Hospers native talks conservationist role

Justin Boersma breaks apart a handful of soil from a cover crop field of cereal rye to analyze its health. The 34-year-old Hospers native began working as Sioux County’s district conservationist in the fall and enjoys working in a part of the state he’s familiar with.

HOSPERS—After years spent helping preserve soil health in other parts of Iowa, Justin Boersma began doing so in his home county in the fall.

The 34-year-old Hospers native became district conservationist for the Sioux County Soil and Water District in early September.

“I’ve really enjoyed being home and working with the people that I know,” Boersma said. “It has been a coming home thing.”

As a district conservationist, Boersma works alongside other staff in the soil and water district office in Orange City to educate farmers in the county about conservation practices and help them implement such practices.

The office also connects farmers to programs that assist with implementation, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, and does community outreach activities.

Boersma recalled a former motto of the soil and water district: “Helping the people help the land.”

“That’s what we exist for. We don’t like to just sit behind the desk and do paperwork,” he said. “We like to get out and visit with people and see what their production systems are about and what things they would like to change. Anything that we can help them with.”

Boersma grew up on a farm outside Hospers and studied biology and ecology at Northwestern College in Orange City. He received his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and later his master’s degree in ecosystem management from the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 2010.

He knew he wanted to pursue a career related to agriculture and the environment and viewed a job working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service — an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture — to be a marriage between those fields.

His first experience with conservation service was a temporary role in Allamakee County. He later worked in soil conservation with the service in Anamosa, Atlantic and Audubon across a three-year span.

Boersma returned to N’West Iowa in 2013 when he became soil conservationist for Cherokee and O’Brien counties.

He later switched to district conservationist for those counties in 2016.

Boersma said the conservation district staff tend to be busiest during the spring and fall when farmers are likewise busiest. Those seasons are when the conservation district sets aside windows of time to assist with designing and constructing structures such as waterways, terraces, and water and sediment control basins.

“It’s hard to get out and do that when crops are growing in the middle of the summer,” he said.

Boersma also spoke about the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s increased emphasis on promoting soil health rather than just mitigating soil erosion.

He likened erosion as being a symptom of poor soil health, which he defined as the soil’s ability to function in the way it should biologically, chemically and physically.

When it comes to evaluating soil health, Boersma looks at its ability to resist outside forces like rain, a characteristic called aggregate stability.

“What we’d like to see is that it looks kind of like black cottage cheese, so it has pretty good stability. Those aggregates allow for pore space in the soil for air and water to infiltrate so it doesn’t crust up,” he said.

“If the soil quality is poor, when the rain comes then those will all break apart and they’ll seal, and then it doesn’t allow water into the soil and it just runs off.”

One farming practice Boersma mentioned that helps promote soil health is planting cover crops during winter, which helps curb wind erosion and gives microorganisms in the soil plant material to eat. Sugars produced from the roots and the excretions from the microorganisms help form healthy soil aggregates.

Boersma noted how N’West Iowa has some of the most productive soil in the world and is home to a large number of multigenerational farming operations.

“If we want to keep it that way, we have to treat our soil right.”