A More Scenic Route
From the Loess Hills to the Great River Road, the Covered Bridges to the Glacial Trail, Iowa is home to over a dozen national and state scenic byways. The I-35 corridor isn’t one of them.
However, there are bits of beauty to be found along this well-traveled route that runs north to south through the heart of the state, including a stretch between Ames and Story City that has been stewarded by the same couple for nearly 50 years.
Thanks to a series of game-changing decisions they made early on and in recent years, this stretch of I-35 is on its way to becoming more scenic.
Bob Deppe’s agricultural roots run deep, but his path to farming has been anything but predictable. Deppe, who will be 92 in August, grew up on his family’s farm. When his family lost that land in the depression of the 1930s, he took all kinds of jobs to help make ends meet. He began working the land again as a farm hand in high school. Bob joined the U.S. Marine Corps on his 17th birthday, and after two years of active service followed by a season of farm work, he enrolled at Iowa Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), a move he credits to his high school history teacher at Woodrow High School, who had a profound impact on him. There, Bob met his wife, Carol. The couple taught public school in Monticello for three years before moving to Ames. There, Bob again found his way back to agriculture managing grain elevators, then others’ farmland, and later, his own.
Bob and Carol have bought, sold and managed a fair amount of farmland across several counties over the past 50 years. But the 127 acres near the Deppes’ home in Ames have maintained a special hold on them, Bob in particular.
The property, purchased in 1974, has been a labor of love for Deppe. He’s spent a nearly half his life on the land. Those early years were spent producing corn and soybeans, building terraces to stop erosion, and implementing other practices to conserve soil – a topic Deppe is passionate about.
“When I began buying farmland, a friend said, ‘You don’t have to buy the best, just what’s available,’” Deppe recalled. “When I bought farms with poor soil conditions, I implemented soil conservation on them. It was rare for folks to focus on at that time. I enjoyed it.” Bob is proud of what he’s been able to accomplish at the Ames property. It also holds many fond family memories. When the couple’s children were young, the land’s timber served as the site of family picnics, bonfires and camp outs. In recent years, Deppe has dedicated himself to planting the property, which is now enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program*, to grassland. “We had a great time out there,” Deppe said. “It hurts to give it up, but it’s time.”
A desire to maintain the land in its current state and preserve it for others led Deppe to pursue permanent protection of the property. Deppe was aware that Story County Conservation (SCC) had long been interested in the property due to its proximity to McFarland Park, one of the county’s most popular parks and the home of its nature center, so he reached out to them when he was ready to sell it.
"We’ve always looked across the road to those 120-something acres to the immediate south with a little bit of envy,” said SCC Director Mike Cox. “Between the proximity to the existing park, the improvements the Deppes have made and the opportunity for permanent habitat protection, it’s just a natural addition to McFarland Park.”
Discussions between Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) (whom SCC reached out to for assistance acquiring the property), SCC and Deppe were underway when COVID-19 hit, causing uncertainly about funding for the project. In light of this, Deppe, who was determined to see the property protected in his lifetime, decided to donate a significant portion of the land’s value to INHF, thus making the project feasible. Once fundraising is complete, the land will transfer to SCC.
“It was clear how much Bob, Carol and the Deppe family cared for this property, and maintaining the benefits of their stewardship for the future was paramount,” said INHF Land Projects Director Ross Baxter.
At 127 acres, the Deppe addition will more than double the size of McFarland Park. SCC’s long-term management plan for the property continues to take shape. Cox anticipates it will emphasize enhancing the property’s existing open space and wildlife habitat, and allow for light recreation opportunities such as hiking, bird-watching or wildlife observation.
“Every time we come to work we look at that property on the south side of the road and dream a little bit,” said Cox. “Bob and Carol were able to make that dream a reality.”
On the Horizon
Most of the people that pass Bob and Carol’s land along the I-35 corridor won’t know the story behind the bit of beauty they’re passing by. But those in the greater Ames community will have the opportunity to form their own affinity for and connection to this place, just as the Deppes did all those years ago.
"A couple months ago our kids came down from the Twin Cities and we had the last great family picnic,” said Deppe. “They still want to be able to go out there and do that, and they still will.”
*The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service. In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Learn more at www. fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/