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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.

Kate Edwards got her graduate degree in agricultural engineering with the desire to help make farmers’ lives easier. She eventually ended up in the Twin cities as an environmental consultant. Then she decided she’d rather be walking to a barn than to an office and decided to start on the journey to figure out what it would take to be a farmer.

Kate wanted to farm on the hills outside Iowa City close to where she was born. But, her land access options were limited. In the spring of 2010 she quit her job and called her grandma. When Kate told her grandma that she wanted to farm the response was, “We farmed so our children and grandchildren didn’t have ,?” But Kate really wanted to farm, so she did it anyway. At first, she wanted to get into row crop farming, but that wasn’t a good option since she didn’t have the option of farming with family. She started farming vegetables instead with $5,000 worth of capital, one acre, and the knowledge from being a gardener. She tried to do a farmstand, but that fell through so she chose a CSA vegetable share (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture). After starting with 11 families, eight years later she has a 200-family member CSA and a unique ground lease.

Landowner Rose Roelf with farmer Kate standing to her right

How She Found the Land

In 2015 Kate was looking for a new place to farm. Her neighbors, Mike and Rose Roelf, owned the land Kate was interested in. Kate said, “Rose, can I come talk to you? Would you consider leasing to me?” And Rose said, “Actually, we’ve been wanting to talk to you.” Kate had no idea that would happen, but this conversation precipitated the start of moving Wild Woods Farm to its new location on Rose’s land.
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“I don’t think I can farm next year unless it’s on my own land, and unless I have someone to farm with me.” After spending two years fighting weeds and a crop-eliminating flood on rented ground, this was the ultimatum Hannah Breckbill offered herself in the fall of 2016. Luckily she found both. In 2017 she created a cooperative farm business with her cousin, Emily Fagan (their grandmas are sisters), and purchased ground from an LLC that had pooled their money to protect a 40-acre parcel of land in the rolling hills near Decorah. At their field day on June 21, 2018, Hannah and Emily showed attendees their farm and discussed their business structure, financial arrangements, and enterprise budgets they are using to create a sustainable farm and business.

Hannah bought into the LLC, and is now an owner of some of the land and rents some of the pasture from the other owners (shares came in $5,500/acre, and the LLC did not speculate on the land – keeping rates for her consistent at $5,500/acre). Hannah obtained ownership of some of the acres outright, and she and Emily, along with support from the community, family and friends, have invested in a deer fence, well, greenhouse, moveable high tunnel, cooler, delivery van, and soon will have a new pole building to serve as a pack house and storage area. They shared the financials from their farm, including revenue, expenses (sources and uses) and profit for each year Hannah has been farming. “Even if your farm’s financial numbers are never going to be the same as mine, I think it’s useful for people to have some numbers in front of you,” said Hannah. “To start this farm, I liquidated my savings of $12,000 – there isn’t a lot of saving in entreprenuership. There are a lot of places to use money and use it well.”

The certified organic vegetables, sold through CSAs in Decorah and Rochester, wholesale accounts, and the Decorah and Cedar Rapids farmers markets, are the revenue for Humble Hands Harvest, and are Emily and Hannah’s full-time jobs for the season (they have other employment in the winter). In 2018, they each received Continue reading

Small grains harvest is already underway in parts of Iowa and beyond, and some fields are still weeks away from being ready. On July 6 Earl Canfield hosted our small grains conference call. Earl shared ways to maintain the quality of small grains while harvesting. He discussed his specialized equipment and swathing technique for oats for his on-farm animal feed business. And, he also talked about ways to manage post-harvest handling and storage in order to maintain grain quality.

Apart from harvest, it’s a busy time for small grains events as well. Cohost Sarah Carlson shared some upcoming Practical Farmers events including the Hughes family field day on July 12 “Small Grains, Modest Grains: A Pragmatic Approach” in Janesville Wisconsin; the Blair family field day on July 17 “Expanding Conservation With Cover Crops, Livestock and Small Grains”; and the PFI small grains conference on July 30 “Rotationally Raised — Making Small Grains Work”.

Many farmers on the call were a few weeks away from harvest. Some plan to either swath or direct cut their oats and rye. A few people plan to do a combination of both to manage weeds. Earl and his wife Jane farm in northeast Iowa near Dunkerton. They got back into raising small grains four years ago when their kids got back into farming. This year they have about 50 acres of small grains planted. Earl said he’s learned a lot of things the hard way with raising and harvesting small grains.

Choosing Harvesting Equipment:
In 2015 Earl harvested part of his small grains using direct cutting, and the other part with a self-propelled swather on 10 acres. Then, it wasn’t the best machine, but he liked what it did to the oats in terms of making it more harvestable for the combine. Earl only used that swather for a year then found another multipoint swather to harvest oats in 2016. PFI member Clark Porter in Reinbeck went in on the deal with him to share the equipment cost. Earl said, “It worked like a dream compared to that [self-propelled swather]”. He had tried using both pieces of equipment and ran into issues because the oat files are fairly clean but, depending on when he cut his oats, it was really challenging because of the weeds going under the oat canopy.

How you harvest affects how the crop feeds into the auger platform. Earl said that you have to have a good flow to have it feed into the machine. He’s gotten away from straight cutting and now swathes to pick up the combine head. Swathing allows him to cut green material while plugging up the machine less. It also allows him to grab more oats in the field. Earl said, “Our multi-swather helps us recover oats that are down.” This year even though they’ve had some pretty strong winds, there are only a few acres out of the 50 down.

Earl uses a 12 ft. pickup head on the 20 ft. combine machine. It’s a little more to manage with gas, but he’s had good grain quality with this process. It gives him consistency and more options though. If you want to do straw for example, you can do that right behind the combine. For Earl, harvesting his oats usually comes in late July or early August when the weather seems to be dry enough.

Canfield combine with pickup head

Harvest timing affects how well swathing goes and can be a good indicator of the quality of your crop. If you can get in and swath before they’re dry, Earl said the heads need to be mature. When you drop the heads while still attached to the stalk, they can go through the sweating process.

Storage:
Depending on the way you harvest, bin aeration allows you to have more options for the crop to sweat in a stable and quality manner. Earl has one bin with aeration in it, which helps blow the chaff off of the oats. He said it gives you another round of cleaning for using or selling oats. He has other bins with tube-type aeration which helps manage the sweating process. If you manage the temperature and keep the oats dry, they’ll keep a long time.

Questions for Earl:
Does the moisture content drop in the bin once you have the fan on?
I harvest my oats in early August when most of the sweating happened early in the field. I wait until the weather gets good and cold, then blow some fresh air on them once in a while.

How do you do your windrow?
I leave 6-8 inches of stubble. The windrow blew down areas of the field, but that couple of inches helped us recover.

Do you use interseeding?
Three years ago we had a mix of alfalfa and grass, which determines how high or how low you swath. I swathed the first part of the field, then direct cut the second. The auger platform couldn’t handle all of green material. The air reel at the time didn’t cut too much green material off, so we didn’t have to. Give the machine time to work. Now we have oats with clover out there, it’s not exploding with growth, there should be more by the time oats are ready to lay down.

Earl ended the call with some insight about his learning process, “Everybody has to figure out what will work best for their situation. You have to understand the pros and cons of each and manage that system appropriately.”

Disease testing:
For folks interested in identifying oat or leaf and stem diseases, Bruce Roskens of Grain Millers, Inc. asked call participants to send leaf or whole plant samples to: Cereal Disease Laboratory, 1551 Lindig Street, University of Minnesota, St. Paul Minnesota 55108. Please address to “Attention: Yue Jin (stem rust) or Roger Caspers (leaf rust)” and send a note with your name, address, county, variety name, date sample taken, and stage of plant growth. If you want information regarding the disease returned, make certain to request info back.

If you’d like to get in touch with Earl Canfield, please contact him at canfieldfarms@dunkerton.net or (319) 269-0739.

Attendees check out the corn (and interseeded cover crop) at Michael and Denny Vittetoe’s field day on June 26.

Michael Vittetoe did not plan on returning to the farm after he left to attend the University of Iowa and received a degree in civil engineering. But five years after working for an engineering firm in Muscatine, Michael decided that he did in fact want to farm and returned to the family farm near Washington in southeast Iowa. These days, with his father Denny, Michael is using cover crops in a variety of ways on their farm. At their field day, Michael shared both the benefits and challenges of the approaches they’ve been using and also gave some updates on on-farm strip trials they are conducting through Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program. Continue reading

Darrell Steele, a member in Washington County, has gotten the cover crop itch and started with a typical cover crop of cereal rye on his corn and soybean farm where he raises hogs too. After attending a soil health workshop he wanted to test out extreme-cover cropping and is beginning to grow “sexy” diverse cover crop mixes. Seeing the benefits of soil quality improvements from other farmers he began to think about how he could ever grow more diverse cover crops in a corn-soybean rotation, enter barley. He says, “the main reason I got into growing small grains is because of erosion, I wanted a practice that would help my soil.” To grow more diverse cover crop mixes they need to be planted early–in July or August when corn or soybeans are in the way. But since Darrell raises and feeds his own hogs he could grow a small grain like barley and feed that to his pigs allowing him to plant a diverse cover crop mix following July harvest.

Darrell Steel speaks to reporters at Rob Stout’s farm about the cover crops and barley he’s been growing.

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Arlyn Kauffman leading field day attendees on a tour of a corn field that is following a wheat and triticale cover crop.

“I joined Practical Farmers of Iowa because I needed a support network and people to go to in order to learn about better soil management and conservation practices,” said Arlyn Kauffman as he kicked off his field day on June 19 near Weldon in south-central Iowa. “Practical Farmers is a resource group to learn from. I glean ideas from other farmers on how to do better on our farm.” Continue reading

The Farm-to-School Program at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in partnership with USDA-AMS, routinely publishes data from farm-to-school purchases of fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat in Iowa. The latest report is available here. 

The data, gathered from schools, includes products procured from growers and producers in the state of Iowa and within 30 miles of the border. By item, the data include: total volume purchased, price range from all purchases, weighted average price/unit, and the weighted average price/unit from the prior year.

Below is a snapshot image of the latest report. Additional resources about farm-to-school for school administrators, farmers, and value-added producers are available at the Farm-to-School Program website and the Iowa Department of Education website.

Sometimes cover cropping in between corn and soybeans is, let’s face it, kind of boring. Your choices are cereal rye, cereal rye or cereal rye for something that will establish and overwinter. What is an adventurous farmer to do?? Grow small grains like oats, cereal rye or wheat instead. Because these grains are harvested in July, cover crops can get a lot more days in the field. This opens up the options for cover crop species that just don’t make sense when they’re planted in October. To guide us through making the most of this luxuriously long summer cover crop window, Dave Robison “The Cover Crop Guy,” spoke on our June shared learning call about how to fit cover crops to your farm.

Mark and Melanie Peterson of Stanton, IA plant big cover crop mixes for grazing cattle after rye harvest. Here, Melanie Peterson stands in a 12-species mix of sorghum sudangrass, buckwheat, cowpeas, mung beans, forage peas, oilseed radish, oats, sunflower, Sunn hemp and chickling vetch. The mix was seeded in August 2014 and this photo was taken on Oct. 6, 2014.

“Following small grains with a cover crop is such a blessing. So much easier than putting it after corn or soybeans,” Dave says. “Cereal grains are really a great opportunity for you.” The first step to making the most of this opportunity is to establish your goals. With cover crops generally a farmer can have one or several of the following goals:

  1. Grazing – This is the most profitable opportunity for cover crops. You may also be able to take off a hay or forage crop if you forgo grazing and then plant soybeans.
  2. Addressing compaction
  3. Winter hardiness
  4. Grow nitrogen for a following corn crop
  5. Provide space to spread manure and hold nutrients in the field

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The last day of May was hot and sunny for Grade A Garden’s first PFI field day, but a delicious lunch in the shade and the openness of the hosts kept the 50 attendees energized and engaged throughout the day. Jordan Clasen and Whitney Brewer discussed vegetable crop production, use of the layers as fertility in their field rotation, garlic production, and after a break for lunch, showed how they set up their farmers market booth and shared tips on marketing. Photos, quotes, and a summary of the field day are provided, below.

Jordan Clasen began growing garlic in 2010, at the urging of long-time farmers Larry Cleverly and John Whitson. By 2012 he quit his job and planted almost 20,000 garlic plants. In 2013 the farm started a vegetable CSA, added chickens, and increased the garlic field to 25,000 plants. Now with Whitney Brewer on the farm, the pair have 60,000 garlic plants, several acres of diversified produce and 285 laying hens. They maintain a 120-member CSA, and sell at the Des Moines Downtown farmers market and a few restaurants. “We’re at a scale that small enough that we can manage it without going crazy.”

Vegetable Production

Jordan and Whitney installed a high tunnel in December 2017, which they purchased through a kickstarter campaign. They love it, they only thing they would change is to get a bigger one. Jordan got the low tunnels, from Johnny’s, early on in the farm. Right now they are still picking some greens out of them, but next week will rip them out and re-plant. Are the low tunnels worth it? Jordan says, “Heavens, yes. They cost about $1,000 bucks of materials, but they come with the bender and directions from Johnny’s. We plant in there early and harvest a lot of lettuce out of there. Occasionally you fight the wind, which can blow the plastic off, and it’s frustrating but you deal with it.”

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Over the span of two days, May 22 to 23, 2018, Garrin and Kristten Buttermore of Uncle G’s farm in Ogden, Iowa lost approximately 100 broiler chickens. The USDA promptly responded to this emergency and tested for bird flu since the birds were dying quickly and in large numbers. The bird flu results came back negative.

Upon further inspection, the birds had gnats in their throats and lungs. Garrin Buttermore suspects Buffalo gnats. The broilers received numerous gnat bites that resulted in an anaphylactic reaction. A veterinarian told Garrin the life cycle of gnats is about three weeks ending just about the time mosquitoes appear. This makes late May a critical time to watch for this issue. In other parts of the U.S., the gnats are killing larger livestock and deer.

Buffalo gnats are also known as black flies. Photo courtesy of Darren Blackford, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.

Garrin shared his experience on the PFI livestock discussion list, and other members weighed in with similar stories. Terry LeDoux of Tipton experienced this years ago and says, “A strong breeze and darkness help hugely.” He recounts the birds pilling on each other as they tried to get away from the gnats. In response to the issue, Terry changed his broiler start date and doesn’t order chicks until the third week of May. By the time the chicks are done brooding, the Buffalo gnats are near the end of their cycle. “This has been a life saver for me,” said Terry.

Jim Jansen of Elkader says he has gnats every year because he’s close to the Turkey River. He’s learned a few lessons on how to protect his birds since he finds they aren’t good at avoiding gnats. Jim says, “The key is to provide indoor shelter. The smaller the opening into shelter the better. They are the worst when it is hot and humid – no wind. So will be forced to put a fan in shelter. You can also keep a fan on them where they feed and water.”

Brian Nowak-Thomson of Mount Vernon has found that using vanillin helps. Vanillin is extracted from vanilla beans or can be made synthetically. He boils about two tablespoons of vanillin crystals in water to dissolve it (noting it isn’t very soluble). He then dilutes the solution in a gallon of water and fills a small pump sprayer. About every two days, Brian sprays the chickens while they roost, and he also sprays the vents on his chicken wagon. Tom McDermott of Clinton gives his chickens access to tubs of diatomaceous earth and says the dust baths seem to help.