Steve Carlson

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.

Blog posts

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.

Continue reading

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.

research locations for fb

Continue reading

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 Fagan and Emily Dansdill

Emily Fagan and Emily Dansdill

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.

The first portion of the field day was held in the back of Alluvial Brewery, and the large crowd had some of us peering around kegs and fermentation vessels.

The first portion of the field day was held in the back of Alluvial Brewery, and the large crowd had some of us peering around kegs and fermentation vessels.

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.

Jeremy Hall, Amber Mohr, Larry Harris, and Denise OBrien, with Jeremy and Ambers kids...

Jeremy Hall, Amber Mohr, Larry Harris and Denise O’Brien, with Jeremy and Amber’s kids Ernie and Lenora (Walden was in taking a nap).

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.

Chad Hensley talks to attendees in one of their flower gardens.

Chad Hensley talks to attendees in one of their flower gardens.

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.

Continue reading

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:

Story County SWCD commissioners on a farm visit in April.

Story County SWCD commissioners on a farm visit in April.

Continue reading

The Farm Service Agency recently announced some changes to their Farm Storage Facility Loan Program that should benefit small and beginning local food producers. The FSFL program was initially launched in 2000 to serve commodity crops, and has undergone many changes since then to help diversified, small-scale, and beginning farmers expand their businesses.

See NSAC's FSFL handout for quick details

See NSAC’s FSFL handout for quick details

The loan can now be used to build, upgrade, or purchase on-farm or mobile storage, packing, washing, and handling facilities. This includes:

  • Packing sheds
  • Walk-in coolers
  • Graders, sorters, conveyors and washers
  • Portable storage and handling trucks or facilities
  • Portable storage and handling equipment, such as augers, dryers, bulk tanks, scales, containers, fork lifts, skid steers etc.
  • Used equipment

Another major update to the program is the microloan option, which includes:

  • Streamlined application for microloans up to $50,000
  • Requires only a 5% down payment
  • The ability to self-certify production history and storage needs
  • A possibility to waive the crop insurance requirement, specifically for CSA’s (see the USDA blog for an example)

Crops that are eligible for coverage include:

  • Grains, pulses and other commodities
  • Fruits and nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Honey and maple syrup
  • Dairy products
  • Meat, poultry and eggs
  • Hay and biomass
  • Flowers and hops
  • Aquaculture

For further details on the Farm Storage Facility Loan Program, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website for a guide covering how the program works, to determine your eligibility, and for details on how to apply. Visit your local FSA office to discuss eligibility and submit an application.

Thinking about hiring an employee for your farm? Here are some resources to get you started.

Navigating the complex legal requirements for hiring a farm employee is a daunting task to tackle on your own. We’ve been lucky to have Farm Commons develop some resources specific to Iowa that help guide you through the necessary considerations before taking on employees, volunteers, interns or other agricultural workers.

Visit our Employment FAQ page to find detailed information for 2016 on:

  • General wage questions

    Farm Commons is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing community-based farmers with the business legal resources they need.

    Farm Commons is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing community-based farmers with the business legal resources they need.

  • Interns, trainees or youth workers
  • Volunteers
  • Work crews, migrant workers or independent contractors
  • Insurance, injuries and workers’ compensation
  • Paperwork, taxes and wage withholding

After you’ve read through the frequently asked questions, delve deeper with:

Continue reading

Guest blog from PFI member Clark Porter of Porter Family Farms in Black Hawk County

If farmers own and operate a tractor, then I am not a farmer. However, I grew up riding my pony behind my grandfather on our land, and spent summers throughout high school and college working for various farmers. My family has owned our farm since 1873. My great, great grandfather farmed it – and I want my great, great grandchildren to be as rooted as I am in this soil. That means I have to take care of that soil. For me, it is a living entity – something I have grown in just like the crops.

Like many landowners, I am not an experienced farmer. In spite of this, I am ultimately responsible for being a steward of the land. I am in the awkward position of expressing my preferences but lacking all the information I need to have those preferences met. I have to collaborate with the people who farm our land.

I’m lucky to have trust and a good working relationship with the people farming our ground. I am also more intimately involved in management because we hire custom work as opposed to renting out the land (only 3% of Iowa acres are custom farmed). However, I can imagine how it may be for many, and I believe we have some communication challenges standing between us and desired progress in conservation efforts.

A field of oats growing at Porter Family Farms. Adding a 3rd crop such as oats can provide many benefits for the soil (and the pocketbook, with corn prices so low), but brings with it management complexities that need to be discussed with the landowner and farmer.

A field of oats growing at Porter Family Farms. Adding a 3rd crop such as oats can provide many benefits for the soil (and the pocketbook, due to low input costs), but brings with it management complexities that need to be discussed between the landowner and farmer.

If both the landowner and the tenant farmer agree on soil conservation, clean water, soil health, tillage practices or other goals for sustainable agriculture, then things should go smoothly. However, I’m not sure things are always so effortless. First, landowners may not be aware of sustainable farming practices. Many may not even be well acquainted with their own land (21% of Iowa landowners live out of state). Continue reading