Sarah Carlson

Strategic Initiatives Director

Sarah Carlson joined Practical Farmers of Iowa staff in the fall of 2007. Sarah is the Strategic Initiatives Director. She helps transfer agronomic research about cover crops and small grains through supply chain projects, articles, blogs and presentation materials while working to improve the support for cover crop and small grains research. She also serves as an agronomist on the staff transferring ideas for solutions to integrated crop and livestock concerns from farmers’ stories, results from on-farm research projects and her own knowledge as a trained agronomist.

Sarah co-majored in Biology and Geography at Augustana College in the Quad Cities graduating in 2001 with a BA degree. Following graduation Sarah joined the Peace Corps as an Ag-business and Ag Extension volunteer. She lived in the southern highlands of Ecuador in South America for 2 1/2 years. Sarah returned to the Midwest in 2004 and began her Masters Program co-majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Crop Production/Physiology in Iowa State’s Agronomy Department. She graduated in the spring of 2008 with an MS degree.

Sarah and her husband Oscar have four children between them, Rebeca, Oscar, Sadie and Tenoch. They enjoy cooking, traveling and exploring the Iowa countryside.

Blog posts

 There is still time to get paid $10/A to add cover crops to your fields. If you sell corn to the Cargill plant in Eddyville, IA or soybeans to the ADM supply chain in Des Moines, IA you are eligible. Sell to both locations? Get double the acres. To get started sign up today at https://pficovercrops.youcanbook.me/ or call Shannon at the PFI office for more information 515-232-5661 or email shannon_k@practicalfarmers.org.


Willie Hughes (right) and father Randy (microphone) share their pragmatic approach to small grains on their farm in southern Wisconsin.

Willie Hughes and family welcomed a diverse group of field day attendees on July 12th to his family’s farm operation of 4700 acres outside of Janesville, WI with these words, “Today we will not see beautiful stands of conventional and organic corn and soybeans but visit the front lines of sustainability: small grains, cover crops and diverse rotations.” Hughes continued to explain that since 1991, when the farm began transitioning fields to organic production, there have been many successes and many failures. “We want to share the good and the bad and the sweet spot of what we currently see working in different parts of our operation.”

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In Iowa and across the Cornbelt a late fall cover crop planting date and cold spring has left farmers with reservations about terminating cover crops now when it’s so small, especially if weed control is a primary goal. But, in order to comply with standard crop insurance rules, farmers would have to go ahead and terminate anyway.

Luckily, we’ve already done the research to show that in this case, farmers and insurance providers can have their cake and eat it too. PFI member and farmer Tim Sieren near Keota, IA evaluated soybean yields on his farm when rye was killed May 5, 2017, either 11 days after planting soybeans or 2 days before soybean planting in this trial. Soybeans yielded the same across all treatments at 66 and 67 bu/A, respectively.

 This evidence plus the statewide lag in cover crop growth convinced NRCS to create a process to allow farmers to delay terminate cover crops and still fully ensure their cash crops. This process is called a “deviation” from the Risk Management Agencies (RMA) Cover Crop Termination Guidelines.

 If you want the option to leave your cover crops in the field longer this year, follow these three steps to secure your deviation today.

Step 1) Check your RMA termination deadline.

Iowa falls into termination zones 3 and 4. For the western half of the state (the pink region) farmers must terminate an over-wintering cover crop at or before planting, and have 7 extra days to terminate if no-till. For the central and eastern half of the state (the blue region), farmers must terminate an over-wintering cover crop at or within 5 days after planting a cash crop, and have 7 extra days to terminate if no-till. As long as cover crops have been terminated within these guidelines and it was terminated before crop emergence a farmer can fully insure their corn or soybean crop.

Now that you know what the rule is for your area, does it fit with your management goals on the cover crop? If it doesn’t and you want to request an extension, continue on to step 2.

Step 2) Let your crop insurance agent know you’ll be requesting a deviation. Within the RMA guidelines it states:

Insurance shall attach to a crop following a cover crop when the cover crop meets the definition provided in the Basic Provisions, was planted within the last 12 months, and is managed and terminated according to NRCS guidelines. If growing conditions warrant a deviation from the guidelines, producers should contact either Extension or the local NRCS for management guidance. For information on cover crop management and termination guidelines, refer to the Cover Crop Termination Guidelines published at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/landuse/crops/.

Step 3) Request a termination deviation from your county NRCS office. They will work with the state office to provide a letter stating that cover crops can be terminated outside of the current guidelines but prior to reaching 24″ in height if followed by a soybean cash crop, allowing flexibility to use cover crops for weed control and providing continued soil health benefits. Pre-emerge herbicide effects and label compliance also needs to be considered when delaying termination.

For more information on how to agronomically manage cover crops to avoid a negative effect on corn or soybean yield contact me at Practical Farmers 515-232-5661.


Guest blog post by USTN Coordinator/PFI Contractor Chris Wilbeck

The US Testing Network for non-GMO and organic corn yield trials has evolved since its founding in 2009.  Public data from the 2017 trials is now available online.

For more information about USTN and its members, go here.   For USTN Public Data, go here.

What is USTN?

It all started in 2009, when a few cutting-edge seed corn retailers and breeders decided it was time to build something they couldn’t find – a yield trial testing network for their non-GMO and organic hybrids.  PFI’s Sarah Carlson was there and helped to create the US Testing Network (USTN), a member-run organization for seed retailers and public and private breeders developing hybrids for the non-GMO and organic seed corn markets.   Now encompassing a regional network of more than 40 locations in 11 states, USTN has become the go-to option for small plot yield trials for those previously underserved markets.  Since USTN’s inception, PFI has acted as the test coordinator for the trials, with USDA-ARS (Ames IA) performing the data analysis. Continue reading


The Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship announced today that they will be working with the Risk Management Agency and crop insurance companies in Iowa to reward farmers who are using cover crops on their farm. Farmers who have planted cover crops this fall or plan to still put out cereal rye on cornstalks going to a 2018 soybean crop can get a little extra help with those costs. Acres that are not currently in a cost share program from a local watershed program, IDALS county cost share or the NRCS are eligible and can be certified until 5pm January 15, 2018. Double check with your crop insurance agent that they are participating in the program and make sure to purchase the correct crop insurance product next spring to receive the discount. Acres certified through the IDALS program will receive a $5/acre discount on a the September crop insurance invoice. To read more go to the IDALS Cover Crop-Crop Insurance Program page and to sign up click here. Program rules are listed here and Frequently Asked Questions are addressed here. Questions about what cover crops to seed still late this fall? Get connected with Practical Farmers of Iowa by calling the office at 515-232-5661 or emailing [email protected]

The difference between a restored soil and unrestored.

The difference between a restored soil and not restored only after a couple years.

Guest Blog Post by Jonathon Gano, Director of Public Works for the City of Des Moines

Soil health is a key part of managing agricultural land with well understood benefits and a whole host of options.  Less well understood is the soil outside the front door of our homes.

Our lawns are often an afterthought when thinking about soil health but they are one of the first places a homeowner can work to improve water quality in our lakes and streams.  Healthy soil under our lawns can absorb and retain three times as much water as unhealthy soil.  Every drop of water lands somewhere – keeping that water where it lands just a little longer will slow it down, cool it off, and clean it up.

The first and best chance for a healthy lawn is careful management of Iowa’s abundant topsoil when the house is built.  Avoiding overcompaction and paying attention to the final grading to ensure adequate depth of the topsoil layer are key parts of a healthy lawn.

If, like most of us, you already live in a house with a yard, don’t give up hope – there is still a way to improve the soil without having to start all over again.

The most effective way to improve the health of the soil in our existing yards is the combination of deep core aeration with a top dressing of compost immediately following.  The compost fills in the holes left by the aerator, letting rich organic matter get deep into the soil profile.  That organic matter not only soaks up a lot of water, it helps feed the beneficial soil organisms in the ground and leaves the yard greener and more drought resistant.

Soil quality restoration can be done for around 25 cents per square foot, less if you do some of the work yourself.  The deep core aeration requires the rental of a machine not commonly available at most rental centers.

Most yards only have around two to three inches of healthy topsoil.

Most yards only have around two to three inches of healthy topsoil.

Those typically max out at 3” cores – the best results are achieved at 4” or more.

Rainscaping Iowa has excellent resources and information about how to rebuild the organic matter content of the soil under our lawns.


50 farmers and others met up at the Holland City Park on the evening of June 8th to learn more about how Fred Abels has made two farming practices, strip tillage and cover crops, work for him. After enjoying a supper of cheese hamburgers, baked beans, fruit and cookies prepared by PT Grillers the crowd heard from the Iowa Learning Farms crew. A graphic representation of a typical farming scenario from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was shown. The NRS was created to provide farmers with a better understanding of practices needed to achieve the voluntary goals of reducing nutrient pollution by 45%. To achieve those goals one scenario suggests 12.5 million acres of cover crops are needed. Currently Iowa farmers are planting nearly 650,000 or around 5%. For other practices that farmers have heard about for decades like no-till/strip till, adoption is greater and closer to 40% adoption.

Fred Abels 2016 Grundy Co Fair
For Fred Abels cover crops and strip-tillage
are two practices he uses to minimize erosion, boost soil health and improve water quality. Fred shared his story about changing to a strip tillage setup from nearly 10 years ago and then talked about his start with cover crops in 2012.Fred built his own strip tillage equipment and also changed up his planter to be able to apply nitrogen at planting. Fred emphasized the importance of adding nitrogen at planting when cover crops are a part of your program. “You don’t need to buy a new or used strip-tillage implement to get into strip-till,” he said. “I’ve been using a homemade strip-tillage implement for over 10 years and got it where it does a nice job of preparing a clean, black strip of soil to plant into – and I planted into 200 bushel-an-acre corn residue with a winter rye cover crop.” Continue reading


Cover crops are an important practice to sustain the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends, the soil. Cover crops help provide year-round cover to soils which not only reduces erosion from wind and water but also captures fugitive nutrients like nitrate-nitrogen and dissolved phosphorus before they pollute nearby water bodies. In the Cornbelt, farmers have increased their acres of cover crops over the past four years as reported in an annual survey conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (2016). But even with this increase in popularity little germplasm improvement for cover cropping characteristics has happened. The species farmers are planting today for cover crops have had little germplasm selection for specific cover cropping characteristics, presenting significant opportunities to improve the environmental and agronomic benefits of cover crops.

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To better understand what cover cropping characteristics farmers want and need to improve their success with cover crops a review of the four annual SARE/CTIC surveys was conducted; specifically on the sections about Challenges and Benefits. In the first three years of the survey farmers were provided with a set of 11-15 Challenges to rank (CTIC and SARE 2013, 2014, 2015). In Year Four (2016), survey respondents were provided 11 Challenges to rank as a Major, a Minor or No Challenge on their farm.  Cover crop farmers ranked 10-17 different Desired Cover Crop Benefits as shown in column two.

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photo from Wendy cropped

Read results from PFI’s newly released “Oat Variety Trial 2016.” PFI staff working with Albert Lea Seedhouse, General Mills, Grain Millers, the Sustainable Food Lab and Iowa State University chose 16 oat varieties to test at the Wendy Johnson farm near Charles City, IA and Iowa State University’s Northeast Research Farm (Nashua) and Northern Research Farm (Kanawha).

In a Nutshell:

  • Small grain crops, like oats, are seeing renewed interest by farmers in Iowa. Iowa was once a nationwide leader in oats production, but many farm families have not grown them for a generation or two.
  • 16 oat varieties were screened at two Iowa State University research farms and one commercial farm.

Key Findings:

  • Saber, Reins, Betagene, Deon, Badger and Excel varieties were among the top performers in terms of yield at locations.
  • Reins and Shelby 427 at Kanawha met the test weight requirement (38lb/bu) identified by food processors.

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PFI board President Mark Peterson, PFI Executive Director Sally Worley, CDI Executive Director Clare Lindahl and CDI Project Manager Courtney Slagle take a selfie in the PFI Booth.


PFI members Dan Hayes (front) and Mark Peterson (back) talk to farmers about cover crops at the PFI booth at FPS.

The Farm Progress Show was in Boone, IA last week. Practical Farmers of Iowa has been hosting a booth at the show the past three times its been held in Boone, IA. The booth was filled with cover crop plants, PFI materials and most importantly PFI farmer experts who shared advice about cover crops with other farmers. This year’s show was different. It felt different when staff and PFI farmers asked others if they were using cover crops. Or if they had considered using them. More farmers came into the booth this year than in previous years. More farmers asked our PFI crew in-depth practical questions about how to make cover crops work on their farms. There was genuine interest about this important conservation practice.

Have we turned the corner on acceptance of cover crops?
It really seemed so. In addition to all the great conversations at the PFI booth in the Varied Industries Tent. We also partnered with Conservation Districts of Iowa to show off cover crops in the field and helped seed a cover crop plot near Conservation Central. Other PFI farmers also staffed a tent nearby that plot where they could show off cover crops. If you missed the show see below the farmers who staffed the booth and some of the topics they talked about.

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