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

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.  


Fred began growing for dried flowers in 1985. In 1999 he added pumpkins, and says, “Pumpkins sell a lot of dried flowers. People that wouldn’t normally give dried flowers a second glance will buy them if they come to buy a pumpkin.” Continue reading

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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

For several years, Practical Farmers has worked to elevate understanding and communication about pesticide drift issues. Recently, we have gathered our pesticide drift materials to a new webpage and a few new resources: a document called “Pesticide Drift and the Law,” which provides background information for farmers and their lawyers; and a video series featuring farmers Rob Faux and Andy Dunham, discussing their experiences with pesticide application near their farms and the potential (and realized) impact on their farm businesses.


Each 3-5 minute video captures a different element of why drift is a problem and how it can be prevented. Fruit and vegetable operations are sensitive to pesticide drift and are high-value crops – this means that drift on a small area can have a big financial impact on an operation. Many fruit and vegetable farms are also organic, meaning drift could cause them to lose organic certification for three years, significantly impacting the revenue they can generate from their crops.

The farms also have employees in the field daily, as growing fruits and vegetables is labor intensive. The health of those workers is at risk when pesticides drift, and they have to head inside when spraying happens nearby. “They are in danger potentially, if somebody is applying chemicals and not watching where they’re going,” Rob says. “We’d like people to be paying attention just as much as we are.”

Jill likes the 2-wheel tractors for their size – they’re right for her farm, and for her. “I’m not a very large human being,” she says. “If a piece of equipment is going to fight me, I don’t have time for it. These machines are not intimidating; if you can run a lawnmower, you can run one of these.” On her six acres of vegetables (and one acre of asparagus), the 2-wheel tractors are easy to maneuver and fit the confines of her 3-ft wide permanent bed system in her older fields.

Both Jill and Jeff are insistent that these vintage tools are the path ahead for market farmers. After leaving his family’s 500 acre farm, Jeff raised vegetables on 12 acres for 10 years – he only every used a 2-wheel tractor. He now has over 100 2-wheel tractors and countless garden tractors (four-wheel tractors that weren’t made for lawnmower decks) – but that’s due to his passion for collecting and restoring – not the needs of his farm. According to Jeff, any of the tractors at the field day would be perfect for 6-10 acres of produce. The trick is to have your implements set up properly so you can just hook-up and go.

Below are a series of photos with some notes about the equipment shown. If the machine is freshly painted, it’s Jeff’s; otherwise it’s Jill’s. Says Jeff: “The worst thing that usually happens with these old tractors is that the engines wear out, then the tires, and sometimes the bushings go. You don’t have to paint them to make them work – you just have to make them mechanically sound. An engine is $128. Tires are $60 each and you’ll never wear them out. And don’t be afraid of old tires with some cracks – you’re not speeding down the road, you’re going 1/2 mph in the field. You can spend a lot of money on these… but the trick is not to.”

For more resources on 2-wheel tractors, both Jill and Jeff suggest joining facebook groups (like Vintage Tractor and Garden Equipment or Bolens Walkbehind Tractors) or other online forums. As Jeff says, “You can’t learn anything if you don’t participate.”

The tractor below was only the transaxle when Jeff bought it. and it’s now a Franken-tractor, representing ~10 different brands. Copying the Planet Jr. walkbehind system, Jeff used a motor mount from a David Bradley. He added a new engine from Harbor Freight, new tires, and plow handlebars. The total assembly cost less than $600. Jeff added a lift to the cultivator so you don’t have to hop the cultivator around to turn at the end of the row. Jeff demonstrated the ease of navigating the tractor, while the cultivator stayed in place. “You don’t want to have to move the cultivator,” he said, “you want the cultivator to stay put and the tractor to guide it. You want to guide the cultivator, not move it.”

Beebout FD (87)

Beebout FD (86)

Detail of Harbor Freight engine and new tires on the Franken-tractor.


Beebout FD (53)

Cultivator with lift, hooked up behind the Franken-tractor.

Continue reading

Toward our on-going effort to facilitate discussions about profitability of diversified fruit and vegetable farms, the Year 2 Report of the Whole Farm Financial Project is now available. Twelve farmers contributed their profit-loss statements and balance sheets to Practical Farmers of Iowa for this report, and work on the next edition of the report (FY2015 and 2016) is underway. Year 1 of the Whole Farm Financial Project is also available on the Practical Farmers website.

This report will be immediately useful to farmers with a few years of financial numbers of their own to compare. For beginning and aspiring farmers, this report can show them which ratios to begin tracking, and what level (and year-to-year variation) of revenue and costs may be reasonable to expect. At the end of the report, four participating farmers provide a more narrative evaluation of their financial numbers and the status of their farm.

Click here to see the full report


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