Beginning Farmer and Program Associate
Steve joined the Practical Farmers of Iowa team as a Beginning Farmer Consultant in December 2014. Having grown up just south of Ames in Central Iowa, Steve and his wife Katie were happy to recently move back to the area after 10 years away.
Upon receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa, Steve went on to acquire a masters in Applied Anthropology from the University of North Texas where he focused his research on agriculture and the environment. He began working for an heirloom seed bank at UNT and developed a passion for heritage crops and seed saving. His thesis project documented hundreds of heirloom apple varieties in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and sought to understand apple growers' perceptions of climate change and the effects of their management practices on apple diversity. After the completion of his master’s degree, Steve worked as the Communications Coordinator at Decorah, Iowa's Seed Savers Exchange.
In addition to his interest in heritage crop types and seed saving, Steve has been a long-time supporter of local and sustainable food. He is a firm believer in PFI's mission of farmer-to-farmer information sharing, and he's thrilled to join the PFI team in a role that allows him to connect enthusiastic beginning farmers with the resources they need to get started.
As farmers wrap up their season and plan for next, PFI’s farmer-cooperators have an additional responsibility: submit the data they collected from this year’s research trials and plan next year’s projects.
The first week in December marks the annual two-day Cooperators’ Meeting where farmer members meet to discuss these research results with each other and plan on-farm projects for the following year. In preparation for this meeting, staff members in Practical Farmers office are busy collecting this data, analyzing it and publishing the findings in detailed research reports for sharing far and wide.
In 2017, 51 farmer-cooperators participated in 71 projects that concluded or are still on-going.
2017 On-Farm Research Project Locations:
Since 1987, more than 230 different farmers have conducted 1,359 research trials on their farms. Results from this research are shared through research reports; the Practical Farmer, our quarterly newsletter; in various agriculture magazines, at field days and workshops; at our annual conference; and at our annual cooperators’ meeting. Knowledge from these research projects has influenced both farmers and university researchers to adjust their designs to better fit farmers’ needs – and even been the foundation for ground-truthing hypotheses that ultimately led to university research projects.
2017 Field Crops Projects
- Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yields, Year 9 Update
- Hybrid Rye Variety Trial
- Tea Bag Soil Decomposition Index: Cover vs. No-cover
- Interseeding Covers into Seed Corn at V3-6 stage
- Corn Leaf Orientation for Interseeding Covers at V5
- N Fertilizer Strategies for Corn Following Cover Crop
- Rolling Cover Crops and Soybean Row-Width
- Soybean Row-Width and Rolled Cover Crop Mulch
- Roll-Crimping Cover Crops and Soybean Planting Date
- Spring-seeded Brassica Cover Crops
- Spring-Seeded Oat Cover Crop
- Spring-Seeded Cover Crop Mixes
- Underseeded vs. Mid-summer-seeded Green Manures for Corn
- Planter Settings for Organic Corn
2017 Livestock Projects
- Grazing Cover Crops
- Beef Carcass Quality
- Pelleted Small Grains
- Feeding Hybrid Rye
- Apple Cider Vinegar and Dairy Cattle
- Bird Monitoring in Rotationally Grazed Pastures
- Forage-Fed Pigs
- Winter Feed Monitoring on a Grass-Fed Cattle Farm
2017 Horticulture Projects
- High Tunnel Tomato Variety Trial
- Long Purple Carrots
- Summer Lettuce Variety Trial
- Cherry/Salad Tomato Enterprise Budgets
- Sheep Grazing Cover Crop Before Fall Brassica
- Mulch Trial in Strawberries
- Annual Flower Mix Strips
- Summer Broccoli Variety Trial, 2013-2017
“Goat meat is the primary red meat consumed by the majority of the world population,” Cheryl began with, citing a Cornell University source. Although many American’s prefer beef, populations from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean – as well as many specific religious traditions – rely heavily on goat meat over other red meats.
Considering that the foreign-born population in the U.S. has doubled since 1980 to nearly 13 percent of the total population (US Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey), Cheryl and Mike Hopkins saw an opportunity. “They’re bringing their dietary preferences with them,” she explained.
So, how do Cheryl and Mike Hopkins of Frog Hollow Farm raise and market their goats? Nearly 40 people showed up to their farm near Walker, Iowa, on a comfortable August morning to find out.
They began their 30-acre farm in 2010, where they rotationally graze Boer and Kiko goats on pasture. After retiring from careers in other industries and with kids now out of the house, Cheryl and Mike describe this new venture as their dream job. But don’t be fooled by the description of a post-retirement dream job: this is an income-generating farm and every decision the Hopkins’ make is calculated. In their seven years of operation, they’ve made many adjustments to their production and marketing in order to increase efficiency and quality.
“We started out doing direct meat sales and market kids. We were selling through the Iowa Valley Food Co-op, which is basically an online farmers market. We were selling retail cuts of meat, so we had to have a grocery license in order to store that meat and then ship it and sell it through the co-op.” After spending time and effort building their direct sales accounts, their local meat locker discontinued small private label accounts. This is when Frog Hollow Farm shifted their focus from direct markets to producing market kids. “We produce and sell 60 pound market goats, primarily for Muslim markets. That’s what we do here, we do it well, and we can produce a lot of them.” The goats are sold live, between five to six months old.
The Hopkins aim for a 60 pound live market weight for their kids because they’ve found their primary market in the Muslim community will pay less for heavier kids. Cheryl’s understanding is that in these families, the carcass is often purchased whole and processed at home. Muslims don’t eat leftovers, so a 60 pound goat yields a manageable carcass size at an affordable price to feed a family.
They sometimes work with a Halal slaughter plant in Shannon, Illinois, who pays based on hanging weight. But over the last couple of years they began to take many of their goats to the local sale barn in Kalona, where a handful of buyers get orders for the Eastern US, and can pay more competitive prices. “You can hit a nice price bump if you target ethnic holidays,” added Cheryl.
Cheryl then explained how they’ve come to raise both the Boer and Kiko breeds. Boer goats traditionally have a white body with a red head and long ears. She says they get a premium for Boers because the buyers like their red head—sometimes as much as $.25 to $.30 more per pound. It’s an arid-region breed originally from South Africa and is relatively new to the US. They require routine hoof trimming, and are susceptible to parasites (which is a common problem in goats), but are very efficient at putting on muscle.
The Kiko is a production goat breed developed by extension research in New Zealand. Contrary to the Boer goats, Kikos were bred based on qualities like parasite resistance, hoof health and udder structure. “We added the Kiko because they are very well known for their maternal traits. I call them the tiger mom. They really push their kids to get up and nurse and they’re right there taking care of them, so we don’t worry about the Kiko mom,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong, the Boers are good moms, but these are tiger moms.”
For the past couple of years they’ve been working on genetics using what Cheryl calls “very classic breeding schemes,” hoping to get some of the qualities from their Kiko goats with the distinct red heads found in the Boer goats. “Our goal is to have the cross-bred doe herd for maternal traits, low maintenance, herd health, the hooves and parasite resistance, and then use our Boer bucks to breed back and have market animals.” They’ve been happy to find that the Kiko –Boer crosses so far have retained their maternal traits.
The Hopkins production system begins in the winter with kidding in December and January— to capture the highest market prices in the spring. The kids are weaned at around 90 days (Boers around 27 pounds, Kikos slightly smaller) and will head to market anywhere between 100 and 150 days (60 pounds) in springtime.
Winter-time kidding involves high labor, as Cheryl and Mike check on the kidding barn every four hours. Newborns are moved to kidding pens for nursing and bonding with does for one to three days. When asked when winter-time kidding was worth the labor, Cheryl pointed out that winter is traditionally a slower time on their farm, and due to lower parasite pressure in winter the kids tend to do better. They use a deep bedding system throughout the barn with an insulated kidding room split into smaller pens. Lactating does have access to free-choice hay and are supplemented with soy hull pellets and shell corn. Once the kids have been in the nursery for a week or more they join the herd.
The Hopkins balance the doe’s rations for raising twins, “so if she has more than twins we’re going to take the extra and artificially rear them,” adding that if a doe has a single, she’s not earning her way: “The rule of thumb that I was always taught was the first kid pays the doe’s bill, the second kid is where you start making money.”
“We have 15 paddocks set up, thanks to our conservation project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). We were able to subdivide our pastures into paddocks and put in what we call a three-season watering system.” It’s a one-inch water line on top of the ground, and just before freeze-up they can disconnect and drain for winter.
John Bruene, district conservationist for Linn County NRCS, described the technical and financial assistance they provided Frog Hollow Farm through EQIP starting back in 2012. The process involved several meetings and farm visits, building on the Hopkins’ goals and priorities and what they determined is appropriate for the land. Prior to Cheryl and Mike buying the farm, the land was in the Conservation Reserve Program. The ground has a 60 CSR (Corn Suitability Rating), with a mix of sand and clay soil, which lends itself well to permanent pastures.
Once a conservation plan was agreed upon, the Hopkins were able to implement the plan and get cost-share. The rate of cost-share changes each year depending on data for the value of the equipment, but for Mike and Cheryl it included $137 for each portable watering tank and $.35 per foot for portable electric fencing, among other things (see map image).
“The first thing I think every farm should vaccinate for is called “C, D and T”, she said, referring to clostridium type C, type D, and tetanus. Kids are vaccinated at 4 weeks old, and given a booster at 8 weeks old. In addition, they vaccinate for pneumonia, and does get an annual booster about 6 weeks before having kids.
“With goats and small ruminants in general, parasites are a common issue. And we’ve found that grazing management is one tool to help control parasites, as well as certain forage types have both physical and nutritional benefits.”
Through a research project in PFI’s Cooperators Program (Goat Grazing to Reduce Parasite Loads), they frost seeded forages such as sericea lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil and chicory, which act as natural dewormers. They also moved the herd to new paddocks every 3-5 days, making sure not to allow goats to graze below 4 inches, where larvae are found.
“Worm larvae use dew and moisture to climb up grass blades. They generally don’t climb much higher than four inches, so we don’t want to graze our pastures shorter than that.” She’s also found that the worms can’t easily climb up different types of non-grass forages like legumes or forbs, which is another benefit of diversifying their pastures.
Frog Hollow Farm also participated in a research project looking at alternative free-choice minerals for goats, which Cheryl says led them to use loose mineral and has helped enhance their overall herd health. Ultimately they’ve found these pasture and mineral techniques have decreased parasite loads, resulting in a 24% reduction in dewormer use.
“The takeaway message I hope everyone can go home with, in terms of herd health, is there’s no one single thing that’s going to be magic. It’s putting these different techniques together.”
Thank you to everyone who attended the field day and asked great questions, major thanks to Mike and Cheryl Hopkins for opening up their farm, and also thanks to the field day sponsors: Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District, Premier 1 Fence, and the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.
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
During each winter season dating back to November 2009, Practical Farmers of Iowa has been offering unique online learning opportunities referred to as Farminars. With a rich history of farmer-to-farmer education in the form of on-farm field days, farminars were a logical extension of this format for the off-season.
These interactive webinars feature both beginning and experienced PFI farmers sharing practical knowledge on a range of topics for row crop, livestock and fruit and vegetable producers. Attendees log in to listen to a live presentation over a slideshow and are able to ask questions in a chatbox. Registration is not required, all our farminars are free, and they’re recorded for later viewing.
This year we started on Tuesday November 15, holding 17 weekly farminars for 446 live viewers. Already these presentations have had 1,085 views in our farminar archive.
To date, Practical Farmers has held a total of 138 farminars that drew 5,561 live attendees. In our archives, these presentations have been viewed 49,369 times.
Over the past several weeks, you may have noticed a flurry of research reports being published and blogged about by Practical Farmers’ staff members. This is an annual occurrence as PFI farmer-cooperators submit data from their on-farm research trials to be analyzed and published prior to the December Cooperators’ Meeting. At the two-day event happening this week, our farmer members gather to discuss past research and plan on-farm projects for the next year.
Learn about this longstanding Practical Farmers program, and the research projects conducted during the 2016 season.
Beginning and aspiring farmers all fall on a very large spectrum, ranging from something like being “farm-curious” to having nearly 10 years running a farm under their belt. That’s a wide range of experience and knowledge levels, and Practical Farmers of Iowa strives to offer programming for folks at these various points on the spectrum.
For someone early on this spectrum—from being curious about whether a farming career is the right fit for them to the point where they’re just about to take the leap on their own—not much will be as helpful for them as a glimpse into the process of running a farm. This is why PFI’s Labor4Learning program exists.
Each winter we post a list of experienced farmers in our network who will be participating in the Labor4Learning program as a “trainer farm.” These farmers plan to hire an employee, and have agreed to provide additional training on running a farm business to an aspiring farmer through this program. The trainer farms are vetted by a committee of PFI members and if the farm finds a suitable trainee, they’re compensated for the extra time they spend training.
In 2016, one of these farms was Patchwork Green Farm run by Erik Sessions in Decorah. Erik hired two individuals who were both deciding whether a farming career would be a good fit for them, and to determine what that farm would look like.
Emily Dansdill grew up in nearby Calmar, Iowa, and has had experience gardening and working with another local produce farm. She also works seasonally at northeast Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange, a 980 acre farm stewarding heritage and heirloom fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Emily and her husband are looking for land to pursue a culinary and medicinal herb farm.
Emily Fagan grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, before heading to Oregon for school and then later to work on a farm in Boulder, Colorado. Continuing her quest for more on-farm experience, a friend who attended Decorah’s Luther College recommended she look into Patchwork Green Farm. Emily was glad to work for Erik because of his farm’s scale compared to the previous farm she worked with, which she thought might be closer to what she wants to pursue. Continue reading
Perhaps a whopping 85 people showed up to this field day because beginning vegetable growers are eager to learn what issues need to be considered when spatially setting up a vegetable farm. Perhaps the large turnout was due to PFI having more members in Story County than any of Iowa’s other 98 counties. Maybe Julia has a large network of friends, peers and customers who just want to support her and tour the farm. Or the high attendance could have been influenced by the fact that this field day was held at a farm that shared space with a brewery and winery. The truth is, if you talked to enough people that day, the answer was all of the above.
Regardless of any other explanations, we knew this was a topic beginning farmers wanted to hear about, and Julia Slocum of Lacewing Acres in Ames was happy to share her knowledge. We wanted her to discuss how she spatially setup her 3-acre plot of fruits and vegetables, and how this is related to her tillage, weeding, crop rotation and other production considerations. She joked that it might be a presentation on learning from her experiences of what not to do—and at times it was—but what better way for beginners to learn than from other’s mistakes?? After the field day, though, it was clear that Julia has spent a lot of time thinking about how to set up her farm. She has sought out resources and learning opportunities, reflected on her own experiences, and is constantly improving her system to fit her circumstances. Continue reading
This unique field day gave attendees an opportunity to visit the farm of a beginning farmer in her 3rd year, then head down the road to visit the farm of her mentor who’s in her 40th year. Seeing the two farms side by side and learning about the relationship between the two farmers was an excellent way to understand scale, mentorship, and growth.
From Mentorship to Partnership
Having grown up visiting her grandparent’s farm in Avoca, there was always a soft spot in Amber Mohr’s heart not only for farm life, but for life on that farm. Her grandparents raised chickens, beef cattle, had a 3 to 4 year crop rotation and even a grade B dairy for several years; it was a true diversified family farm. So when the time came to consider the future of the farm, Amber and her husband Jeremy Hall decided they wanted to continue the legacy. Continue reading
Leading up to this June 23rd field day in Southern Iowa, a forecast of rain turned into a concern about the heat, but it ended up being a beautiful day for learning about flower production.
Thirty-five people travelled down to Lamoni, situated just off I-35 on the Missouri-Iowa border. We gathered at Chad and Katie Hensley’s Big Creek Farms, where they’ve been raising cut flowers and produce on about 1.5 acres for four years. Chad began by describing the history of their farm including his initial interest in cut flowers: dollars and cents. Return on investment is quick, flowers can be very profitable per square foot, and they saw a market for chemical-free locally-grown flowers.
Before delving deeper into the topic of the day, guest speaker Ann Franzenburg introduced herself and her farm’s history with growing flowers. Ann was on hand to provide attendees with her insight from eight seasons of cut flower production at Pheasant Run Farm in Van Horne, where flowers fit in with their “safety net” of diverse enterprises including row crops, hogs, produce, medicinal herbs and cut flowers. They’ve learned over time to start small with a new venture, and scale up over time.
If you’ve been tuned-in to any news outlet for even a brief period of time recently, chances are strong that you’ve heard a lot about two issues: the elections, and Iowa’s water quality. And if these two issues have left you frustrated and wondering how to get involved and make a difference, consider becoming a Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner.
There are 100 SWCDs in Iowa, one for each county with two in Pottawattamie. Each district is made up of five commissioners who are elected to four-year terms, with no two commissioners from the same township within their district. The board of commissioners is tasked with guiding soil and water conservation programs in the county by developing conservation plans to help allocate funding and promote conservation practices. Commissioners are volunteers who commit to meeting once a month.
Currently, 45 PFI members are serving as commissioners or assistant commissioners, representing 33 of the 100 conservation districts in Iowa. Learn more about what it’s like to be a commissioner in this brochure, this blog post, in the spring 2016 issue of The Practical Farmer, or in the infographic below.
First, hear what PFI members have to say about being a commissioner: