Published Dec 3, 2011

A wonderful story from a long-time member

By Teresa Opheim

Gary Guthrie at his latest Field Day

I love this story from long-time member Gary Guthrie, especially because there are so many ways he has interacted with Practical Farmers of Iowa over the years. Like the rest of our members, “community” is front and center when Gary thinks about PFI.
— Teresa

My name is Gary Guthrie, and I have supported Practical Farmers of Iowa for 18 years. There have been a lot of changes at this organization since I first joined, including much more diversity in the PFI membership. But throughout this time, Practical Farmers of Iowa has stayed focused on the positive things that people can do to improve their lives.

My first PFI meeting was in January 1994. My wife, Nancy, and I had just come back from working for the Mennonite Central Committee in El Salvador. I had been itching to get back into agriculture, and a family friend told me I should look into Practical Farmers of Iowa. Then someone else encouraged me to go to the PFI annual conference. I figured I’d heard about PFI twice by then, so I attended PFI’s conference in Ames.

I felt so welcomed! At lunch, Barney Bahrenfuse, who farms near Grinnell, came up to me and sat down. I found out later he would pick people he didn’t know and sit down with them. That impressed me.

Barney Bahrenfuse and wife Suzanne Costello

I left that meeting thinking, “Wow. There is such a feeling of openness with this group.” I have seen that openness confirmed through the years.

In our mission work, Nancy and I saw a lot of people making positive changes in their own communities. Practical Farmers of Iowa was the first organization that we found back in the U.S. that incorporated that philosophy. PFI is not a religious group, but it does have a strong spiritual dimension underlying its ethic.

When you have a community like Practical Farmers of Iowa, you can be more resilient. Community helps you better handle the droughts, hard rains, high winds, pest pressure, anything that may come your way on your farm.

Practical Research
My father was an entomologist/corn breeder with the USDA. I really believe that research needs to be practical and applicable, and that’s what PFI is about—research that helps you improve your farm. Almost every year, I have conducted on-farm research that I have either done with or shared with people at Practical Farmers of Iowa. Early on, PFI and I collaborated on an evaluation of Bt and mineral oil in controlling corn earworm in sweet corn. We found that the mineral oil worked. I’ve also tested things like whether flaming works to help reduce weed pressure in my carrot beds. The weed pressure on my farm was so intense in my early years of farming! Now those Japanese beetles I have now are a whole ‘nother headache.

One of my favorite PFI workshops was presenting with Dick Thompson on controlling weeds. I have a small vegetable operation; Dick has a mid-sized crop and livestock system, so our systems are quite different. But I have found through PFI that I can learn from farmers with all kinds of different farming systems because of their openness to innovation. It encourages me to be open to new ideas.

My parents are in their 80s now, and they need more of my time, so last year, I scaled back my fruit and vegetable cultivation, where I had been feeding 75 families on 1.6 acres of cultivation. I couldn’t have scripted a better transition to beginning farmers Chris Corbin and Sally Gran, the farmers whom I have mentored and introduced to my customers. PFI attracts people like Chris and Sally and all kinds of other beginning farmers as well. At a party last year, the Corbins and Grans were there at the end of the night, sitting around talking to my parents. These are the kind of people I want to help succeed. It is about relationships and community—and that’s what PFI provides.

beginning farmer Sally Gran

My family owns 150 acres of farmland surrounding my vegetable farm, and as my parents have aged, I guess I am taking a farm manager role. Our farm tenant is a classmate of mine, and I think Practical Farmers will be able to help him as it has helped me. Our tenant wants to look at cover crops. He planted 23 acres of his own wheat last year, and is interested in markets for that “third crop.” We also want to do what is best to enhance carbon sequestration on our farmland, and we want to test non-GMO corn varieties as well. Practical Farmers is investigating all of these things!

Sustainable Agriculture, I believe, seeks to build healthy families, healthy communities and healthy environments. In healthy families there is always room for diversity of opinions. I am grateful that PFI’s family allows for lots of diversity. It keeps its members growing whether it be a young beginning farmer or someone who has been farming for years. I don’t think I have ever met a PFI member who thought they were done learning!

You know, it takes gratitude, communication, and critical self awareness to be resilient. Practical Farmers of Iowa is resilient. I hope you will join me in supporting this wonderful organization this holiday season.