Liz Kolbe

Horticulture Coordinator

Liz Kolbe joined Practical Farmers of Iowa staff in the summer of 2013. Liz works primarily in horticulture, focusing on cooperators' program research, pesticide drift issues, and field day and event planning.

A native of Grinnell, IA, Liz received her B.A. in Environmental Science at The Colorado College, focusing on renewable energy in the West and the impacts of ethanol production. Following graduation she worked as the Program Coordinator for the State of the Rockies Project, eventually shifting her academic focus to agriculture and landscape. Liz moved eastward for graduate school, earning her M.S. in Environmental Science with a specialization in Agroecosystem Science at The Ohio State University. While at OSU and based at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, OH, Liz worked with the Agroecosystems Management Program and was a “super-volunteer” at Local Roots Market.

In addition to exploring farm and food scenes around the country, Liz enjoys playing sports, scouring garage sales, and reading short stories on the front porch. She also serves on the board of directors for Wheatsfield Coop.


Blog posts

“What is entrusted to us, we should care for.” 

This stewardship ethic seeped into each unit of Shane LaBrake’s 2-day tractor workshops. Being good stewards of the land, our bodies, our workers’ health, and yes, the machines themselves, he argued, builds an environment where fewer resources and time are needlessly wasted. He also reminded workshop attendees of Neil Young’s prophetic album title: “Rust Never Sleeps.”

The largest takeaway for the attendees at the workshop were:
1. Tractors are powerful tools – use them professionally. Use ROPS, wear a seat belt, tell someone where you are, wear protective equipment, follow safe operating practices.
2. RTFM – Read The “Freaking” Manual. There are over 240 makes of tractor and over 9,000 models; knowing yours is what matters.
3.  Routine maintenance and daily pre- and post-use maintenance checks save time and money. (Shane provided a list of these checks, which he encourages farmers to keep visible on the tractor).
4. Each attendee felt more confident in their ability to continue learning how safety and effective operate and maintain a tractor. And they felt empowered by their new knowledge to be more discerning and confident when shopping for tractors and implements.

Workshop attendees learning about tire types and safety features on a New Holland TN65.

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After completing two years of cucumber enterprise budgets, Ann Franzenburg and Emma Johnson looked at their farms and decided: “Let’s do cherry tomatoes.” For this enterprise budget, both farmers did a careful accounting of the revenue, costs, and labor for their 2017 cherry tomato crops. The analysis of their data, and their comments on varieties, harvesting, and marketing, is available in a new Practical Farmers’ Research Report: Enterprise Budget for Cherry Tomatoes.

Johnson cherry tomato

Key Findings

  • Both farms had profitable cherry tomato crops, netting $1.31/lb at Franzenburg and $1.54/lb at Johnson
cherry tomato fig 1

  • Labor was the largest expense for both Franzenburg and Johnson, accounting for 62% and 68% of their total expenses, respectively.
  • Harvesting and packing was the most time-consuming task on both farms, accounting for 74% of labor-hours at Franzenburg and 62% of labor-hours at Johnson.
cherry tomato fig 4


Franzenburg and Johnson both plan to repeat the cherry tomato enterprise budget for 2018 to provide a two-year look at the crop’s production and profitability.

Click here, or on the image below to download the full report.

cherry tomato cover



Carmen Black and Mark Quee raise sheep on their diversified vegetable farms. They were curious if grazing a cover crop prior to a fall crop, rather than simply terminating the cover crop by mowing and tillage, would have an impact on the yield of the next crop. For this trial each farmer measured the yield of a fall brassica crop following grazed and un-grazed cover crops. Said Black, “I’m interested in finding ways to incorporate my sheep into my vegetable operation more holistically, but also in compliance with food safety regulations. This trial will allow me to see if there’s any measurable difference right away.”

The full Practical Farmers’ Research Report is now available.


Farmers set up plots in a randomized, replicated pattern. During the spring, a cover crop of oats and peas was seeded to all plots. Farmers used moveable electric fence to exclude the sheep from control (cover-only) plots, while the treatment plots were grazed. Quee grazed sheep in the plots on May 30; Black grazed sheep in her plots on June 5. Biomass samples were taken from all plots by clipping aboveground foliage at ground-level (four 1-ft2 quadrats per plot), air-dried and weighed at the Practical Farmers of Iowa office. Biomass results are reported on a dry matter (DM) basis. Production practices, grazing, planting and harvest information for each farm is available in Table 1.

grazing table 1

After termination of the spring cover crop by grazing or mowing and tilling, Black and Quee seeded fall brassica crops. The rows ran the length of the plots. Quee measured broccoli (cv. Gypsy) yield; Black measured Brussels sprouts (cv. Diablo) yield. Planting, management and harvest practices were consistent across treated (grazed) and control (un-grazed) plots. For broccoli, Quee counted, weighed and measured the width of heads in each plot. For Brussels sprouts, Black harvested entire stalks, then counted and measured sprouts, and graded sprouts based on USDA criteria for color and firmness, by plot.


Sheep graze the treatment plot at Quee’s.

Quee incorporates the cover crop during the trial.

Quee incorporates the cover crop during the trial.

black brussels

Brussels sprouts being measured at Black’s.


Brussels sprout yield at Black were not statistically different in grazed and un-grazed plots; only color ranking was statistically different, with the grazed plots tending lighter green than un-grazed
plots. Average number of sprouts per plant was 76.6 in the grazed plots, and 64.9 sprouts/plant in the un-grazed plots. Sprouts in grazed plots, on average were slightly larger and more firm than in un-grazed plots, but the means were not statistically different. “Sometimes you imagine you see a difference in the treatment plots,” said Black. “Just looking at the plants I didn’t think there was a difference. And even though the means are not statistically different, 12 sprouts per plant is a big difference. It shows the importance of actually counting,” she said.

grazing fig 4

Quee had nice sized broccoli crowns, though the average weights were not statistically different by treatment. Crowns averaged 1.44 lb/crown and 1.35 lb/crown for the grazed and un-grazed plots, respectively. There was not a statistically significant difference between plant yield (lb/ft2) or crown yield (crown/ft2).

grazing fig 5
Broc harvest 2017

Broccoli harvest at Quee’s.

Black is interested in grazing more spring-seeded cover crops based on trial results; Quee plans to stay with his current system of grazing in fallow years and in the early spring and late fall.

Click here or on the image below to view the .pdf of the full research report.

grazing cover

Following a 2016 tomato trial on Rebelski and Mountain Fresh Plus, three farms conducted replicated variety trials in their high tunnels on Big Beef, Rebelski, and Big Dena. Key findings are in the post below, and the full report is available here: Tomato in High Tunnel, Variety Trial.


How was the trial conducted?

Each farmer planted two tomato varieties inside a high tunnel in a randomized, paired trial. Farmer-researchers for this trial were: Tim Landgraf (One Step at a Time Gardens in Kanawha), Lee Matteson and Rose Schick (Lee’s Greens in Nevada), and Mark Quee (Scattergood Farm at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch). Spacing, mulch, trellis style, and planting date were determined by farm, and described in Table 2. Plants for the trial were started indoors and transplanted to the high tunnel (in-ground). Matteson and Schick planted into a heated high tunnel.



Figure 1 shows cumulative yields through the season at each farm. Bold lines represent the varietal average and lighter lines show the individual plot yields. Using repeated measures analysis, average yields for Big Beef were statistically higher during August at Landgraf and Quee, but by the end of the summer, there were no statistical differences in overall yield. At both farms, the earlier-maturing Big Beef showed higher yields early on, with Rebelski catching up toward the end of the season. Statistical analysis was not performed at Matteson/Schick, but total yield for both varieties (Big Beef and Big Dena) at the end of harvest were within two pounds of one another. Similar to the pattern at Landgraf and Quee, Big Beef got off to a faster start, and fruit production from Big Dena eventually caught up in September.

For more details on this trial, read the full report: Tomato in High Tunnel, Variety Trial. This project was supported by the USDA Risk Management Agency and the Ceres Foundation.

For more information about this study and other fruit and vegetable studies as part of PFI’s Cooperators’ Program, contact Liz Kolbe at [email protected]

Color and fashion were the first topics of the day at Fred Howell’s field day. Surprising? Not if you want flowers to be a successful part of your business. “New color trends starts in home fashion magazines… it the color is accepted there, then it goes into women’s fashion, which is fairly disposable. Then it starts creeping into your home – on the wastebasket, the napkin holder, the tissue box… it’s full-circle when it’s in an automobile. That’s where a color ends.” Fred has seen many colors cycle through, in addition to varieties of flowers, ornamental grasses, and berries.

Unfortunately, Fred is finding that dried flowers themselves are a little out of vogue right now with modern designs, and increased shipping costs are also a factor in limited sales. But adapting the business to stay relevant is nothing new to Fred and his family. In 1963 the Howells began growing Christmas trees as a college fund for their seven kids, including Fred. The Christmas tree business saved their farm in the farm crisis of the 1980s, and they’ve continued to diversify. While Fred’s brother runs the tree farm, Fred and his wife, Cindy, have a diverse agritourism farm that includes a floral greenhouse, dried flowers, gift barn, pumpkin patch, corn maze, and an ever-growing list of Fred’s inventions for family fun. Three of their children – Jennifer, Josh and Erin – work with them.         

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Let’s start with the last thing first – everyone who attended the field day got to make and take home a mushroom production block. Field day host Tyson Allchin is so energized to get others growing mushrooms that he donated all the blocks, not blinking when 70+ people showed up. Mushroom production – especially indoor production – happens in relatively small spaces. The large group patiently took turns looking at the grow room, the batch mixer where Tyson prepares his substrate, and the inoculation room where they prepared their blocks in groups of 12.

Indoor oyster mushrooms are extremely productive. The biological efficiency (lb produced per lb of dry substrate) is typically at least 100%. Oyster mushrooms retail for ~$7-13/lb, depending on the market. For the low input cost of the substrate, growers can make an excellent profit. If you missed the field day, check out the photos below, listen to Tyson Allchin on PFI’s On-Farm podcast, and if you want to grow mushrooms, get in touch with Tyson. He affordably sells inoculated blocks, making it easy for growers to add mushroom production to their other enterprises.

Darrell Duncan, below, took home a block of Lion’s Mane.

Darrell Duncan, columbus junction, lion's mane

Tyson first demonstrated outdoor production with wood chips in a trench. He used a small tiller to make a trench about 3-4 inches deep. He filled the trench with soaked hardwood chips. In the photo below you can see the tiller, and the wood chips soaking in the wagon behind the four-wheeler.  Continue reading

On a sweltering afternoon in mid-July, Marty and Mary Schnicker invited PFI and the public to their farm for a tour of their “giant” produce they grow for competition, and the regular produce they grow for farmers market. Attendees braved the heat in the high tunnel to see the impressive pumpkin plants, and were repeatedly amazed by the gargantuan pumkins, melons, cabbage, kohlrabi and onions.  Growing giant produce takes a lot of planning, space, and time. With few plants and few very large fruits, mistakes and bad weather can be devastating. “We only have one shot during the year; if anything goes wrong, it’s time to think about next year.” says Marty Schnicker. At competition there can be a good prize, but the work is mostly a labor of love – Marty does have a full-time job off the farm, and spends his evenings working with the plants.

Like many PFI members, Marty and Mary view their farm as a great place to raise their six children, providing endless opportunities for inquiry, experimentation, and self-reliance. Those opportunities exist for Marty, too. “I’m learning. I’m still learning. I’m going to learn every year.”

Schnicker FD (15) helen

Helen Schnicker uncovers the growing pumpkins in the high tunnel.

Pumpkins and the High Tunnel

Plants are started the last week of March to be ready for the State Fair. To have the high tunnel ready early enough, Marty raises a mustard cover crop in the fall, mows in down, wets the soil and lays plastic over it. “If you don’t put the plastic down, it will be like a desert in there in March, and even if you try to wet it the water will just sit on top of the soil. When I’m ready to grow I pull the plastic back and start planting for farmers market. But where the [giant] plant is going to go, I lay a soil cable in that warms the soil to 78-82 degrees, only for that plant. We put a hoop inside the hoophouse, sometimes with a little heat lamp on a timer. The little hoop comes off during the last week of April or first week of May.” Continue reading

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

“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

“This is amazing,” said Susan Jutz at the end of T.D.’s field day, as we loitered in his spacious and tidy machine shop. “He does so much… and he’s so young.”

Indeed, this was T.D. Holub’s first field day with PFI, which he hosted with his fiance, Sarah Gericke, near Coggon at their Garden Oasis Farm. The topic of the field day was “Tools and Tractors” and attendees tried out several of each, including his Allis Chalmers G, RainFlo water wheel, several seeders, wheel hoes, hand tools, and shop equipment – including a batch egg washer he built. Garden Oasis Farm maintains a 100-member CSA , 4-5 wholesale accounts, and does markets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Independence. In addition to vegetables, T.D. and Sarah raise eggs and meat chickens, and have a few goats.

T.D. and Sarah rent land from T.D.’s family. From where he farms, he can see his old house, and his return to the farm aligned perfectly so he could buy the neighbor’s house, which is about 3/4 mile from his production fields. He is planning to drop a well for irrigation, but until then, waters-in transplants in with the water wheel, and then if needed, drives over each row slowly with the wheel raised and dripping water to give them an extra boost. Beyond that he has been lucky enough to get by with rainfall, only. (To hear all of this in T.D.’s words, check him out on the PFI Podcast: On-Farm.)

The field day started in the field and them moved inside to the machine shop and walk-in cooler. Read on for photos and details!



Holub FD (111) onions

Onions at Garden Oasis Farm

T.D. seeded beets and carrots, below with a Jang seeder, using the X24 plate (the radish plate). He is pleased with the carrots, but for the second year in a row, unhappy with beet establishment. If T.D. is direct seeding, after he uses the Perfecta (below) he comes back through and marks rows by just touching the top inch of soil with the cultivator, using welded-on row markers (made from cut down plow points). “If you can drive a straight line, you’ll never have to run a string-line ever again.” Continue reading