Rewilding Iowa: Building Natural Landscapes by Restoring Habitat Connections

The work of rewilding Iowa (the most altered landscape in the nation) can only be done by engaging farmers. Iowa’s medium and steep sloped areas are prime spaces for adoption of perennial cover as habitat or managed pasture and crops. Through farmer-led education field days and conference sessions focused on habitat restoration, PFI can continue to help lead the adoption and integration of conservation on working lands; integrating food, nature, and contributing to vibrant farms and communities.

One of PFI’s values is welcoming everyone, as we know that a diversity of farming enterprises and production styles shapes a more resilient landscape. As a result, our membership, who will be engaged first-hand in this project, is widespread. PFI’s membership has been consistently growing as more people realize the value of farmer-to-farmer education and the need for a community of like-minded farmers and landowners who hold stewardship and curiosity as core values. Currently, PFI has more than 8,000 individual members, and we know our reach goes far beyond these members.

We know from research that social barriers are one of the most overlooked challenges to conservation adoption. We also know that the social barriers can be just as important as technical and financial barriers. However, addressing these social barriers is not particularly difficult and can have a large impact for a relatively small cost. The recipe is straightforward: connect farmers and landowners with likeminded peers so that they have a community of support available when taking innovative action on their farmland that departs from the norms of row crop agriculture.

Responses to the 3 questions

What do you/we mean by wild?

Iowa is the most altered landscape in the country. Whether there are people living or farming on any given spot or not, the human impact is present. Before European settlement the landscape of Iowa was impacted by humans; resources harvested, manipulated, farmed and burned for thousands of years. The prairies and savannas that covered Iowa were there in part because they were managed through grazing by bison and fires set by the native peoples to move the herds.

The last time the land where present day Iowa is was not impacted by humans it was under miles of ice.

So, if “wild” cannot realistically mean to be without human management, then what can it look like? In a PFI article about oak savanna restoration, Omar de Kok-Mercado said “Nature is a decision now. I don’t think of it as restoration back to a specific point in time, I think of it as reconstructing to what our objectives for the space are.” At PFI many of our members manage space for water quality, or habitat restoration, often alongside or directly with profit enterprises. Managed grazing can be critical to native grasslands, silvopasture and orchards can provide habitat for birds and insects amid the trees. Oxbows and edge of field practices create spaces for nature to exist. Even crop-ground planted in perennials like Kernza deeply benefit subterranean habitat, soil-health, and water quality.

Wildness must be found amongst the working lands. Whether a bobwhite sings in land set aside for CRP, or in a paddock waiting to be rotationally grazed, the song sounds the same. Wildness cannot be removed from the context of place. Wild, at least in Iowa, is a management ethos.

What lifestyle changes are needed for us to live within the bounds of sustainability?

As an organization focused on agricultural work, Practical farmers can’t speak to what society as a whole should do to live sustainably. Within the context of agriculture, we avoid being prescriptive in how farmers should run their farms. Our vision is for an Iowa with healthy soil, healthy food, clean air, clean water, resilient farms and vibrant communities. To this end we know that our members’ research, knowledge and experiences will direct us and the agricultural landscape towards those goals.

How can we create a wilder, more beautiful, more biologically diverse, and a more enduring Mississippi River Watershed?

Paul Johnson wrote that “With a broader understanding of land and our place within the landscape, our Nation’s farms, ranches, and private forest land can and do serve the multiple functions that we and all other life depend upon.” The multiple functions of working lands are critical to creating a wilder, more beautiful, more biologically diverse, and a more enduring Mississippi River Watershed.

The health of an ecosystem is measured in part by the diversity of species present. Similarly, the health of a watershed will be reflective of the diversity and resilience of farms and communities on the landscape that can care for and be invested in the land.

Timeframe: 2/1/2024 – 2/1/2025
Total $: $25,000

1. Robust, immersive learning as a path for increasing habitat conservation and restoration in Iowa.

a. Strategy: Farmer-led education featuring table food production systems increases the validity of this business option for Iowa farmers.

i. Field Days

  • Host 3 on-farm field days
  • Led by farmers to share knowledge and experience
  • Engage with audience to promote actionable ideas and methods
  • Typically, have around 40 attendees/ each

ii. Annual Conference Sessions

  • Host 2 Annual Conference sessions
  • Led by farmers to share knowledge and experience
  • Engaging with audience to promote actionable ideas and methods
  • Typically, have around 60 attendees/ each


I. Personnel

I. Personnel (Employee) subtotal $9,498.00
I. Personnel (Benefits) subtotal $2,188.00
Personnel subtotal & FTE/Grant $11,686.00

II. Direct Expenses

5240 Travel $2,029.00
5140 Farmer Compensation $2,500.00
5170 Meetings Expense $2,600.00
5200 Supplies $300.00
5250 Publicity and Advertising $1,500.00
5180 Printing and Copying $1,490.00
5190 Postage and Delivery $312.00
5212 Supplies: Software $170.00
5130 Contract Services $140.00
Direct Expenses Subtotal $11,041.00

III. Overhead 10% $2,273.00

TOTAL REQUEST $25,000.00