Renewable Farming

Highlights and insights from the Practical Farmers of Iowa conference

One of the most enthusiastic annual gathering of farmers each winter is the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference. It’s starting to outgrow the big Scheman Center at Iowa State University.

Jan 24, 2016  Introduction by Jerry Carlson — I’ve been a PFI member and research participant many years. Our often-repeated byword here originated with PFI founders Dick and Sharon Thompson of Boone, Iowa:  “Show me the data.”

PFI Conference participants come from a wide array of farming. Renewable Farming has often staffed a display booth for WakeUP at the conference. This year, our two delegates to the conference were 19-year-old family members Blake and Terry Carlson, sons of General Manager Erik Carlson and his wife Jeanene.

Their assignment: Collect ideas that could interest and benefit our WakeUP clients. 

Blake took special interest in one cover-crop concept: Low-growing perennial cover crop blends which keep growing all season, and keep returning fresh each year. These are short grasses and nitrogen-fixing legumes which don’t compete aggressively with interplanted row crops. Thus they don’t need “termination” by crimping or chemicals to avoid serious competition with beans or corn planted into the cover. We’re looking more intently into the species which allow perennial covers. PFI’s early farmer research projects on cover crops date back to the mid-1980s. 

Here is a “Cliff Notes” summary of key points out of sessions Blake and Terry attended.

By Blake and Terry Carlson

Joel Gruver is a faculty member at Western Illinois University and director of the WIU Organic Research Program. He emphasized balanced farming, citing just a few studies and their results available at this link:

Most of his talk was relating results of his crop research and the effects on soil. It was more indicative of the research program as a whole rather than hard data, although he gave various examples of his trial results. Examples are at this website:

Terry Carlson (left) and Blake Carlson

Sara and Bob Pearson operate a 40 acre transitional organic farm called Prairie Sky Farms in Wesley, Iowa. His approach was “Hard work, moderate smarts, consistently good products — and preparation.”

He had waited and saved money before to starting his farm investment. When asked what he might have done differently he replied: “Waited longer.”

Link to contact information:

Jonathan Lundgren is an agroecologist and director of the ECDYSIS foundation as well as the CEO of Blue Dasher Farm. He said the key to pest management was not to eliminate pests, but rather to facilitate a diverse and balanced insect population.

He emphasized the dangers of commercial farming practices such as tilling, pesticide use, genetic modification and monoculture. 

His solution: Stimulate insect diversity by severely limiting or totally avoiding pesticide usage and diversifying plant species with prairie, intercropping, conservation strips or other practices to multiply kinds of plants in the field.

Some diversity is better than none, but many species including grasses and legumes are better than a few. Lundgren believes the reason diversity in plant and insect species curbs pest damage is somewhat like intensive cattle grazing. If corn rootworms are challenged by a large population and diversity of rootworm predators, the predators are going to find a way to take out rootworms.

Although he encouraged insect diversity he did not advise importing any supposedly beneficial insect species. “If you build it, they’ll come,” he said, meaning that if field conditions are attractive, insect populations will naturally diversify. 

Also, microbiologists have observed that each new species of plant in a field encourages about ten fresh species of beneficial, competitive soil microorganisms.

Throughout the talk he pointed out the dangerous drop in diversity we are experiencing. “It makes what happened to the dinosaurs look like child’s play.” 

Tim and Lori Diebel own a 10-acre farm with an orchard, prairie, and garden. Their session was a “roundtable,” where participants swapped their personal experiences with hobby farming. Everyone swapped contact info, and talked about their crop and livestock growing experiences. Tim Diebel is a former pastor who is learning how to grow food in a family-farm setting.

Three beginning farmers shared lessons from their first five years of farming. 

Donna Warhover bought her three-acre farm in 2013 with her husband, Bill. They operate Morning Glory, a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Mt. Vernon. They’ve steadily increased their CSA shareholders. Even so they’ve had abundant production and are able to donate food for a cause that Donna is passionate about. In their third year, they constructed a high tunnel. She added it’s “Lots of work!”

  • Lesson 1 – “People. It’s all about the people” – Communicate your values and beliefs of foundation of farm. This will bring very committed customers and respect to your farm. If others buy into those values and that mission, they will be great reps and buyers.
  • Lesson 2 – Planting: keep planting but plant wisely, so you don’t plant more than you can care for.
  • Lesson 3 – Brand recognition: The right type of advertisement is worth it. 
  • Lesson 4 — The right tools and equipment are worth it.

Rory Van Wyk grew up on a small, diverse livestock farm. He and his wife, Lynette, are working to teach daughters Annika and Emma to be good stewards of their 40 acres of land purchased two years ago and called RoLynn Hills. Their points:

  • When beginning to farm, be ready to dive in completely with accumulating new knowledge, finding mentors, joining conferences, classes, field days, etc.
  • One good source: “Holistic Management International
  • Also very valuable – Financial Peace University, originated by consultant Dave Ramsey
  • Skills needed to save money: mechanical and handyman skills to fix stuff
  • Physical assets: land of course, and carefully evaluate your equipment. Go for multipurpose machines.
  • Safety!!! – Safety glasses, gloves etc. Can’t lose productive time or health.
  • Build a web: network, have multiple enterprises : make one at a time.
  • Tap family, friends, church, customers for good support and clientele.
  • Rory also offered participants a list of other useful resources. This will be available on the Practical Farmers of Iowa conference proceedings site soon. 

Angela Johnson and her family operate their small conservancy farm near Derby in Lucas County, south central Iowa. Since 2013, they have been raising Large Black pigs, Devon milking cows, a flock of heritage laying hens, heritage meat birds, guinea fowl, a small herd of meat goats, rabbits, geese and ducks. She did not have a farm background.

  • They found their farm listed for sale on Craigslist. Bought 15 acres for $59,000 and paid with cash. It had a house, shed, pond and other amenities. 
  • Their emphasis: Making connections, reaching out and asking questions, and taking opportunities that set you apart.
  • Quality over quantity
  • What’s different about your food?
  • Why do you go back to some foods instead of other foods?
  • Set goals for the next year


Patrice Gros showed how to generate “High Profits With a No-Till Farming System.”

He maintained that his no-till farming system is peaceful, neighborhood-friendly and incredibly profitable.

Learning how to farm no-till drives high profit margins, he said. He runs Foundation Farm, a 6-acre USDA-certified organic farm near Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Over the last 20 years, he has progressed toward a full no-till system. On half an acre of ground, his yearly production exceeds $80,000. Crops are grown continuously through the seasons, outdoors and inside high tunnels.

  • He involves no machines, no fertilizer.
  • Yield doubled in those ten years, and less water is needed
  • His emphasis: finding what not to do. Such as no machines: no compaction.
  • Permanent bed systems and permanent walking paths block compaction. He does not even step on the growing beds.
  • High tunnels help with rain compaction.
  • Organic matter content has risen from 5% 10 years ago to 8.5% currently. 
  • How did he get that organic matter? Mulch – rabbit manure, cover cropping, crop residues, grass clippings.
  • Compost is part of the system. It’s happening in the ground; he does not have compost piles.
  • How is he dealing with cover crops? “Just let them be until they die and decay.”
  • Mulch: Don’t use: hay, sawdust, plastic. Do use: any grain, pine needles (says acidity is not any problem at all.), woodchips, sand.
  • Recommends books – “One Straw Revolution” by Musanobu Fukuoka and “Teaming with Microbes” by Elaine Ingham  

Cut flowers for beginners – the speaker did not arrive so another very knowledgable flower grower came up and started a Q&A session. Main points extracted:

  • Plant flowers that are difficult to ship, to give florists a reason to buy from you locally.
  • The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers is a great source of information to someone who wants to dive into the local cut flower business.
  • Small to medium sized florists will usually give local growers good business.
  • Look to be around urban communities to sell local grown flowers.
  • She runs delivery routes. Every week she sends out an availability email – keeps a lot of good business because of her customer service
  • Plants in successions.
  • When handling flowers keep everything clean
  • Need a very cool environment to store flowers before selling.
  • Need to be very reliable and consistent to keep customers.
  • Let customers and florists know that local flowers will be very fresh and are not going to have formaldehyde and other chemicals on them.