The Practical Blog

Practical Farmers' blog is a place where staff share news, updates, photos, reflections and other musings on our work and members in a more informal setting.

This past week the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Commissioners’ Annual Conference was held in conjunction with the National Association of Conservation Districts’ (NACD) Summer Forum, where many PFI members were well-recognized.

The conservation accomplishments of Iowa’s farmers and SWCD commissioners were on a much larger stage than normal, with an audience that included NRCS acting Chief Leonard Jordan, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and representatives from conservation districts across the country.

Among the 100 conservation districts in Iowa and the 500 commissioners that serve them, 40 commissioners are Practical Farmers of Iowa members serving in 32 districts and a dozen more serve as assistant commissioners. The 100 conservation districts are organized into nine regions, each with one commissioner elected as the regional director. Six of the nine Iowa regional directors are PFI members.

Here’s a rundown of the PFI members who played an active role or were recognized throughout the event:

Chris Teachout awarded Conservation Farmer of the Year

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St. Croix sheep graze at Russ Wischover's farm in southwest Iowa.

St. Croix sheep graze at Russ Wischover’s farm in southwest Iowa.

This week, On-Farm is back on the road and we visited the farm of Russ Wischover – Windswept Acres – right on the Missouri border in south west Iowa. Several years ago, Russ retired from his job as a herdsman at the University of Illinois’s swine research farm and bought a farm near Bedford. Since then, he’s converted the ground to multi-species perennial pasture and prairie for his St. Croix sheep, Murray Gray cattle and draft horses to graze. Although he’s spent a lifetime planning his farm and learning about animals, he’s always thinking about how what he’s learned starting this farm could be helpful to beginning farmers.

On the show we talk about that, and also about his August 21st field day focused on multi-species grazing, prairie and pasture establishment, fencing and watering systems, livestock breeds for grass-finishing cattle and sheep, and much, much more. Russ says that one of the most important influences of his life has been hearing Fred Provenza talk – you can find all kinds of material from a three-day workshop Dr. Provenza led last year that PFI hosted on our livestock page.

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How far would you travel to socialize with other beginning farmers? On a sultry July Saturday evening 37 beginning farmers gathered at a summer social hosted by Jack Davis in Adel, Iowa. Practical Farmers staff member Steve Carlson thought he had the longest distance to attend, because this was a stop on his return from vacationing in Colorado. Humorously, his hopes of winning this record were squashed when the Gee family arrived with their foreign exchange student who flew in from France that morning!. The idea of this gathering wasn’t necessarily who traveled the furthest, although fun facts. This social was intended for beginning farmers from the central Iowa region to get together and socialize!

Davis social 3crop

Socialize they did, along with sharing great food and touring Jack Davis’ farm. Farmers in attendance enjoyed the chance to take a break from the heat and summer work to meet with other local beginners. Farmers came from many different enterprises, raising everything from perennial crops and vegetables to livestock. “It was a really nice break and a bright highlight for me after a rough week.” said Jennifer Miller, vegetable farmer from Waukee, “My only regret is that I could have chatted ALL night.” Dotted throughout the event you could find farmers sharing their ideas, troubles and supporting each other.

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According to the 2014 Organic Survey, Iowa ranked No. 10 in organic sales, but the state has since fallen out of the top 10. Given that organic sales rose nationally by 13% from 2014 to 2015, though, interest in organic farming and produce remains strong among consumers. Interest also remains strong among farmers in Iowa. As such, Scott, Jack and Linda Ausborn hosted a field day near Ida Grove to address the organic transition process, crop rotation considerations and weed control tactics. “Farming organically is fun and challenging,” Scott told those attending. “It has also connected us to a very experienced network of farmers to learn from and go to for help.” The field day was held in partnership between Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Organic Association.

Read on to learn more about this field day below. You can also learn more about Scott and his family’s farm in this episode of our podcast, On-Farm: Conversations with Practical Farmers.

Scott Ausborn (far left) discusses their oat crop with a red clover underseeding.

Scott Ausborn (far left) discusses their oat crop with a red clover underseeding.

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If you’re a goat or sheep farmer – you’re probably familiar with Haemonchus contortus (barber’s pole worm) – a worm responsible for the biggest disease problem of small ruminants. When not adequately controlled this worm may cause death. Unfortunaly, due to the misuse and overuse of dewormers over many years, resistance to dewormers is a huge problem that threatens the viability of sheep and goat farming.

The FAMACHA system was developed to decrease dewormer resistance by selectively deworming only those animals that require treatment – instead of the whole herd. When a farmer selectively deworms, the worm eggs produced by the few resistant worms that survive treatment are greatly diluted by all the eggs produced by the animals that did not receive treatment. In contrast, when all animals in a herd are dewormed, only resistant worms that survive the treatment will produce all the eggs that form the next generation of worms.

Eric and Deb Finch, who raise meat goats near State Center, have implemented the FAMACHA system on their farm. They invited Dr. Paul Plummer, an Iowa State veterinarian and dairy goat farmer, to their field day to give a training to 30 farmers before taking a tour of the farm.

Finch Field Day 6_27_17 (11)

Deb Finch (left) hold a her goat, while PFI members inspect a goat’s eyelid to diagnos the anemia level in the goat, which is correlated to barber’s pole worm load. By monitoring anemia, resilient and susceptible animals can be identified.

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The Millet Seed Farm is located in Iowa City, on six plots that total about 1/5 of an acre. Jon runs a 30-week, 20-member CSA, most of whom live in the neighborhood. “The mission of Millet Seed Farm is to grow healthy food for ourselves and our local community using sustainable farming practices, and to provide a model for small-scale farms to pop up in cities that are primarily human powered,” says Jon.

“I had been saving money to buy land just outside of Iowa City, and it just became clear after awhile that it would hard to find people – including myself – that wanted to commit to that type of investment. We were also struggling with the zoning issues. I was already gardening the corner lot by my parents when this house came up for sale. We decided to get the house, even if only temporary, and used some of the money saved for farmland as a down-payment. Since then Wren and I have been developing the gardens in the front and backyards. Early on we grew only food for ourselves. In 2012 I took a break from farming at Echollective Farm to work on homesteading skills, especially building.”

Yagla FD (28)

Wren Almitra, Jon’s partner, clarifies some points on the household budget. Wren is also involved in agriculture, as the Women, Land and Legacy Coordinator at the Women Food and Ag Network (WFAN).

Farm Financials and Budgeting

“Our goal on our farm is that the farm allows me to earn a modest income so I don’t need to get an off-farm job.”
Keys that make our farm possible:
1. Low living expenses
2. Low farm expenses
3. Available markets
4.  Past farming experience growing food for a market Continue reading

They are leaders on farm transitions. (And there are so many more!)

Taste the Difference: Picking Pork Characteristics for Flavor

William Gilbert

The late William and Mary Gilbert, Iowa Falls, Iowa, for leaving an agricultural legacy. William and Mary rewarded their offspring according to the contributions they made to the farm. Their vision and practice made it easier for son John and wife, Beverly, to thrive today at their Gibralter Farm. Now John and Beverly are easing the way for the next generation to take over.

Susan Jutz, for her perseverance in finding the right person to be her successor, and then working hard to get the Solon, Iowa, business and land transferred to fellow PFI member Carmen Black. The farm is in a rapidly developing area, so Susan could have sold the land for a pretty penny to a non-farmer, but her goal was clear: Her land would remain a farm for a farmer to work.

Del Ficke

Del Ficke

 Del Ficke, Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, for his clarity that family—not land—comes first. The land has been in the Ficke Family seven generations now, but “the key is family,” Del says. “[My father] had a lifelong commitment to clearly communicate to all of us how we were the most essential part of keeping the farm going. We were his legacy, not the land and the livestock.”

Jim and Lisa French, Partridge, Kansas, for knowing there are ways to carry on your values even if your children don’t want to farm. “There is more to consider for the future beyond my family,” Jim writes. “I am not as concerned if my children don’t want to come back to farm, because I’m reinforcing my values in the community I live in. I hope I can have a community where kids can ride their bikes, enjoy nature, and have clean water. That’s our vision for rural America.”


Bonnie Haugen and her parents

Bonnie Haugen, Canton, Minnesota, for helping her father write a farm legacy letter to document some of the past, present and his future hopes for the farm. Bonnie and husband, Vance, are writing letters later this year as well, and Bonnie is arranging for other women to do the same. (There’s a helpful template available for writing your own at

Tom and Irene Frantzen for showing and sharing about what it takes to be a leader in this field. Says Tom: “When the older generation tries to dictate the vision for the younger generation, you have a lightning rod for future problems.” Irene adds: “If we said that our farm has to be an organic farm in the future, for example, we would be setting that vision for the next generation. Instead we, as the retiring couple, need to listen, to accept that the farm may look different in 10 years.”

Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota, for being willing to share—and learn—as they work through the myriad of decisions involved in transferring the farm. Their situation has many of the elements farmland owners are facing—farming and non-farming heirs, grandchildren who also want to farm, land and business ownership decisions and more. They know we are on a journey, and connecting with fellow travelers helps ease the way.


Throughout Practical Farmers’ 2017 field day season, we are spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events, as well as members who make the journey to attend them.

Watch and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Robert Alexander (right)
360 Heritage Farms
Member since 2015
Granville, IA

Robert (right) and his daughter, Adalynn, crouch in some oat stubble with a red clover underseeding at Scott Ausborn’s recent field day near Ida Grove.

Robert and his wife, April, operate 360 Heritage Farms near Granville, in Sioux County. The 160-acre farm features row crops, hay, a flock of 30 hair sheep (a new addition) and a herd of 40 grass-fed Angus-cross and Belted Galloway cattle. Calves are grass-finished alongside cows, and the herd is raised without hormones or antibiotics.

The whole farm is in transition to organic, though corn was certified organic this year. Robert and April grow their own hay to feed their cow-calf pairs and to sell. “One of the big things we do is sell small, square alfalfa bales,” Robert explains.

Starting to Farm

Robert grew up on his family’s farm, Alexander Farms, located in nearby Remsen. When he decided he wanted to pursue farming as a career, he says selling hay is how he got his start. He had been living in Des Moines, going to school and working, and decided to return home in the spring of 2008.

“I needed to make a car payment when I first moved back from the city,” Robert says. “We had some extra hay, so I took it to auction and started from there. We always had livestock on the farm and had always been putting up hay for our own animals, so it wasn’t anything new to me.” Continue reading

“The definition of experience,” says Dean Henry, “What you get when you’re really looking for something different. We’ve had a lot of those things happen. But, we persist.”

Dean and Judy Henry have been growing fruit near Nevada for over 50 years. They have 40 acres in horticultural crops, mostly orchard fruit and brambles, and about 100 acres devoted to DNR, to “raising deer,” as Dean jokes. The soil is fairly light soil, underlain with sand and gravel. Across the crick they have some black soil with so much clay you can’t work it until July. “We often use that for pumpkins,” says Dean. “We don’t grow pumpkins because I enjoy the job, we grow pumpkins to help sell apples.”

Henry FD (83) dean

A thunderstorm chased us inside to start our field day at Berry Patch Farm on June 14, but it was the perfect setting to meet everyone in the room and for Joe Hannan’s grafting demonstration. When the storm cleared, it was time for lunch (brats provided by Niman Ranch) and strawberry shortcake, and the outdoor portion of the field day on grafting, summer pruning, and alternative fruit production. Owner Dean Henry and farm manager Matt Howieson toured attendees through the farm on hayracks, pausing to discuss bush cherries, blueberries, black currants, gooseberries, honeyberry, and gogi. Check out the photos and videos below for tips from Dean and ISU extension specialist Joe Hannan.

Summer Pruning and Dwarfing Rootstock for Cherries

“When you read the general literature on orcharding, you won’t find a lot of help on “pedestrian” orcharding, as they call it. With U-pick, you can’t have any ladders for insurance reasons, and thus you sacrifice a lot of your yield. With u-pick, you need to go for maximum acceptance; if you’re customers are happy, you’re happy. For this reason I’ve always been interested in dwarfing rootstock and pruning techniques. We haven’t always done a good job of that, the old tart cherry trees along the drive are a good example of that.” Continue reading

The happy hosts after a successful field day.

Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin of Joia Food Farm.

This week on the show, On-Farm was back on the road, this time stopping at Joia Food Farm near Charles City to talk to PFI Board Vice President Wendy Johnson. Wendy and her husband Johnny own and operate the farm, where they raise a little of everything, from chickens and turkeys to pigs and sheep to organic row crops, and diversity is a tenet of their farm operation. They not only have a diversity of crops and livestock, but they feed their animals diverse feeds.

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On August 3rd, Wendy and Johnny will be hosting a field day on their farm focused on conservation – addressing both in-field issues like cover crops and “farmed potholes” (low lying wet areas) – and edge-of-field conservation practices, like grassed waterways and riparian buffers. With all of these topics, they we will discuss how farmers can find a balance between environmental and economic goals.