Jim McHugh | Squaw Creek Watershed

by Hanna Bates, Watershed Coordinator, Prairie Rivers of Iowa

According to farmer Jim McHugh, you can teach an old dog new tricks when it comes to trying out new conservation practices. If anyone says otherwise, that’s “just malarkey.” 

McHugh, a Squaw Creek Watershed farmer, has been constantly seeking out new practices to keep his farmland in good condition in order to pass it on to future generations of Iowans. These include both in-field practices, such as cover crops and conservation tillage, and larger structures consisting of two wetland sites. Although he’s close to retirement from managing his farm, he’s constantly experimenting with new approaches and practices to find what works best for him and his farm operation goals. 

“I feel like I got a very open mind,” said McHugh. “If I see something somebody else has done that is good, I sure don’t have any trouble trying it.” 

Adding a diverse range of practices customized to the farmland enables farmers like McHugh to find options that address yearly farm goals while still tackling wider water quality goals established by the State of Iowa. McHugh emphasizes the importance of learning from others and seeing the practices at work when it comes to trying something new. Seeing the practices out in the field and getting to know how local farmers successfully carry them out demonstrates how conservation can fit into the day-to-day management of the farm.

“Read – read – read,” says McHugh. “Get the stories, talk to neighbors that try it. It definitely helps. You’ve got to find the program that you’re comfortable with and can work with. If you’re not happy with it, it’s probably not going to work.”  

McHugh is leading by example in the Squaw Creek Watershed. Last fall, he co-hosted a field day with his neighbors, Jim and Anita Johnson, which featured a diverse range of conservation practices. Even though they are neighbors in the watershed, each uses different conservation practices. Farmers, community members, and Iowans from as far as 30 miles away traveled to see how they balance economic goals with water quality improvements. The conservation practices McHugh uses on his farm not only address the water quality in the watershed, but also improve the soil health of his farm ground to meet production goals for his corn and soybeans. According to him, a focus on conservation makes agriculture more resilient and has gained traction in recent years. 

“It seems like it’s becoming more of the conversation all the time, and it’s a very important thing to me now as a matter of fact,” said McHugh. “Twenty-five years ago we’d never give it a thought. Now-a-days it’s on the top of the list to get your soil as healthy as you can.”

McHugh is the second generation on his family farm, which has been in operation for about 75 years. For him, farming is more than an occupation, it’s a lifestyle. From his perspective, it’s not always easy, but it’s the successes of building quality soils and having a good growing season that make it worthwhile. His primary motivation for incorporating conservation practices is to build a resilient farm operation so that he may pass it on to future generations in his family.

He notes that he is proud to be a part of the farm legacy that will lead to his family farm achieving Century Farm status in Iowa with his son continuing on in the operation in the next several decades. For him, maintaining the longevity of the farm requires the use of tried-and-true conservation practices as well as experimenting with new and innovative ideas. Doing so requires patience, experimentation, and a willingness to show others that he is trying something different.  

“I’m still learning – ask me about my rye fields,” said McHugh. “I told a couple of neighbors I’m the guinea pig, so you guys all keep watching.”

Facts about Jim McHugh’s Farm
What is the total size of your farm operation?
500 acres with a 30-head cattle operation

How long has your farm been in operation?
75 years across three generations of the McHugh Family

What are your farm’s crops or products?. 
Corn, Soybeans, Oats, Alfalfa, Cereal Rye Cover Crop Seed, and Cattle

What conservation practices do you use on your farm?
• Conservation Tillage (both no-till and minimum-till)
• Soil Testing/Sampling
• Sidedress spring/summer applied N fertilizer
• Timing of fertilizer application
• P application based on soil test optimum levels
• Extended crop rotation with alfalfa
• Cover crops (cereal rye)
• Contour and riparian buffer strips
• Wetland sites

How long have you been managing your farm with these practices?
Over 40 years