Tree elves take Tama County by storm

Stewardship Week, Arbor Day celebrated by Tama SWCD

Sixth grade students at Gladbrook-Reinbeck Elementary pose for a photo with their white pine seedlings on Thursday, April 28, in Reinbeck one day before the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day. –Photo by Melody Bro

In a fitting end to the nationwide celebration that was Stewardship Week 2022 and in honor of the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, a pair of ‘tree elves’ from the Tama County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) office – conservation assistant Melody Bro and commissioner/conservationist Jan Wobeter – spent the morning of Thursday, April 28, traversing the county’s rural roads and beyond visiting six different schools as part of their annual seedling distribution.

More than 280 area students benefited this year from Bro and Wobeter’s efforts including sixth graders at North Tama Elementary School, Union Middle School, Gladbrook-Reinbeck Elementary, GMG Elementary, South Tama Middle School, and Meskwaki Middle School.

Bro and Wobeter have been visiting local school districts together for the annual tree distribution since at least 2004, sharing the message of stewardship and caring for the land along the way.

When asked why trees? The women didn’t miss a beat.

“[Tama County’s] Soil and Water district was formed in 1942,” Bro said from the backseat of Wobeter’s minivan as they drove through the rain to Union Middle School after departing North Tama. “In the [19]70s was probably when the first ecological-awakening really happened.”

‘Tree elves’ Jan Wobeter (left) and Melody Bro (right) wait in the wings to begin passing out white pine seedlings to North Tama Elementary School sixth graders on April 28, in Traer as part of the Tama County Soil & Water Conservation District’s annual tree distribution. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“Save the planet,” Wobeter piped up as she drove, windshield wipers sweeping quickly back and forth as rain pelted down. “We all woke up.”

“This was one of [the first group of SWCD commissioners’] brainstorms – to deliver a tree to every sixth grader in the county,” Bro said before adding, “At that time every sixth grader was in the county,” in reference to the consolidation of school districts across Iowa that’s led to many districts now crossing county lines including those in Tama County.

As part of their deliveries – which took place the day before the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day – their first stop was the sixth grade classroom of North Tama’s Jody Williams.

“Every year sixth graders get a tree to take home and plant,” Williams told her class, many of whom looked a bit bewildered at the announcement. “Please don’t throw [the seedlings] away,” Williams continued as Wobeter began passing out a roughly 18-inch white pine seedling to each student. “Teachers in the building will take them home and plant them.”

Through the years, Williams said teachers have planted many of Tama County SWCD’s trees themselves due to a variety of reasons including for those students who live in apartments with no yard to plant a tree.

GMG Elementary School sixth graders Jacoby Woodbury (left) and Bryleigh Barte (right) pose for a photo with their white pine seedlings on Thursday, April 28, in Green Mountain one day before the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day. –Photo by Melody Bro

Distributing coniferous seedlings tends to lend itself to a better student response, Wobeter said, due to the species’ green needles.

“Deciduous [seedlings] look like sticks – they’re dormant,” Wobeter explained with a chuckle. “But with the green [needles], it makes [students] go ‘oh!'”

In recent years, Bro switched from purchasing the seedlings from the state nursery to ordering them from the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation which ships seedlings bare root in a hydrating gel.

Although neither Wobeter nor Bro is sure when the Tama County SWCD began the tree distribution, they both think it’s been taking place continuously – except for 2020 which was missed due to the pandemic – for at least half a century.

Funds for the seedling purchases come from Tama County SWCD’s retail sales of native grasses and forbs and also the district’s no-till drill service.

At one point during the morning’s school tour, Wobeter joked about how long she’s been both a Tama County SWCD commissioner and a ‘tree elf’ – playfully threatening Bro with hanging up her elf hat for good, but it’s clear both women relish the annual event.

“Jan’s still plugging away,” Bro said endearingly of her stewardship friend.

“I’m like something stuck on your shoe,” Wobeter responded before they both broke into laughter and took off to their next sixth grade destination.

The Tama County Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) – in partnership with the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) – celebrated Stewardship Week from April 24 – May 1, as well as Arbor Day on Friday, April 29. In all, 288 white pine seedlings were given away to area sixth graders this year.