they keep things moving by setting deadlines constantly, which is especially important for establishing expectations and accountability with the landowner.

“It’s like a slow-moving train and that train is not going to stop; you’re always working toward that next deadline,” said Swanson.

Ultimately, Batch and Build is not a way around the paperwork. But because of its success, the Polk County team is now trying the approach with other practices, such as wetlands and cover crops.

“I think there’s merit to continue traditional programs, but if I were to come into a watershed as a watershed coordinator, almost regardless of the practice, this is how I would first approach it personally,” said Swanson.

Header image: A saturated buffer; courtesy John Swanson, Polk County

About the Author

Jenny Seifert is a Watershed Outreach Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, working under the North Central Region Water Network branded program. Her work focuses primarily on supporting and expanding the success of conservation professionals and farmers in their work to improve and protect soil and water resources. The geographic range of her work spans the Mississippi River and Great Lakes Basins. Her educational and professional background is in environmental communication and outreach, including a joint Master's degree in Life Sciences Communication and Environment & Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With a Bachelor's degree in German Language and Literature from the University of Virginia, she is driven by the power of language and stories to transform people.