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.


Mark Peterson, with Anna Johnson (l) and Stephanie Enloe (r) from Center for Rural Affairs at the public hearing Monday

Mark Peterson, with Anna Johnson (l) and Stephanie Enloe (r) from Center for Rural Affairs at the public hearing Monday


Mark Peterson of Stanton,  Aaron Lehman of Polk City, Liz Garst of Coon Rapids, Angie Carter of Davenport, Ryan Marquardt of  Van Meter, and Joe McGovern of Bondurant spoke in support of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture during Monday’s public hearing with lawmakers at the Capitol. Continue reading

Dennis and Cathy Carlson
Carlson Tree Farm
Members since 2014
Hampton, IA

Cathy and Dennis grow chemical-free trees and wheat on their 17-acre farm near Hampton. Their tree farm – Carlson Tree Farm – specializes in Christmas trees and related products, such as fresh wreaths.

The couple started Carlson Tree in the 1980s to generate extra family income. Dennis, who worked as a forester for Franklin County Conservation (when he retired in 2010, he served as director there), was able to apply his expertise to farming trees.

Today, the business remains a family endeavor. The couple’s three children – Michelle, Kelly and Ben – grew up with the business and still help. Michelle’s and Kelly’s husbands and children are also now part of the operation; and siblings, nieces and nephews and their children also help.

Cathy and Dennis raise about 4,000 trees – a mix of Scotch pine, white pine, white spruce, blue spruce and  Fraser firs – on a 10-year rotation, selling about 300 to 400 per year.

In addition to the tree farm, Cathy has for many years operated Cathy’s Country Cook’n, baking special-order wedding cakes, pies, cookies and breads, and teaching classes in bread-making.

The wheat she grows is used to make whole-wheat flour that she bags and sells either as grain for customers to grind, or pre-ground into flour.

Learn more about Cathy and Dennis in this 2014 article published in Agri News.



In 2015, Practical Farmers and Prairie Sky Farm hosted a workshop to build a Four Seasons Tools high tunnel. Two years later, Chris Deal, who attended the Prairie Sky high tunnel build workshop, was ready put up his own, and it was the right moment for a 2017 PFI build workshop! Much of the work was similar to the 2015 build, which we documented in a photo blog and video blog. In this workshop re-cap, I’ll highlight the differences between the two structures and the build process.

For the high tunnel build at Deal’s, the group was led by Jeff Mikesell, who installs FST high tunnels through a company called Ag Roofs. Thanks, Jeff!

Ground Posts

Chris’ site had a little slope to it, so he decided to run his high tunnel north-south to allow the slope to run the length of the tunnel. After he squared the site, the four corner posts were pounded in. We marked each post at the depth each needed to be pounded, and watched a post-level as we went. As done at Prairie Sky Farm, we used a skid loader to push the posts down, instead of a hammer. Be sure to use the ground post cap or you’ll ruin the ends! Once we had the corners in, we ran a string the length of the tunnel, tied to the ground posts at the bottom of the swage. By sinking each ground post to match the bottom of the swage to the string, we ensured the tunnel would run evenly down the slight grade.

We also used strings on each side of the ground post (top and bottom) to help keep the posts aligned. A tape measure was on the ground to ensure a post every 6 feet.

Across the tunnel (the 30 ft way) we used a string level at the bottom of the swage and adjusted the ground posts as needed (not pictured).


Building Bows

Because Chris had a 96 ft high tunnel, we used 2 stations to assemble the bows. The tunnel width is 30 ft, center-to-center on the bows. This means the outside-to-outside measure of the bows is 30′ 2 3/8″. We set up a rebar jig at 30′ 1 3/8″, which provides an inch of tension on the bow.

Use rebar to build a hoop jig.

Use rebar to build a hoop jig.

Continue reading

The following is my testimony in favor of funding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at a public hearing this morning on Iowa’s 2018 budget. The budget proposal cuts funding to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and would force the organization to close its doors after 30 years. 

Providing testimony at public hearing Monday, April 17

Providing testimony at public hearing Monday, April 17

Good Morning,

My wife Melanie and I farm in southwest Iowa close to Stanton. Currently, I serve as a supervisor in Montgomery County and also I am the board president for Practical Farmers of Iowa. Practical Farmers was founded in 1985 in the middle of the farm crisis. We are proud to say that we are a “big tent” organization in that our members come from all political persuasions. The glue that binds our organization together is the sharing of on farm research by our members. By working together for a common goal we are able to improve our farms. We have in the past stayed out of politics. Today for what I believe is the first time that changes. As a conservative republican I am disappointed with what I hear happening. We ask you to continue funding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

My understanding is that the funding for the Leopold Center would be diverted to strictly nutrient research. While nutrient reduction is important, it is not the total answer to improve water quality. On our farm, we are in our third year of testing for nitrates. With what we have learned from Practical Farmers and the Leopold Center only once has one of our sites been over the 10 ppm nitrate standard. While proper fertilizer placement, timing and amount are part of equation so are expanded crop rotation strategies and the use of cover crops.

Here are thoughts from some of our members:

“The Leopold Center has helped fund on-farm research at Practical Farmers

of Iowa for three decades, Through that research, I have learned and adopted practices that I didn’t know I could use on my farm. The Leopold Center’s support is extremely important to farm organizations like PFI and to farmers like me who want to know how to make Iowa agriculture more sustainable.” -Vic Madsen, Audubon County farmer

“As a farmland owner I have seen first-hand how the Leopold Center has been the moral compass for the agriculture web of reciprocity, that of giving back more than it takes from its soil, water and the environment.  Through the research accomplished at the Leopold Center farmers have gleaned information for increased profitability for their crop-livestock enterprises.  In this cyclical timing of lower grain, oilseed and livestock prices farmers have and continue to look at organizations like the Leopold Center for well researched employable ideas for Iowa’s food, feed and livestock systems.” -Gail Hickenbottom, of Polk County. Gail also serves on the Leopold Center advisory board.

The Leopold Center was founded in tough ag economic times. Through their research and funding of everything from waterways to wineries, life in rural Iowa has improved both economically and also environmentally. We are in tough times again. The work of the Leopold Center is nowhere near done.

Please continue to fund the Leopold Center. It’s the right thing to do. Thank You.

Mark Peterson, with Anna Johnson (l) and Stephanie Enloe (r) from Center for Rural Affairs at the public hearing Monday

Mark Peterson, with Anna Johnson (l) and Stephanie Enloe (r) from Center for Rural Affairs at the public hearing Monday

Russ and Phyllis Brandes hosted 30 at their farm Tuesday, April 4 for a spring cover crop field day. After a week of wet weather, a sunless but dry day served attendees just fine.

Russ operates Brandes Farms Inc., a 400-acre corn and soybean operation that incorporates cover crops and some alfalfa. He also has a small cow-calf herd and hogs. Russ is the 4th generation to farm the land near Hancock. His great-grandfather started farming the area in 1874. Russ grew up where he now lives.

Of the experiences he shared, Russ said, “This is what I do on my farm. It’s not the right way, just my way. Other farms have different soils and different circumstances.” This is a great reminder that could start off each field day Practical Farmers holds—farmers serve as great examples to learn from, not models to aspire to.

Russ speaking to field day attendees

Russ speaking to field day attendees

Russ has served as a commissioner or assistant commissioner for East Pottawattamie County Soil Water Conservation District since 1983. He has also been no-till farming since the mid-80s. Russ injects hog manure from his operation into his soils every other year. Russ was disappointed that his organic matter wasn’t increasing, despite regular manure injections. So, he started experimenting with cover crops.

Russ first tried cover crops in 2013. His first go at it was ryegrass flown onto soybean at yellow leaf stage. In 2014 Russ had cereal rye flown onto corn at black layer. Continue reading

On Thursday April 6, fifty-one attendees gathered in the Leighton Town Hall for a cover crop field day hosted by Ward Van Dyke. After tucking into a delicious lunch organized by Sandi Van Dyke, we dove into the management and benefits of cover crops. We stayed indoors and had several presentations inside to kick off the program before moving our “cover crop caravan” to two field sites on two different farms to see cover crops on the ground.


Field day attendees “caravan” between Ward Van Dyke and Arvin Vander Wilt’s fields passing green cover crop fields (left) on the way.

First Ward spoke about his experience with cover crops. He started slow with oats, but now he does everything with cereal rye. Though he thinks the cover crops are great for stewardship, he’s now looking to “make cover crops pay” through weed control. And so far it’s working, he said, “we just don’t get the problems with marestail when there’s rye.” Last year, he added a pre-emergent herbicide to the glyphosate burndown, but was able to cut out all herbicide applications after that. This year he hopes to leave off the pre-emergent herbicide application altogether.

Continue reading

On March 30, a group of farmers got together to learn about grazing cover crops and the value cattle bring to crop fields. Bruce Carney, a cattle grazier who produces grass-fed beef, and Rick Kimberley, a row-crop farmer, are neighbors who live outside Maxwell, IA. They’ve worked out an agreement for Bruce to graze cover crops on Rick’s fields, and both farmers are reaping the benefits.


Bruce Carney (left), a cattle grazier, and Rick Kimberley, a row-crop farmer, are neighbors and have worked out an agreement to graze cover crops on crop fields.

Bruce and Rick are collecting data for an on-farm research project demonstrating the economic and soil health benefits of grazing cover crops. Practical Farmers is working with The Pasture Project to measure below-ground benefits of cover crops and animal impact. Attendees gathered in a field that had been aerial seeded with a six-species mix in September 2016. The mix included cereal rye, spring forage barley, hairy vetch, mustard, turnip and red clover. Six species were seeded in hopes to maximize soil health benefits.

At the time of the field day in late March, the rye had come back, but the cattle were not grazing yet because Bruce didn’t think it was tall enough. He turned his cattle out on April 12, when the rye was 10 inches tall. “The rye is now growing faster than the cattle are eating it. Right now only my grass-finishers are out grazing it, but I’m going to put my cows and calves on it too, since there’s so much re-growth,” explained Bruce.

Bruce Carney and group

Field day attendees listen to Bruce Carney explain how he grazes his neighbor’s cover crops. Bruce offers dry hay to his cattle when they’re out grazing lush cereal rye to ensure they get enough roughage.

Continue reading

Jack Boyer left) and Neil Sass of the NRCS discuss some deep soil cores pulled from some of Jacks cover crop fields.

Jack Boyer (left) and Neil Sass of the NRCS discuss some deep soil cores pulled from some of Jack’s cover crop fields.

On March 29, Jack Boyer hosted a field day to share his experiences and successes with using cover crops on his family’s farm near Reinbeck. Jack and his wife, Marion, are lifetime members of Practical Farmers. They raise corn, seed corn, soybeans and cereal rye for cover crop seed. They have been integrating cover crops into the fields for the last 6 years and are beginning to see the benefits, but still looking to find the quantifiable financial benefit in addition to the environmental benefit. Their over-arching goal: To leave the farm in as good or better condition than when we obtained it.

We had planned to head out to the field to see cover crops and cover crop roots in a soil pit but the rain that fell all morning didn’t allow us to do so. Luckily for us, Jack and folks from the NRCS did their best to “bring the field inside.” Continue reading

Greg Rebman
Rebman Farms
Member since 2015
Frederick, IL

Greg Rebman operates Rebman Farms near Frederick, Illinois, raising corn, soybeans, small grains and certified organic, rotationally grazed beef cattle on about 1,875 acres.

He uses cover crops on some of his farm’s row-crop acres – and is interested in transitioning more acres to cover crops as a means of providing “holistic fertility” on the farm and reducing synthetic fertilizer use.

Greg is also a regular reader of Practical Farmers’ on-farm research. When a new research report is published on PFI’s website, Greg is often one of the first to comment and get a conversation going with other farmers on one of our email discussion lists.

“I credit a lot of my own recent success to those conversations,” Greg says. “I would not have had the confidence in my 2016 rye enterprise had I not boned up on reports and contacted individual members on the discussion list to give me direction. We are expanding our cover crops and nitrogen ‘tweaking’ having been guided by some of the research done.”

In addition to farming, Greg offers a range of services for farmers and landowners through Rebman Farms, including creation of field and farm records; help analyzing and complying with government programs; development of crop and marketing plans; consulting services; and more.

The farm has been in the Rebman family for more than 100 years, and has been designated a Centennial Farm by the state of Illinois.

Learn more about Rebman Farms, its history and services, at


Map of My Kingdom has now been performed 56 times — and two more performances are already scheduled. An average of 50 people have attended each performance, so that’s 2,800 who have seen this PFI-commissioned play!

After Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander wrote this work that covers the tough questions involved in farmland transitions, Mary and I both thought there would be a handful of performances around the state.

And then the kudos started and the crowds came, leading to more kudos and more crowds.

Map performance in barn

A performance of Map of My Kingdom in one of my favorite spots: a barn near Lawler, Iowa. Here Tom and Irene Frantzen lead a post-play discussion.

“We’ve performed in farmers’ barns and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago,” Mary says. “We’ve performed in church basements and New York University. We’ve made a video that can be shown anywhere around the world. And we’ve begun a conversation about our vision for our land, who’s going to get the farm, and how we’re going to handle that succession in a positive way within our own families.”

In Map of My Kingdom, Angela Martin, a lawyer and mediator in land transition disputes, shares stories of how farmers and landowners she has worked with over the years approached their land successions. “Some people literally killed each other over this issue,” Martin says.  Some almost came to blows, struggling to resolve the sale or transfer of their land, dissolving relationships.  Others found peacefully rational solutions that focused not only on the viability of the family, but also of the land.

Land is the thread that binds all of the stories together.  “For most farmers I know, owning land means everything,” Angela Martin says. I am confident there will be 100-plus performances of Map of My Kingdom, because it resonates with those who have been through or are working through challenging land transfer issues that include division of the land among siblings, selling out to neighbors, and attempts to preserve the land’s integrity against urban sprawl.

To book a performance of Map of My Kingdom or Mary’s other wonderful plays, or to order a copy of the DVD of Map of My Kingdom, see