This past year I had the opportunity to participate in the North Central region National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) program hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension. Thirty-eight Extension professionals from eleven states joined me on the journey that began in Chicago during January. Additional stops on the trip were Costa Rica, Washington DC and the Twin Cities. The mission of NELD is to build Extension leaders at all levels by providing them the vision, courage and tools to lead in a changing world; so each session was jammed full of learning about the competencies needed to be an effective leader, regardless of where we were at in our own Extension organization.
One of the simple take-aways I had during this experience was that an effective team can be developed fairly quickly if the participants are eager to be involved, fully engaged and respect the opinions of others. Many of the methods used by NELD staff forced small groups to work collaboratively, on very short timelines, to develop, implement and evaluate a plan of some sort. Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of the team depended just as much on the followers as on the leader, and leadership was often fluid depending on the situation.
In Iowa, a core group of leaders in government and science developed the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, NRS, based on expectations from higher authorities in the EPA. Through the NRS, a broad vision regarding water quality was developed for Iowans. The state legislature then set aside funding for demonstration and implementation of practices at the watershed scale. Now is the time for planning, implementation and ongoing evaluation.
The historical structure of soil and water conservation efforts will not be sufficient to achieve the goal of 41% and 29% reductions of Nitrogen and Phosphorus needed from the agricultural nonpoint source community. Legitimate teams led by local watershed leaders will need to develop effective, inclusive relationships through collaboration, innovation and flexibility to get watershed-wide results. Ideally, local leadership will be as fluid around specific management strategies as the streams the watershed residents are trying to improve.
A great example of inclusive leadership in the world of soil and water conservation is Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). The NRS has thrust PFI and Sarah into the spotlight through the identification of cover crops as a management practice that has great nutrient reduction ability. PFI has a long history of championing cover crops and acceptance for the practice is now entering mainstream production agriculture in Iowa. Sarah supports and guides PFI farmers through the trial and error of trying this new-again practice; however, she readily puts experienced farmers at the front of a group, whether at a sit-down meeting or a field day, and lets them lead by telling their story and educating the next “generation” of cover crop adopters. PFI farmers have developed a collective wealth of knowledge about cover crops by continually collaborating with others, innovating on their own and evaluating success with others.