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.

Marty Schnicker's state-record-winning watermelon

Marty Schnicker’s state-record-winning watermelon

Have you ever wondered how they grow those giant veggies at the state fair? This week on the show, we have Marty Schnicker of Schnicker Specialities, who has your answers. Marty, who farms with his wife Mary near Mt. Pleasant in southeast Iowa, knows how to grow really big vegetables. He holds the Iowa State Record for heaviest watermelon grown, tipping the scales at 209 lbs. But watermelons aren’t the only thing – they grow big everythings from cabbage to cantaloupe.

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On July 15, they’ll be hosting a field day on their farm, where they will lead a tour of their giant high tunnel, offer production and management tips and answer questions. On the show, we’ll find out how these giant vegetables are grown and how big (but maybe not state record big) vegetables sell well at the farmers’s market.

Happy Fourth of July to you all!

On this holiday, it’s appropriate to reflect on how the farmland we own and work has shaped our nation and ourselves. As Southwest Iowa farmer Jon Bakehouse writes in his farm legacy letter: “My parents and grandparents provided me with such an amazing life. There is such turmoil in the world; I wish others could have what I have. Our son needs to understand that he’s very lucky, and he should be compassionate with others.”

My family’s story is a good example of the gift that farmland provides. In the 1920s, my grandparents, Carl and Selma Opheim, were busy working a northwest Iowa farm Carl’s father owned, and raising  eight children when their world fell apart. In 1929, the stock market crashed, the Bode State Bank  failed, and the family lost the farm.

“They lost so much,” my dad, Wayne Opheim, reports, “and my family became so poor. I always wondered about the psychological effect of losing so much.” Wayne was born later that year, and the family moved into town. “My dad then worked as a janitor at the Lutheran Church. I think the church felt sorry for him having all those kids and no job. In 1939, he applied for a job at the Bode schools. He came home one day and said ‘I got the job!’ We all cheered. And he was a school janitor for the rest of his life.”

Twenty miles away, my mother’s farming family thrived, and it is on this farm that my grandparents spoiled me when I was young. As with so many families, no one in the next generation wanted to farm, and my grandparents eventually moved into town. Over the years, I watched the farm I knew disappear—the chicken coop, the flower beds, the gardens, the apple trees (one for each grandchild), and the extensive windbreak we dubbed “Fisher Woods.” Toward the end of my grandmother’s life, a neighboring farmer bought the homeplace, but he left it standing until she died. Then, one day, my mother and I cried as we drove by to see neighbors demolishing the house. About 10 years ago, all that was left were two trees in the ditches. Now there are none. A farm obliterated, as if our lives there had never happened.

However, the gift of memories and monthly rental farm income for my parents has made for a comfortable retirement for them, and a financial security as they face possible end-of-life care. Perhaps even a gift of financial security for my siblings and I into the future.

Like my parents, pictured below, we are blessed!

Jack and Scott Ausborn

Jack and Scott Ausborn

This week on the show, Scott Ausborn stopped by the KHOI studios. Scott farms with his parents, Jack and Linda, where they raise corn, soybeans, hay and pasture as well as sheep and cattle. He also works for Blue River Hybrids, an organic seed company based in Ames, and he serves as board president for the Iowa Organic Association. Scott and his family are currently transitioning some of their farm to organic, and on the show we talk about that, from why they decided to transition to how the process works.

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On July 11th, Scott and his parents will host a field day on their farm near Ida Grove in north central Iowa. The field day, a partnership between Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa Organic Association, will focus on transitioning a row crop farm to organic production. To RSVP or learn more information about the field day, check out the press release.

In case you aren’t able to make it to the Frantzen Farm tomorrow to learn about the ways they are addressing giant ragweed on their farm, check out this video of the – “Ragweed Roundtable” – a conference session Tom led at the PFI conference in January. He gives a description of his farm, the ways he has battled ragweed in the past and some of his new plans for the future. For more on Tom Frantzen, check out my podcast interview with him.

According to Iowa State University, 53% of the farmland in Iowa is rented. That is to say, the majority of the farm acres in the state are farmed by people who do not own that land. That does not, however, mean that those who own farmland but don’t farm it themselves cannot do their part when it comes to conservation. Case in point are Maggie McQuown and Steve Turman who own Resilient Farms near Red Oak and hosted a field day on June 15. The two shared how they have implemented numerous soil and water conservation strategies on their land by working closely with their farm operators, Bryan and Lisa Huff. As we learned at the field day, these strategies include cover crops, riparian buffers and prairie strips.

Maggie McQuown led attendees on a tour of their prairie strips where she pointed out several plant species native to Iowa.

Maggie McQuown led attendees on a tour of their prairie strips where she pointed out several plant species native to Iowa.

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Ditlevson head shot

Mark Ditlevson of Blooming Prairie, MN Photo: Marie Wood. May 10, 2017. “From the fields, May 12: Farmers plant in May sunshine.” The Land Online.

After taking a break in May we got back onto our monthly small grains shared learning call on June 9. One of our pilot program farmers from Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Mark Ditlevson, took the floor at the beginning of the call to discuss his fungicide and fertilizer regime for his small grains and his set up for harvest, which is right around the corner.

Mark planted 300 acres of small grains to harvest this year. He has both winter small grains (wheat and cereal rye) and spring ones (wheat and oats). All of them were planted after soybeans, an early maturity variety to allow optimum planting date for the winter small grains to maximize winter survival. About half of his acres are already under contract to go to Albert Lea for seed. For the other half he’s aiming for a miller – which means he needs to achieve food grade test weight and protein levels and pass strict toxin tests for diseases and crop protectant residues (particularly herbicides). The following is his playbook for growing a high quality small grains crop that meets seed and milling market specifications.

Field Passes – Fungicides, Herbicides and Growth Regulators

Phil Needham is Mark’s small grains guru. He follows the Needham plan for “managing your way to higher profits” which are modeled after European wheat cultivation techniques that yield 150-200 bushels per acre. This year Mark has done/will do the following field operations:

Winter Small Grains (wheat, cereal rye) Spring Small Grains (wheat, oats)
Pre-planting or when over-wintering plants green up 15 gallons of 32% 180 lbs P & K, broadcast
V4-5 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator and 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide. 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator, 4 oz. of Quilt® fungicide and 2, 4-D
Joining, plants 10-12 inches tall

10-20 gallons of 32%

Full flag

10 oz. Headline® fungicide and 7 oz. Palisade® growth regulator

Flowering/heading stage

7-8 oz. fungicide (product TBD)

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“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

Tom Frantzen in his hybrid rye

Tom Frantzen in his hybrid rye

This week on the show, On-Farm was on the road – I traveled to Frantzen Farm in northern Chickasaw County to talk to Tom Frantzen. He and his wife Irene run a diversified organic farm where they raise organic hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans, hay and small grains. They have been members of Practical Farmers of Iowa since the beginning, and some of our most enthusiastic supporters. In the interview, Tom says he and Irene can’t imagine a world without PFI. I think most PFI members would agree, and would also agree that the reverse is true: we can’t imagine a PFI without the Frantzens.

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The Frantzens will be hosting a field day on their farm on June 29 from 2-5 p.m. and they will be talking about hybrid rye and hogs, and also about the perennial grain crop Kernza – developed by the Land Institute in Kansas – which Tom has a one acre test plot of on his farm. For more information, check out this news release on their field day or see this sneak peek video of Tom talking about the field day and showing his hybrid rye.

On this show, we talk a little about the history of PFI, the future of Frantzen Farm and farm transitions in general, but mainly about what is happening on the farm now. Tom says that giant ragweed has been a bigger problem on his organic farm than all the other weeds put together and has been searching for a solution for years. He thinks he has found one in hybrid rye, a recently developed variety of cereal rye, which yields better and is less susceptible to disease – particularly to ergot, which is a toxin when feeding the grain. One of the big issues with raising rye or other small grains is markets. Tom hopes to get around that by feeding the rye grain to his organic hogs – because the hybrid rye shouldn’t have issues with ergot toxins, and is  currently conducting on-farm research on that subject. We also talk about the many additional benefits of the hybrid rye from soil to water to wildlife habitat.


Matt Schuiteman, of AJS Farms in Sioux Center, started planting cereal rye in 2006 as a “trap crop” for manure nutrients. He has experimented with grazing it, baling it and growing it for seed. Matt told 65 attendees at his field day on May 30, to get the most direct payback from cover crops, put them through cattle. Matt has a cow/calf herd of 40 Shorthorn cattle and calculated the feed value of the rye to be $281 per acre!

Matt says the feed value of rye balances out the yield hit you may see in corn when planting rye, which could be around 25 bushels per acres. Matt did some quick math – if corn is selling for $4.00 per bushel, your loss would be $100 per acre. In this scenario, the forage value of the cover crop still puts you $181 per acre ahead.

Continue reading for more information, photos and an Iowa State University factsheet on cereal rye forage. Below you’ll find our first-ever video recap of a field day!

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Jon Yagla and Wren Almitra of The Millet Seed Farm

Jon Yagla and Wren Almitra of The Millet Seed Farm

Jon Yagla of The Millet Seed Farm in Iowa City was our guest this week on the show. Jon runs this urban farm with his partner Wren Almitra in the Longfellow Historic Neighborhood of Iowa City. The farm consists primarily of a series of vegetable beds in yards in the neighborhood making up about a fifth of an acre. On that ground, the farm produces food for a 20-person CSA. On the show, we talk about how Jon got started farming; how he manages to cram so many veggies in so little space; using yard waste, city compost and cover crops for fertility; no-till production; Practical Farmers’ Savings Incentive Program and his favorite type of family of veggies to grow, alliums (including the Egyptian walking onion).

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On June 24, Jon and Wren will host a field day at their farm focused on urban vegetable production, reducing both living and production costs, no-till production, their CSA and much more. You can RSVP and learn more about their field day here.