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Son follows in dad’s conservation steps

Like father, like son. In the Donahoo family, the conservation ethic of responsibility for taking care of soil and water resources is passed down from generation to generation.

Bob Donahoo has farmed for 55 years, first with his father and now with his son, Robert. Bob has been a conservationist his entire farming career, constructing terraces, grass waterways and grass buffer strips on the family farm near the town of Peterson in northwest Iowa. Bob and Robert have farmed no-till for the past eight years.

Serving as chairman of the Buena Vista County Soil and Water Conservation District, a post he has held the past seven years, Bob has been a district commissioner for 16 years. He was recently named Iowa’s Outstanding Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner for 2011.

The award was presented by Wallaces Farmer at the 65th annual meeting of the Conservation Districts of Iowa, held earlier this fall in Des Moines. The magazine has sponsored the award for most of those 65 years.

Conservation is heritage

When Bob became a soil conservation district commissioner, he didn’t do it to win awards. “I just did what my father did, which was practice good conservation farming,” says Bob. “I’ve had good teachers and people to work with, including fellow commissioners, our district conservationists and staff, and others along the way.”

This is a special award. There are five commissioners per county in Iowa, and each county is a soil and water conservation district. Iowa has a total of 100 districts and 500 district commissioners. “There are a lot of commissioners who deserve this recognition,” says Bob. “Commissioners are elected by the public and serve in unpaid positions. They are volunteers devoted to advancing the cause of soil and water conservation.”

The award has extra meaning for the Donahoo family. Bob’s dad was a farmer who was also recognized for soil and water conservation efforts. Bob’s father received the Goodyear Award many years ago. That award, no longer in existence, honored an outstanding conservation farmer from each state each year and was known as one of the top conservation farming awards in the nation.

Each state had a Goodyear Award winner, who received a trip to Arizona, where he or she met to discuss ways conservation programs and policies could be improved at the federal, state and local district levels. The winners also heard from national soil conservation leaders, and toured farms looking at various soil saving practices.

Respect for his roots

“I owe a lot to my dad,” says Bob. “Our home farm became an Iowa Century Farm in 2009, so it’s 102 years old now. My grandfather purchased the farm. He and his two brothers bought a section of ground together. It was a big purchase, between the three of them, back then. The two married boys each got 240 acres, and the bachelor got 160 acres.”

This fall, Bob was working in the farm shop thinking about what to say at the upcoming meeting where he was to receive the commissioner award. A country song came on the radio that said, “It isn’t what you take while you’re here. It’s what you leave behind when you are gone.” Bob says, “That’s the way I feel about soil conservation and life. My wife, Wanda, and I raised our children with that philosophy.”

The Donahoo family had dairy cattle and fed cattle and hogs for many years. “We had hay in the rotation of oats-hay-corn-beans-corn and then back to oats again,” explains Bob. Today the cattle are gone and Bob is retired, although he keeps busy helping Robert.

The farm still has livestock, as Robert raises pigs in modern facilities. He belongs to a farrowing co-op, grows pigs in nursery buildings, and then sells the pigs to another farmer who feeds them out to market weight. Cropland on the farm is in a corn-bean rotation.

Walk the talk

“My son and I now own most of the ground my grandpa and his brothers owned years ago,” says Bob. The family has installed a lot of permanent conservation practices on the land over the years, such as terraces, grass waterways and buffer strips. “As we’ve purchased ground, we’ve added conservation improvements,” he says. “There’s still some conservation work to do on our farm, and there’s a lot to do in the state.”

The Maple River starts on the Donahoo property as a creek. Along the creek the family has seeded a narrow pasture strip that’s not grazed and grass buffer strips for about a mile and a half.

“We protect that stretch on our land and the creek, and our neighbor below us does that, too,” says Bob. “We and our neighbor installed the buffer strips. You can see how buffer strips and grass seedings can make a difference as filters in helping keep our water clean. We give it a good, clear start on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Commissioners as leaders

The Buena Vista County Soil and Water Conservation District has one of the largest educational programs in Iowa. This is due largely to the encouragement and commitment from Bob Donahoo, say his fellow commissioners who serve with him. Whether it’s attending a county board of supervisor’s meeting in Storm Lake to request funding for SWCD projects, or making presentations at local schools, handing out scholarships or judging photos and conservation-related contests at the county fair, Bob is there helping.

“Bob is also a great role model for younger commissioners,” says Colleen Schwanz, secretary for the Buena Vista SWCD. “He has the ability to take charge of situations and see that results get done. Bob takes every opinion and opportunity into consideration. He is serious about his role as chairman of our district and is very involved. When asked to attend a meeting, field day or educational activity, rarely do you ever get a ‘no’ from Bob.”

Sometimes there are sensitive issues on the table that conservation district commissioners have to handle. Bob has a way of building bridges.

“In the 10 years I’ve known Bob, I’ve been impressed with his dedication to any endeavor he’s been involved with,” says Brian Waldstein, a BV soil and water commissioner. “From securing money for large water quality projects down to helping with school activities, Bob shows no preferences in the amount of energy he puts into making that project a success. Besides all the skills Bob brings to us, above all else he is a true conservationist. He has deep roots on the farm and preserving our natural resources for future generations is what he believes in most.”


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SAVING SOIL: Buena Vista County farmer Bob Donahoo uses grass waterways and other methods to keep soil in fields and out of creeks and rivers. “There’s still some conservation work to do on our farm, and there’s a lot to do in the state of Iowa,” he notes.

This article published in the October, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.