Dirty Hands and Wet Feet

Tommy Hexter ’21 puts knowledge into action as a member of the Poweshiek County Soil and Water Commission

July 30, 2021

Growing up, Tommy Hexter often spent mornings before school collecting eggs from the family chickens. Other times he could be found helping his parents tend to the two-acre farm they kept at their Virginia home.

Tommy Hexter at the 2021 Baccalaureate ceremony
Tommy Hexter ’21 receiving the Lori Ann Schwab ’95 Prize for Community Service at the 2021 baccalaureate ceremony.

With this upbringing, Hexter learned the importance of working with nature and protecting natural resources. As a student at Grinnell, he built upon this knowledge and took advantage of opportunities to share his know-how with others on campus and throughout the community and continues to do so after graduating this past spring.

In 2018, Hexter co-founded Farm House, a residential housing community that allows like-minded students to live together and address the issues associated with sustainability and land stewardship. And in November 2020, Hexter took his interests a step further and was elected to the Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Bridging Gaps

Hexter and four other elected commissioners are responsible for the conservation of soil and water on 350,000 acres of land that encompass Poweshiek County. Each of Iowa’s 99 counties has a soil and water conservation district, which combined comprise the conservation districts of Iowa. These districts work closely with the Iowa Department of Agricultural Land Stewardship and at the federal level with the National Resource Conservation Service agency in the US Department of Agriculture.

The Commission’s mission is to educate and promote the conservation of land, to serve as the liaison with farmers in Poweshiek County, and to promote conservation initiatives.

“We’re trying to make sure that we can conserve this land for the future and that is a big task,” says Hexter.

One of the biggest challenges facing Iowa today, says Hexter, is that with only 4% of the population controlling 89% of the land, there are too few people taking care of too much land. Addressing that means bringing more people together to think creatively about the issues and learn from each other how best to tackle them.

Tommy Hexter collecting a water sample in Little Bear Creek
Tommy Hexter ’21 collects a water sample for testing in Little Bear Creek.

“Throughout my time at Grinnell, and through creating the community at Farm House, I’ve gradually become more and more involved in these issues,” says Hexter. “I started to find this network of people, of farmers, who had a whole different perspective with lived experience and practical knowledge that is not necessarily common knowledge to people like me.”

Bridging that gap between those with theoretical knowledge and those with real-life experiences, and bringing the two sides together, has become a primary objective of Hexter’s.

“Some of the brightest minds in the world today are in Iowa thinking about these issues of farming and are networking together,” he says. “There’s such a wealth of information out there that it really fed my thirst for knowledge. We need to start trying to figure out how to take better care of this land because I know that no one’s intentionally destroying the land, and networking and coming together to share knowledge and experience can help us better understand and deal with the complex situations we face.”

While fostering relationships and building networks are rewarding for Hexter, he also enjoys the hands-on nature of his elected position. As the young guy on the commission, Hexter was enlisted to be the one who goes out to conduct water testing with the watershed coordinator.

“Every month since it’s been warm enough, we’ve been going out and getting down in the creeks and streams and taking water samples, testing for things like nitrate levels and phosphate levels and ammonia and chloride,” he explains. “Doing this testing allows us to see the effects of the methods we’re using to farm in real time; It makes the work real and helps ground me in the county here. And to be actually able to get my hands dirty and my feet wet, you know, that is really rewarding.”

The Greater Good

Grinnell College holds close to the idea that contributing to the greater good is an essential component of its mission. Using the knowledge and experience gained in the classroom and through research and inquiry to have a positive impact on the world is the end goal of the collective efforts of the College.

Hexter knows this well and credits an experience he had as a first-year student with helping solidify this knowledge and put it into action.

“One of the most influential experiences I’ve had was during my first year — the first time I rode my bike up into Hazelwood cemetery on a rainy day and saw the grave of Josiah Grinnell. He was an amazing man — a congressman, abolitionist, a ‘conductor’ on the underground railroad, and he founded the Iowa Horticultural Association — we have him to thank for these trees here today.

“I really have enjoyed embracing him as a role model and when I first visited that cemetery. I wondered what he would think if he saw the town today. He can’t walk around anymore and run the show like he did back then, so we need to do it together. We need to pick that up and take care of this place and make that a priority. And you know, that’s good. It’s a good spot to be in."

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