From “Pleasant Prospects” to “Resilient Farms”: Maggie McQuown and Steve Turman on their farm legacy
My husband and I are proud to make our retirement home the farm that has been in my family for over 115 years. In 1899, my great-grandparents – John Erwin and Retta Eliza Taylor – named it Pleasant Prospects Farm. In 2012, my husband and I renamed it Resilient Farms, which we feel better reflects the current situation and challenges we face in managing our farmland for the future.
My farm sits on a hillside 1.5 miles west of Red Oak, Iowa. It is 167 acres with 132 acres of no-till row crops (in a traditional corn/soybean rotation) and 35 acres of buildings, conservation reserve and woodlands. Notable features of the farm include a 115-year-old, 5-bedroom Victorian farmhouse; a large bank barn; a 1920 clay-tile grain bin; a clay-tile silo; 3 metal Quonsets/sheds; several metal grain bins; a three-acre black walnut plantation and a creek bordered by old and new riparian buffers. As a pioneer of conservation, my great-grandfather added terraces and an evergreen windbreak as WPA projects in the 1930s.
My grandmother – Laura Taylor McQuown – moved with her parents to this farm as a small girl. She was an only child, so it’s hard to imagine how she felt growing up in such a large house in the early 1900s.
My grandparents – Laura and Earl McQuown Sr. – moved with their three children – Ruth, Earl Jr. and Annabel – to this house when my dad was eight. He had great memories of growing up on the farm. When Dad returned from WWII, he bought the farm from Grandpa, started farming and brought my mom – Gretchen McQuilkin Isebrands – to the farm when they married in 1948.
I was the youngest of four kids – two boys and two girls. A bit of a tomboy, I tried to keep up with my brothers so they would include me in their adventures. We loved to swing on the rope in the barn’s hayloft, swim in the ponds and play in the creek. I was the guinea pig for my brothers’ big ideas. When I was five, they built a pulley swing from our tree house to another tree. They said, “Marg, why don’t you go first.” I fell, sprained my ankle and had to go to school wearing my bedroom slippers. How embarrassing! Another time they built a raft, stuck me on it and pushed it to the center of the pond to see if it would float. They didn’t think whether or not I could swim to shore if it sunk! We climbed the pine trees west of the house and played Davey Crocket and Daniel Boone in the big evergreen windbreak – building forts with fallen limbs, “stalking” big game for dinner, or “fighting” vicious Indians. After big snowstorms, we dug snow caves in the giant drifts and sledded down the back yard hill across the east driveway and into the ditch along the highway.
4-H was an important part of my life. My mint jelly and apricot/pineapple jam entry won a purple ribbon at the County Fair and a blue one at the State Fair. I spent hours picking, cleaning and straining the mint leaves for the jelly. It all paid off! My family wasn’t so excited about the multiple test batches of scalloped eggplant I made for another 4-H project. After it was over, we never ate eggplant again!
Another 4-H adventure was riding my horse Thunder to town for the County Fair. My final year in 4-H was the first year our fair had a horse show. I had dreamed of showing Thunder at fair for years, so I was determined to get him there. We didn’t have a horse trailer, and Thunder refused to go up the loading chute into the truck, so I had no choice but to ride him. Luckily, we only lived 1.5 miles from town.
Many times I rode Thunder Indian-style (no saddle or bridle, just holding onto his mane). I would jump on him in my swimsuit and tennis shoes and gallop across the pasture. Thunder and I would journey a mile west along the highway to my friend Carol’s house. Since Carol also owned a horse, we loved riding together. She was my nearest, non-sibling playmate and a fellow 4-Her.
I loved to ride the tractor and combine with my dad. I wanted to drive the tractor, but my dad had a very peculiar idea about this. Since I had two older brothers, Dad would say, “Only poor farmers make their daughters drive a tractor working the fields.” I liked watching him repair his equipment. My sister and I detasseled seed corn for DeKalb. For two summers, I organized a crew of friends from town to weed soybeans. Detasseling and walking beans were the best-paying summer jobs available. AND, we had the craziest fun working under the blazing hot sun!
When I graduated Iowa State University in 1974, my present was a one-way ticket to New York City, where a fashion stylist position with Vogue/Butterick Pattern Co. awaited me. I pursued a 37-year career in the fashion, marketing, advertising and fund-raising industries in New York, Chicago and Dallas. Dad called me in New York once and said, “Why don’t you come back and run the farm?” My reply: “I know nothing about agriculture.” He said that I was a good business person and could learn the farming part. I didn’t take his offer seriously, nor did I understand the importance of this vote of confidence on his part. Now, I guess things have come full circle. Throughout my career I always lived in cities, but my love for the farm – our farm – has remained strong!
In 1976, Mom and Dad moved to a house in town while continuing to actively farm. In the mid-1980s, Dad farmed 1,350 acres, a combination of owned and rented land. In 1989, they sold the farm equipment and shifted to a 50/50 crop-share arrangement with a young farmer. Dad died in 1990. Mom continued to crop-share and enjoyed playing an active role in the farm management. Mom finally decided to cash rent in 2008 at the age of 89.
Mom died suddenly on December 29, 2008. My siblings and I were co-executors – an unusual arrangement. We all had to work together and mutually agree on the estate settlement; and, it worked! We encountered a situation that challenges many estates of farm and small business owners. In 2008, the estate tax exemption was $2 million; in 2009, it increased to $3.5 million. Mom’s health had been so good that her estate plan was based on her reaching the $3.5 million exemption date. We were forced to sell 160 acres to pay the HUGE inheritance tax. If Mom had just lived two more days!
One brother didn’t want farmland while three of us did, so we gave his share of the estate in cash. The three of us own separate pieces of farmland, but from an operational standpoint, we run the 508 acres as one farm. We rent the land to our farmer using a flex lease – base rent plus a percentage bonus calculated using a price/crop yield formula.
Steve and I married in 2005. In 2011, I was diagnosed with cervical/facial Dystonia which prevents me from working, so we decided to retire. We moved to the farm in June 2012. In 2004, we were already aware of how finite the Earth’s resources are and how they are being over-exploited, even depleted. As we contemplated our retirement, most popular locations – like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Colorado – are hot and/or dry, characterized by high natural resources use and low sustainability. Our checklist for locations included land providing a local food source, abundant clean water, high sustainability, moderate seasonal climate, one-two hours from major city and five-eight hour drive from Steve’s three sons in Minneapolis.
Red Oak and my farm met these criteria. My farmland potentially could be very sustainable. This is the most fertile land in the world, and it has adequate water resources. There are railroads and navigable rivers nearby for transportation. When fossil fuels become scarce and expensive, mass transit availability will be important. Finally, we saw potential in the building site, which had been neglected for many years.
We decided the farmhouse, well-built in its day, could not be renovated to be highly energy efficient. We decided to build a new Passivhaus, a German design incorporating an air-tight, highly insulated structure with passive solar energy gain. We finished the house in December 2014. Additionally, we installed a solar energy array in 2013, which generates about 40 percent of the electricity for the farm and house.
My top goal for the farm is to conserve and improve the sustainability of the farmland’s use for the long-term. Key to achieving this goal are conservation efforts, restoring native prairie and employing sustainable farming practices. Some of my farmland has been in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) since 1997. I just renewed contracts for both programs in 2013 and 2015.
I have two CRP plots: a grass waterway including native grasses and our newest project, a riparian buffer along our creek. In May 2015, we planted 1,500 trees and shrubs to extend the riparian buffer the full length of our creek. We killed the invasive reed canary grass in preparation for the planting. Now, native wetland plants such as arrowhead and milk weed are recolonizing. My oldest brother, who is a forestry consultant and conservationist, worked with us on this project.
Two plots planted as restored native prairie are CSP projects, while one restored native prairie plot is part of the Iowa State University (ISU) STRIPs program. We planted a pollinator native prairie plot next to our riparian buffer this month, and plan to add another ISU STRIPs plot in 2016.
Additional conservation plans include adding several grassy waterways, rather than building more tiled terraces, and repairing two ponds.
Cover crops are another conservation and sustainability focus for us. In 2013 and 2015 we planted cover crops in tests plots and plan to increase our use of cover crops in future years.
As a final note, I have a personal vendetta against invasive, non-native species. I am continually pulling weeds – thistles, smart weed, bindweed, multi flora rose and horse nettles! Steve digs the poison ivy since I’m highly allergic.
My top goal for this farm is to conserve and improve soil, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat. My long-term goal/dream is to have the farm be an educational resource for agricultural conservation and sustainability best practices, and be viewed as a role model (worthy cause). Also, I want the land to continue as a working farm for a family who embrace Steve’s and my conservation and sustainability values.
The following goals are also important to me: to provide land for my heirs as a safe haven in event of a catastrophic situation in the USA; to maintain family harmony; and to reassemble the original 508 acres of my parents’ farmland into a single farm.
–Margaret McQuown, Resilient Farms, Red Oak, Iowa
From Maggie’s husband, Steve:
I don’t own the land here at Resilient Farms, but I am committed to Maggie and to the farm. My top goal for this land is to use it more sustainably, which includes conserving and improving soil, increasing biodiversity, improving water quality and other measures. One critical reason for this is that I want to provide a place where family can survive, if necessary. Given the size of the property, this will require not dividing it, and if possible, acquiring adjacent land.
Another goal is to provide an example of sustainable land use, including how to transition from current use (typical corn-soybean rotation) to something that mimics nature more closely, and thus foster long-term productivity (our region evolved as tallgrass prairie/savannah that was regularly grazed and periodically burned).
I don’t think our future involves a Hollywood-style apocalyptic scenario, but I do believe, given our addiction to economic growth with its attendant resource depletion and waste production (some of these depleting resources not renewable, at least on a human time scale—fossil fuels and many critical minerals, for instance), we are degrading our biosphere in a way that harms the basis of human civilization and the web of life we take for granted. We are seeing that our biosphere has limits and that we are beginning to experience those; we are realizing that we cannot have our planet and eat it too, so to speak. One way or another, our future will include occupying this landscape differently than we have for the past few centuries.
As rational beings we can choose to make this transition deliberate; or we can deny realities, cling to our habits, and thus contribute to a likely chaotic and painful transition. Maggie and I may not live long enough to complete what we have started here, but with Resilient Farms, we have the opportunity to begin to make the changes necessary to survive, and hopefully thrive, in the future that awaits us.
–Steve Turman, Resilient Farms, Red Oak, Iowa