Published Jun 25, 2019

How We Work: Building Community and Connecting With Experts

By Sally Worley
DSC 6301 Doug and Margaret with award 2

Doug Alert and Margaret Smith received the 2019 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at the 2019 annual conference.

Since its inception, Practical Farmers’ work has focused on farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge. Research illustrates, and our experience backs it up, that farmer-to-farmer sharing is effective.

Research also shows that direct contact with credible sources leads to increased change in behavior. Farmers are experts with first-hand, relatable experiences. They are good at sharing information because they understand both the science and how other farmers think.

Doug Alert and Margaret Smith of Hampton – the recipients of PFI’s Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award this year – are wonderful examples of farmers who enthusiastically exchange information with other farmers. They learned to do so from PFI co-founders Dick and Sharon Thompson in the 1980s.

Before Doug and Margaret met, they started following the work of Dick and Sharon. They became active participants in Practical Farmers of Iowa, a young organization that aimed to connect farmers seeking practical solutions to their farming questions.

“We met at one of Dick and Sharon’s field days,” say Doug and Margaret. They credit the Thompsons – and the connections they made within the PFI community – for setting them on the path to where they are today.

“Practical Farmers of Iowa has been instrumental in the development of our farm,” Margaret says. “Since Doug started farming without an existing family farm operation, PFI was a critical part of our community that helped us explore our options. Transitioning to organic was done when others in PFI were doing so, too. We were not out here all alone.”

Doug said, to the Practical Farmers community when he and Margaret received their award: “When hatching one of my wild ideas, you are the people I use as a sounding board. When turning these ideas into research trials to verify my theory, you are the people who help me see the right question is being asked.

“Most importantly, when an idea fails miserably, you are the people I commiserate with. The value of community you have provided Margaret and me is beyond my ability to adequately put into words.”

Fostering Community Through Events and Networking

At Practical Farmers, one of the main ways we strive to create community is by helping bring farmers together with one another. Our events are structured enough for good learning to take place, but relaxed enough for people to have ample time to network and develop their PFI communities.

We are known for our field days and annual conference. We are now in prime field day season, so if you have contemplated getting to one, do it!

Bob Zimmerman habitat field day

Bob Zimmerman hosted a field day near Lewis, Iowa, on June 18. This field day was in partnership with Pheasants Forever and biologists Nicholas Salick, Kelsey Fleming and Joshua Divan were on hand to discuss habitat management alongside Bob.

Ken Stachowicz attended Bob Zimmerman’s field day on habitat management and water quality near Lewis. “It was hands-on practical,” he says. “I learn best seeing and touching.” In addition to these pinnacle events, we organize other ways for farmers to connect:

Wendy Johnson with husband Johnny Rafkin and daughter Vivienne

At socials, the main goal is relationship-building. Wendy Johnson, of Charles City, said at a social she held on her farm: “It’s important for members to get together, get to know one another and build community. Farming, especially when you are continuously asking questions to make improvements, is hard work. Building camaraderie with other farmers and non-farming supporters creates an essential network of friends and mentors.”

  • Mentorships are a way people build strong connections with each other. Donna Warhover, who has been paired with a mentor as well as served as a mentor for other farmers, says, “I don’t feel like I’m in this alone. I have friends and mentors that I can call on.”
  • Grazing groups: Andy Welch, part of a grazing group in southwest Iowa, says, “Sometimes you begin to wonder if what you’re doing is worthwhile or paying off. But being around people doing similar things really keeps me motivated.”

At PFI, we continually seek feedback from you to improve our events. Please let us know how we can make events more meaningful for you!

We also keep up on the latest research on the best ways to help members make the changes they want to change to become more profitable and better land stewards. Community-based social marketing is one approach we are excited about and work to implement. If you’re interested in learning more about community-based social marketing, visit

Southwest Iowa Grazing Group

Livestock farmers at the southwest Iowa grazing group hosted by Chad and Katie Hensley on their farm near Lamoni in May 2019.