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Field Day Recap: Wendy Johnson, September 12

On a beautiful late-summer morning in September, about 45 people made their way to Wendy Johnson’s farm near Charles City, Iowa to hear about her experience returning to the family farm and trying new enterprises and production practices. After leaving the farm to study clothing design and pursue a career on the west coast (with a couple years in Brazil sandwiched in between her years in California), Wendy decided five years ago to come back to Iowa and follow her agricultural roots with her husband Johnny Rafkin.

Wendy’s been working full-time for her father Erwin since their return, and has also been experimenting with a variety of enterprises on their own. They currently rent 27 acres from Erwin, trying poultry, pigs, and sheep, sharing their experiences with each of these enterprises throughout the day.

Wendy started the day by talking about the 27 acres they currently have, which is in organic transition and set to be finished with the three year process this coming June. In order to qualify for financial assistance through the NRCS-run Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wendy was required to produce a Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) that outlines the specific resource needs for her operation to go organic. Wendy hired Joe Lally to help produce the enormous document (it cost about $2,000 to produce, covered by EQIP funds), who was on hand to discuss the process. Joe has written plans in nine different states, and is currently the only technical service provider in Iowa to work on organic transition plans. Wendy hopes to acquire and transition another 80 acres within the next 5 years and intends to feed their livestock much of what they grow on-farm.

The livestock on the farm are not a part of her organic transition plan, but she is pursuing other niche markets for them. Her poultry and swine are fed non-GMO grain, with eventual plans to be corn and soy-free, while her sheep are 100% grass-fed.

Before setting out on the farm tour, Wendy prefaced: “I am no expert in any of these things. I’m a beginning farmer and I’m always learning,” adding “but I think I’ll always be learning!” She gave credit to her parents, saying she has the opportunity to try these new enterprises because of them. She also gave credit to the Practical Farmers of Iowa community, which she’s drawn a lot from.  Her farming mentors, Tom and Irene Frantzen as well as Margaret Smith and Doug Alert, were all in attendance and offered their insight throughout the day.

Attendees were greeted by a diversity of free-range farm animals when they arrived: A few cats, goats, turkeys and ducks, and dozens of laying hens. They find for the most part, none of the animals stray outside the homestead.

Attendees were greeted by a diversity of free-range farm animals when they arrived: A few cats, goats, turkeys and ducks, and dozens of laying hens. They find for the most part, none of the animals stray outside the homestead.

Standing in the 27 acres transitioning to organic, currently planted in alfalfa, Wendy explains their five-year rotation plan, starting last year: oats + alfalfa, alfalfa, alfalfa, corn, field pea + succotash. She added that this rotation is still a work in progress, but she hopes to work out a system that avoids soybeans.

Standing in the 27 acres transitioning to organic, currently planted in alfalfa, Wendy explains their five-year rotation plan, starting last year: oats + alfalfa, alfalfa, alfalfa, corn, field pea + succotash. She added that this rotation is still a work in progress, but she hopes to work out a system that avoids soybeans.

Joe Lally is the organic technical service provider (TSP) who helped Wendy create her CAP as part of the process to receive financial assistance for an organic transition through EQIP.

Joe Lally is the organic technical service provider (TSP) who helped Wendy create her CAP as part of the process to receive financial assistance for an organic transition through EQIP.

Tom Frantzen speaks as Bri Farber (sunglasses) and other attendees look on.

Tom Frantzen speaks as Bri Farber (sunglasses) and other attendees look on.

Wendy said this year she got 57 lambs out of 25 ewes. This is the first year she’s kept her lambs 100% grass-fed, and explained that she found the limits to her pasture and recently pulled some lambs off to finish with a grass alfalfa mix on this dry lot. She intends to learn more about pasture management and find a good balance for the grazing operation next year.

Wendy said this year she got 57 lambs out of 25 ewes. This is the first year she’s kept her lambs 100% grass-fed, and explained that she found the limits to her pasture and recently pulled some lambs off to finish with a grass alfalfa mix on this dry lot. She intends to learn more about pasture management and find a good balance for the grazing operation next year.

Wendy grew up raising pigs on the family farm and still loves to keep them around. She says they’re easy to care for and are the more profitable enterprise on the farm. She currently keeps them on a no-soy diet and markets them that way. These piglets are on a dry lot, while her three sows are out on pasture, though she intends to move toward a farrow to finish system on pasture. She’ll need to switch her farrowing schedule in order to achieve this, so her piglets arrive in April.

Wendy grew up raising pigs on the family farm and still loves to keep them around. She says they’re easy to care for and are the more profitable enterprise on the farm. She currently keeps them on a no-soy diet and markets them that way. These piglets are on a dry lot, while her three sows are out on pasture, though she intends to move toward a farrow to finish system on pasture. She’ll need to switch her farrowing schedule in order to achieve this, so her piglets arrive in April.

While the farm has a few dozen laying hens that roam the farmstead, there can be about 300 broilers on the farm at any one time. Her rotation starts with 100 in the brooder, then they go into a chicken tractor on pasture for about two months. She harvests them at about 4-6 lbs and markets them from the farm.

While the farm has a few dozen laying hens that roam the farmstead, there can be about 300 broilers on the farm at any one time. Her rotation starts with 100 in the brooder, then they go into a chicken tractor on pasture for about two months. She harvests them at about 4-6 lbs and markets them from the farm.

One of the Bagdon boys and Jason Misik hang out with a goat during one stop on the farm tour.

One of the Bagdon boys and Jason Misik hang out with a goat during one stop on the farm tour.

 

The happy hosts after a successful field day.

The happy hosts after a successful field day.

As the name of this field day indicates (“Trying New Things”), Wendy and Johnny are trying a lot of new things this year. Wendy is looking forward to the end of the year when she can sit down and evaluate the various enterprises to decide what they continue with in the future. You can read updates from Wendy on her farming experiences here: http://www.thefarmagain.com/

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