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.

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.

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This week on On-Farm is Deb Finch of Finch Livestock. Deb farms with her husband Eric near Marshalltown in east-central Iowa, where they raise meat goats for direct to consumer sales. They began raising goats a little more than 15 years ago. On the show, I talk with Deb about all things goats – from feed to fencing to health to markets, and her upcoming field day.

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One of the biggest problems goat owners face is that the animals are highly susceptible to parasites. In the past, when goat owners had problems with parasites, they treated them by administering de-wormer to the entire herd. But Deb and many other goat farmers have moved toward only treating animals they know to be infected, largely in an effort slow resistance to de-wormers. Using the FAMACHA test and doing fecal eggs counts are two ways that goat owners can use to determine which animals need to be dewormed.

On June 27, Deb and Eric will host a two-part event on their farm that will cover those and many other topics. The morning portion — a pre-field day workshop — will be led by Dr. Paul Plummer, a veterinarian at Iowa State University (and goat owner). He will lead a two-hour, hands-on FAMACHA training. The FAMACHA test allows goat owners to assess parasite loads by examining goats’ eyelids. The field day will begin after lunch, where Dr. Plummer will give a lesson on parasite management, and Deb will talk about all different aspects of raising goats while leading a tour of her pastures.

Stay tuned to Practical News each week for new episodes! You can find out more information about On-Farm at


While farmers have been getting busy planting, we PFI staff have been getting to work writing up resources to make sure the 2017 season is the best yet for cover crops. Check out these three NEW resources for farmers and crop advisers on the latest recommendations for cover crop selection and best management practices.

Cover Crop Decision Tree

This fun, interactive sheet guides the user through the decision of what cover crop will work best in their operation. Following a series of yes or no questions about cover crop planting method and date leads the user to recommendations for cover crop varieties and seeding rates that will fit with their equipment and operation.

CC Decision Tree

The journey begins with a question about planting date. Follow the link to the full decision tree to find your ideal cover crop.

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Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is almost upon us (our first event will take place this Sunday, May 21, at Blue Gate Farm).

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events.

Watch and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Fred Abels
K & A Acres Inc.
Member since 2004
Holland, IA

Fred Abels and his wife, Vicki, farm about 400 acres at K & A Acres Inc. Fred acquired the farm from his uncle in the late-1970s after working for other farmers for a few years. In addition to corn and soybeans, he has a cow-calf herd that he rotationally grazes.

He uses several conservation practices to protect his soil, local waterways and wildlife, including no-till, strip-till, cover crops, the Conservation Reserve Program and grass waterways, among others. Continue reading

T.D. Holub of Garden Oasis Farm near Coggon.

T.D. Holub
was featured on this week’s On-Farm.

This week on On-Farm, T.D. Holub of Coggon in eastern Iowa. T.D. and his fiancée, Sarah Gericke, grow fruits and vegetables for farmers’ markets, restaurants, grocery stores and for a 100-person CSA. On the show, I talk to T.D. about his upcoming field day – on June 9, “Tractors and Tools with T.D.” – focusing on some of the farm machinery he’s purchased over the past few years for the vegetable operation. Included: a water wheel transplanter, a Williams tool bar system, an Allis Chalmers G tractor, a homemade walk-in cooler and more. Also, we talk about whole food and health, selling “weird” vegetables and coming back to the family farm.

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To learn more about T.D. and Sarah, check out their website, Garden Oasis Farm. Stay tuned to Practical News each week for new episodes! You can find out more information about On-Farm at

Practical Farmers’ 2017 main field day season is almost upon us! Our first event will take place on Sunday, May 21, at Blue Gate Farm, operated by Jill Beebout and Sean Skeehan.

Over the coming weeks, to help highlight some of the many farmer-led learning opportunities this growing season — and the farmers hosting them — we’ll be spotlighting many of the PFI farmers who are graciously giving their time to share their knowledge at these events.

Watch and “Practical News,” our weekly email newsletter, for details and updates!

Jill Beebout

Jill Beebout
Blue Gate Farm
Member since 2004
Chariton, IA

Jill Beebout farms at Blue Gate Farm with her husband, Sean Skeehan. They steward 40 acres of family land in southern Marion County, which has been in the Beebout family for generations, where they raise Certified Naturally Grown produce, laying hens, honey bees, hay and alpacas.

Their marketing is done primarily through their CSA and at farmers markets, including the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market.

Jill also makes homemade preserves from the produce she and Sean grow, and dyes and spins yarn from fibers sourced from their own alpacas as well as other wool sources.

Jill and Sean’s vision is to create an economically and ecologically self-sustaining homestead that provides an ongoing connection to the Beebout land for their family, guests and themselves. Continue reading

On-Farm logo large

“On-Farm: Conversations with Practical Farmers” is a new podcast from Practical Farmers of Iowa. Each week, I’ll interview a different farmer. We’ll hear from new and experienced; young and old; small and large; horticulture, livestock and row-crop farmers. We’ll talk with farmers about the issues most relevant to the farming community: the nitty gritty of growing and raising all sorts of plants and animals; on-farm research; protecting and improving soil and water quality; farm profitability; the challenges facing beginning farmers; building community in rural areas; and of course, food.

And… the first episode is up! Our first guest on the podcast is long-time PFI member Jill Beebout. Jill owns and operates Blue Gate Farm near Chariton in south-central Iowa with her partner Sean Skeehan. They raise fruits and vegetables for a small CSA (community supported agriculture) and also sell their produce at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market. In addition, they produce free-range eggs, raw honey, alpaca fiber and handspun yarn.

Subscribe: iTunes | Stitcher (coming soon)

On this episode, Jill talks about her upcoming field day about two-wheeled tractors (find out more about the field day here), the history of Blue Gate Farm, vegetable production, the roots of the Farm Crawl, being a female boss in farming, PFI’s Labor4Learning program, and her alpacas. Continue reading

Over the years, Clark Porter and his family have worked hard to increase conservation – including planting cover crops, expanding grassed waterways, incorporating buffer strips, and experimenting with rotations of oats — on the Grundy County land the family has owned since 1873.

“I grew up riding my pony behind my grandfather on our land, and spent summers throughout high school and college working for various farmers,” Clark says. “My great-great grandfather farmed this land – 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.”

How can Clark make it more likely his heirs will follow his conservation ethic? As he worked with an attorney on estate planning, Clark learned he could put some language in his trust document that would assure the farm is managed sustainably. “I knew my children would take care of this if possible,” he said, “but I could not be sure they will be anywhere in the area.”

Clark Porter with his father in front of his great-great grandfather’s barn. Clark’s sons will be the sixth generation to be involved with their farm.

The attorney hadn’t had a request like this before, but developed the following language for the trust document:

“During the Trustor’s lifetime he has consistently worked to conserve the land and improve the fertility of the soil in his management of the family farming operation; he directs the Trustee to continue these best conservation and soil fertility practices.”

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Berkshire pigs on pasture at Golden Bear Farm

Berkshire pigs on pasture at Golden Bear Farm

The Spring 2017 issue of the Practical Farmer, includes an article titled “Forage-Fed Pig Production” highlighting  Steve Deibele’s feeding practices. Steve’s a pastured pig and cattle farmer at Golden Bear Farm in Kiel, Wisconsin. He spoke at Practical Farmers’ annual conference last January on raising pigs on a forage heavy diet without the use of corn or soybeans. This blog post accompanies the newsletter article.

Average Daily Gains

“Under controlled conditions in the barn, we get our best growth rates. Pastured hogs have greater exposure to weather conditions than confined hogs which can hinder growth rates. Bad weather can degrade pastured hog comfort, impacting feeding behavior and pasture growth rates.  Hot weather, cold weather, and prolonged wet weather reduce pastured hog growth rates,” explained Steve.  

Hog growth rates at Golden Bear Farm

Average daily gains at Golden Bear Farm, during the winter, when pigs are fed indoors. The indoor ration consists of free-choice small grains, 1 to 3 lbs. apples per day, good baleage, and moderate quality hay bedding, During the grazing season, they are pastured and see more variable daily gains.

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Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference, January 19-20, 2018, Scheman Center, Ames

sunset on James Rebanks' farm -- photo from James Twitter account, @herdyshepherd1

sunset on James Rebanks’ farm —
photo from James’ Twitter account, @herdyshepherd1

If we look back in recent history, Iowa’s rural landscape was one with more people. People have been moving to metro areas where there are opportunities to make a living, make friends and build community. Rural schools are consolidating, businesses are closing and those once thriving rural communities are losing their vibrancy.

This trend is not inevitable. Practical Farmers of Iowa has a different vision for the future, one of Revival. Revival means repopulating rural communities with farmers.  This conference will strategize how to create markets and infrastructure for small grains and cover crop industries. We’ll talk about how to bring fruit, vegetable and livestock farms – and the resulting jobs and healthy food – back to our small communities.

Revival means regenerating Iowa soils by putting living roots in the ground year-round, by diversifying crop rotations and by re-introducing livestock to the landscape. The wellbeing of our rural communities depends on healthy soil. Revival means rejuvenating our creeks and rivers and bringing clean water back to Iowa. We will talk about ways that all Iowans can have clean water.

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