Drake Larsen

Communications and Policy Associate

Drake Larsen is a native Iowan whose childhood yard was bordered on two sides by row crop fields. During high school, he was active in the FFA at North Polk. After high school, Drake built a successful small business as a goose hunting guide. In this capacity, he spent countless hours in Iowa farm fields and built cherished relationships with many farmers and land owners.

From an early age, Drake's aspirations have revolved around conservation. At Iowa State University, he followed a Bachelor's degree in natural resources with a Master of Science degree in sustainable agriculture.  During his degree work, Drake was able to expand his understanding of fundamental ecological principles and to better appreciate the social, economic, and political factors affecting agriculture.  His recent research has focused on agricultural land planning and management—specifically concerning the integration of perennial land cover into row crop landscapes.

Drake’s time working with farmers has made him a firm believer in the power of farmer-to-farmer information sharing.  With his science background, he is also excited to be a part in the farmer-led studies coordinated through PFI.  Drake looks forward to working for PFI’s members.

Blog posts

Comment Now to Help Bolster the Conservation Stewardship Program

The Conservation Stewardship Program is something that Practical Farmers of Iowa has supported since the program began.  CSP is widely popular with farmers; it’s grown to over 60 million acres in the US with 1.8 million acres in Iowa. The program is designed to help farmers maintain and improve existing conservation practices and adopt additional management.  Participants are selected through a competitive process and earn payments for conservation performance – the higher the performance, the higher the payment (or at least that was the original intent, keep reading).

Following the most recent Farm Bill—however—new rules are making it harder for good stewards to access the program and receive support for the highest-impact environmental practices on their farms.  The NRCS is now seeking public input on the “interim rule” until January 20Continue reading

guest blog – John Gilbert

The folks of Gehrke Construction, Eldora, and the Hardin County office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently finished shaping  what is now  Gibralter Farms‘ longest waterway.

About1900 feet in length (three-eighth of a mile), the channel is designed to safely move water that runs off the surface of about 80 acres down 40 feet in elevation to where it can spread out in grass pastures before entering The Southfork, a tributary of the Iowa River.  (The channel will be seeded to sod-forming grass in the spring;  cross-channel fabric checks protect it until then.)  Part of the route has been a waterway for a long time, but recent years of heavier rains have re-enforced the need to control the water all the way across our crop fields.

This is the fourth waterway across this farm moving surface water from the uplands to the north to grass and wetland areas buffering The Southfork, all rebuilt since 2008.  Public money has helped cover half the cost on all but one reconstruction, and could be slightly more than $4,500 on this project.


In addition to the cash assistance, NRCS personnel provided  engineering design and layout at no additional cost.  Even after spending 14 years as a commissioner for the Hardin County Soil and Water Conservation District, I’m challenged to explain just what the public gets for their investment in projects like ours.  Obviously, it facilitates getting it done, as it would be harder to budget the whole cost into any years expenses, but could be covered by cutting  back on other improvements.  Cost share projects are designed to help keep soil from washing, and to protect water quality, and this project will have some benefit for both.

In the final analysis, the benefit is really more one of the public having some involvement in protecting the land, which really is a commonly held resource…one on which we all rely.  Recent trends in farming — with fewer owner-operators and more ownership physically and generationally removed from the land — have eroded (pun intended) the understanding that good soil stewardship is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of using the land.

Farms are not like Vegas; what happens here doesn’t stay here.  What we do as farmers affects us all.  That’s why we’re glad to get this project done.

Most people might not see bulldozed dirt as art, but a well shaped waterway is a thing of beauty.  One more thing to be thankful for.

John Gilbert
Gibralter Farms

This is a guest blog from long-time PFI member John Gilbert who farms near Iowa Falls.

The reaction to the recent piece in the New York Times warning “Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers” brings to mind similar conditions which led to the formation of Practical Farmers of Iowa.

There are few things that can be as frustrating as farming (too much rain, not enough rain, markets that won’t provide a fair return), particularly when you don’t know where to turn.  Frustrations are aggravated by feelings that we’re not doing a good enough job, or that our problems are from lack of fairness.  Those frustrations come through in the NYT as Bren Smith laments and grasps for solutions.  In the 80’s farm crisis neither crops nor livestock paid the bills reliably, particularly because so many of us were suffering from a debt hangover from the 70’s.  (A cautionary note to crop producers: conditions can and do change literally over night, to the surprise of nearly everyone.)

Prices for crops and livestock were actually not that bad at the time, but interest rates were so high it made making debt and interest payments the real bug-a-boo.  Those conditions are nothing like the Long Island local food producer is encountering, but the results and frustrations   are not that different.  What did Practical Farmers do for those of us trying to find our ways out of the farm crisis?  Continue reading

I would like to use cover crops on my land,” a landowner describes to farmer Tim Smith at a recent cover crop field day, “but we rent out the land and our tenant isn’t interested.”

tim smith photo smaller

This is not the first time Tim has heard a landowner describe this predicament and other cover crop presenters get the same questions.  Tim’s first response is: You own the land. But it is often difficult for a landowner to proceed from there. Landowners often don’t know their rights nor do they have access to the tools that can help them to facilitate the conversation with their tenant.

Tim points landowners to a couple of resources.  First, he suggests The Landowner’s Guide to Sustainable Farm Leasing – a guide created by the Drake Agricultural Law Center for landowners.  For those wanting more personalized assistance he points them to Practical Farmers of Iowa’s new program – Practical Landowner Services (PLS). PLS was developed to help landowners and their farming partners learn and talk to each other about cover crops and sustainable agriculture practices.  For more information on PLS, contact Erica at erica@practicalfarmers.org

Iowa-specific production histories do not exist for most Iowa fruit and vegetable crops. Fruit and vegetable farmers have expressed they would like these numbers to compare their planting, harvest and yields with locally-relevant baselines. Beginning in 2013, 13 farmers collected production data to start the process of building robust baseline data.

The report for the first year can be found here and the full data set can be found here.

The project will continue in 2014.  Contact Sally Worley for more information or to participate:  sally (at) practicalfarmers.org

veg data map

Slowly but surely we are getting Annual Conference content up online.  New this year we recorded audio synced with PowerPoint for many of the presentations in order that we could capture more of the great conference content beyond our ability to film each and every session.  I’ve got 3 sessions ready for you this week.

Elizabeth Ü – founder and director of Finance for Food – presents Raising Dough: Financing your Farm Business

Tim Smith – a Practical Farmers Outreach Leader – discusses nutrient management strategies he uses on his farm near Eagle Grove, including cover crops, strip tillage and a wood-chip bioreactor.

Seth Watkins –  a southwest Iowa farmer with a 600 head cow/calf enterprise – discusses prairie buffers strips and his motivations for nutrient management and stewardship.

Please check back to the Practical Farmers YouTube channel for more conference content soon.


Video of the keynote address from the 2014 PFI annual conference – delivered Friday January 24th – is now up online:
About the keynote:  Ricardo Salvador works with citizens, scientists, economists and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable practices. Iowa’s people and land are assets that can be used wisely to build a better future. There is an abundance of learning from the first century of “modern agriculture” to inform the best approaches to this most American of tasks. The keys: understanding that agriculture is about more than farming and business; understanding clearly the human prospects on planet Earth.
Also that night, Helen Gunderson was awarded the Landowner Appreciation Award. In lieu of an acceptance speech, Helen created this touching video tribute to Practical Farmers:  http://youtu.be/bzIU5uQaRDs

We are currently in the process of building a new website.  With that we’d been holding off on posting the latest rounds of research reports.  However, I know folks are anxious to get the reports hot off the presses.  So, for now I will post the new reports here.  Very shortly we will have a new website and they will join the regular archive.  Thanks for your patience.

Livestock Reports:

Pasture monitoring – Schmidt

Pasture monitoring – Hopkins

Apple cidar vinegar for goats

Fly monitoring 2013 Continue reading

dirt book signed

David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, spoke on the Iowa State University campus on Monday evening (September 23rd), the keynote lecture of this year’s John Pesek Colloquium on Sustainable Agriculture.  Dr. Montgomery’s book, published in 2007, is as relevant today as it was then and is especially appropriate for Iowa, where agriculture is the predominant land use.

Trained as a geologist, Montgomery takes a scientific approach to investigating the natural phenomenon of erosion and the implications for agriculture. He asks: What role does soil play in the longevity of civilizations? Could agricultural soil erosion limit the lifespan of a civilization?

Soil is the skin of the Earth; serving as the gateway between the living and the non-living, the interface between geology and biology. “The
Wearing a white suit coat that matches his trim white beard, Montgomery explains that agriculture’s impact on soil can be simply described in one of three categories: building soil, storing soil, or losing soil. Of the three, only building soil is a sure pathway to longevity for a society.twin problems of soil degradation and erosion have plagued humanity since the dawn of agriculture,” Montgomery says. “Although these problems are mostly of our own making they are also well within our power to solve,” he adds.

Continue reading