Sarah Carlson

Strategic Initiatives Director

Sarah Carlson joined Practical Farmers of Iowa staff in the fall of 2007. Sarah is the Midwest Cover Crop 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


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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading

This summer cover crop experts from Indiana wrote an extension publication reaction to farmers concerns about plugged tile lines being caused by cover crops. I asked the question, have you had cover crops plug your tile lines to our PFI cover crop email discussion list. Below are some of there reactions. In general farmers seemed to conclude that roots are roots and they can clog tiles. Some farmers concluded that a plugged tile from any type of root might mean a bigger issue with that tile. Continue reading

cover crop

Cover crop established after corn in Iowa. Photo credit IDALS.

One Stop Cover Crop Service available in Boone and Story County:

We take the hassle out of building your soil health

Prairie Rivers of Iowa, in partnership with the Boone and Story County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, is taking the hassle out of fall cover crop application. You tell us what you want for your fields, and we’ll book the service and buy the seed. You’ll receive only one bill in the end, and hopefully, some peace of mind. Continue reading

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Click here to read more about seeding recommendations from PFI’s multi-site cover crop variety trial.

Cover crop planting season is coming for the northern Cornbelt! Many farmers are gearing up to aerial seed cover crops but how can we make sure we have green fields in the fall during harvest?

2012 drought anderson

Aerial seeded cereal rye cover crop into standing corn, drought 2012. Photo courtesy Nathan Anderson Aurelia, IA.

cattle and grazing anderson

September 7th aerial seeded winter small grains + mustards and other brassicas and forage barley make a nice green carpet at harvest. Photo courtesy Nathan Anderson Aurelia, IA taken October 5.

Take some hints from cover cropper Nathan Anderson who farms near Cherokee, IA. In Nathan’s part of the state, sufficient rainfall is critical to aerial seeding cover crops. “What we don’t want is overseeding cover crops into a thick, dark corn canopy. We need more sunlight on the canopy floor followed by a good rain to achieve successful cover crop establishment. Don’t get started too soon.”
Farmers might be feeling a push from pilots who haven’t needed to spray too much for aphids this season. But even if a pilot is available if the corn isn’t we risk the chance of seeds germinating and not surviving.

Steps for aerial seeding cover crops:

1)Check when your corn is predicted to reach black layer. University of Missouri has a handy calculator to help you. Try to overseed within a couple days through Mid-September. For soybeans overseed when you see first yellow leaves.

2) Is your seed secured? Did you contact your pilot and your fields have been outlined? Use Practical Farmers cover crop business directory to find seed and seeding services.

3)Is rainfall predicted? Timely and sufficient rainfall is critical. Farmers observe that at least 1/2″ rainfall is needed followed by another storm to get the seed germinated and established,

4) An on time harvest is the last component for success. Getting the crop off helps the cover crop grow.

5)Have time to drill the crop following grain harvest? A drilled cover crop will almost always be more consistent than an aerial seeded cover crop but many times we are short on labor and time during harvest to be able to chase the combine with a drill full of cover crop seed. If the above steps are taken aerial seeding cover crops can result in successful establishment.

Other resources:

Check out Tim Smith’s video of aerial seeding cover crops on his farm into standing soybeans.

Check out Jacob Bolson’s aerial seeding blog last year too.

Webinar: Successfully Aerially Seeding Cover Crops.