Map of Roadman Farm. Prairie strips are highlighted.
THE ROADMAN HERITAGE
The 400-acre Roadman family farm in Grundy County, Iowa is currently owned by the fourth and fifth generation of Roadmans. Despite nearly 160 years of ownership, the Roadman family has not actively farmed the land since the 1920s. Larry Roadman, who lives in Portland, ME, and fifth-generation son Keene (Portland, OR) now continues the family’s tradition of absentee land stewardship. And like earlier Roadman generations, they bring a strong conservation ethic to the care and management of their land. Characterized by flat to gently rolling terrain, clay-loam soil and an average CSR of over 81, the land is well suited to commodity crop production. With guidance from their long-term farm manager at Hertz Farm Management, the Roadmans have chosen to rotate corn and beans on about half of the farm, while seed corn and beans are produced on another 120 acres. A crop-share arrangement with the Kyle Dudden family - who live and farm nearby – has been in place since the mid 1990s. Under this lease, the Roadmans receive 75% of all crop income and pay for 100% of inputs. While day-to-day decisions are made by Hertz and the Duddens, long-term, “big picture” decisions about the use and management of the land are made by Larry and his sons.
Larry grew up in upstate New York, spending summers on the Iowa farm with grandparents Earl and Irma. They cared deeply about conservation, and Larry absorbed this land ethic. Earl and Irma’s most notable contribution to the stewardship and protection of their land was the donation of 10 acres for a roadside park along then Highway 20 (the park is currently managed by Grundy County). By the early 1990s, with Hertz Farm Management now on board helping manage and modernize the farm, the Roadman family transitioned away from livestock production. Using the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), pastures were converted to tree plantings and a riparian buffer. The former expands habitat adjacent to the park, the latter provides additional habitat and protects North Fork of Black Hawk Creek. An annual CRP payment of $79.20/acre helps offset the loss of pasture rent. As Larry consolidated ownership of the farm, he and sons Keene and Christian looked for additional ways to elevate conservation while strengthening the farm operation. With Hertz at their side, the Roadmans began to establish relationships with the USDA, Iowa State University, and the Tallgrass Prairie Center (TPC) at the University of Northern Iowa to research conservation practices. In 2016, a saturated buffer was installed to divert excess nitrates in the tile drainage into lateral tiles under the riparian buffer where root systems absorb the nutrients. Data at the Roadman site show significant water quality improvements.
With the saturated buffer research underway, Christian’s curiosity was piqued by an article about prairie strips. By strategically placing narrow strips of prairie along contours in crop fields, runoff and erosion are reduced, nutrients retained and wildlife habitat created. But strips take crop ground out of production. So what about the economics? And how do the strips impact farming operations? These were among the questions the Roadmans brought to Morgan Troendle at Hertz. They also involved their operator, Kyle Dudden, in the discussions. To find the answers, Morgan reached out to the STRIPS team at Iowa State and the Tallgrass Prairie Center, who together with the Grundy County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office, established a research and demonstration site at the farm. The 11 acres chosen for the Roadman Family’s first strips targeted the most erosion-prone, least productive areas of the farm. The layout was designed to fit Dudden’s farm equipment. The strips were enrolled in CRP’s CP-42 and planted with a 60:40 forb-to-grass seed mix designed to provide long-term pollinator resources and good erosion control. An additional 15 acres of strips were installed in 2020 and 2021. Enrolled in CP-43, these plantings have been placed in some of the Roadmans’ most productive ground at the edge of the fields. The strips will serve to isolate seed corn and seed beans.
Prairie strip on Roadman Farm. Plants seen include Common milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), Prairie sage (Artemisia ludivicova), and Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).
The decision to implement any conservation practice involves consideration of farm financials. While Larry Roadman is passionate about conservation, he does emphasize that, “The farm must pay for itself.” The annual CRP payment of $297.82 per acre didn’t end up significantly affecting the ten-year average profit per tillable acre of the entire field. Even the best forty acres of farm ground can have lower-yield producing and sensitive areas.
Keene: “There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of strips, and we’re now starting to get scientific evidence. We like knowing our farm has been a part of that.”
Larry is enthusiastic about partnerships: “That’s been one of the best things. TPC, ISU, Hertz, county, state, federal. These partnerships – good partnerships – keep the work moving forward.”
Morgan likes the flexibility of prairie strips, which can be installed without substantially altering crop production: “The rules are favorable for implementation and how a farm actually works. The fact that strips can be driven on is a great example.”
Kyle has noticed additional wildlife: “The deer and pheasants have been good for neighboring hunters. Any impact to corn yield has to be outweighed by the long-term goal of conservation.”