A southwest Iowa farmer is sowing seeds for the future — not just for crops, but for fertile soil and clean water.
Kendell Vorthmann of Treynor has been selected for the 2019 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award, according to a letter from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. He was chosen because of his “proactive management and leadership to advance environmental stewardship and protect natural resources,” the letter stated. He qualified for the state contest by winning the title for West Pottawattamie County.
Gov. Kim Reynolds — along with Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon — will present the award to Vorthmann during a ceremony on Aug. 14 at the Iowa State Fair. He will also receive a metal sign recognizing him for the award. Hagie Manufacturing Co. will sponsor a lunch in conjunction with the ceremony.
Vorthmann has taken several measures to prevent erosion, reduce nutrient runoff, and enhance habitat, according to his nomination by the Williams Family Children’s Trust, which owns some of the land Vorthmann and his wife, Stephani, farm. He has also helped neighbors install conservation practices, provides leadership for local, state and national boards and teaches 4-H classes.
They raise corn, soybeans and a small amount of alfalfa on about 400 acres of cropland that has been in the Williams family for more than 150 years, plus hundreds of acres they rent from other landowners and some that they are currently purchasing. They also have a cow-calf operation.
“My wife helps me a lot in the fall and spring when we’re busy,” Vorthmann said.
When things calm down on the farm, she works as a substitute teacher, he said.
Vorthmann has helped install more than 21,000 feet of narrow base terraces and two water and sediment control basins on the farm since 2017, the nomination stated.
“We try to no-till and keep terraces and headlands and waterways in good shape — support sustainable agriculture for generations to come,” he said. “A lot of years, it’s 100% no-till, if we don’t have some compaction or something.”
Two of the farms he tends are almost 100% terraced, he said.
Working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Vorthmann established and maintains a 36-acre wetland. This resulted in almost one acre of restored open water and associated wildlife habitat.
“It was a problem area in that it couldn’t be farmed” because it was often too wet, he said.
Vorthmann had the area seeded to native grasses and flowers in fall 2017 and had a contractor build a berm. He had to shred the vegetation once to knock down the weeds. The grass and flowers are now doing well and keeping down the weeds. The vegetation slows down runoff and helps prevent erosion.
“Any nutrients that may run off will stay in there instead of just running downstream,” he said. “There’s a few trees coming up. We’ll have to get those out of there.”
Every three to five years, a controlled burn will have to be done on the wetland, Vorthmann said.
“That’s part of keeping the trees out of it,” he said.
Vorthmann mowed eight acres of the site to prepare for 300 native milkweed plants donated by monarchwatch.org and planted by local volunteers. One pound of common milkweed seeds collected by hand was also planted.
He also talked to the NRCS to find out about new cover crop programs and shared the information with family, friends and acquaintances. He has planted more than 160 acres of cover crops in the past two years. He works with a soil analysis specialist to maintain soil health and fertility.
Vorthmann has met with the NRCS about starting an Environmental Quality Initiative Program for six acres of rough ground. If his application is accepted, he will disc the area, spray weeds and drill native plant seeds. He will then mow as needed for the next five years.
It only makes sense for farmers to use sustainable practices, Vorthmann said.
“We make our living from the land,” he said.
Vorthmann grew up on the Kirk and Lynell Vorthmann farm near Treynor – now farmed by his brother, Kelby — and earned a degree in ag business at Northwest Missouri State University. He got an off-farm job and farmed on the side for several years and started farming full time in 2011 after his father-in-law, Elton Young, retired. Kendell and Stephani live on his mother-in-law’s farm — the Shaw Farm — northeast of Treynor with their son, Kale, age 14, and daughter Ella, age 10.