Published Oct 23, 2020

2020 Member Survey

By Steve Carlson

This past winter, nearly half of our membership filled out the survey we send out every three years. By doing so, members shared information about their use of PFI resources, farming practices and suggestions for future programming. Thank you for taking the time to share this information with us – it’s truly vital for our member-led organization!

PFI membership includes a diversity of experience levels, ages and enterprises, as well as farmland owners and friends of farmers who support our work and mission. The vast majority of our members, however, 76%, are either currently farming or hope to farm. Our members also collectively raise a diverse range of crops and livestock, with everything from row crops and vegetables, to trees and flowers, to hay, hemp and livestock of all kinds, among other enterprises. Corn and soybeans top the list, with 63% and 59% of members indicating they raise these crops.

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How did we do?

The timing for this survey coincided with the end of our strategic plan that guided our work from 2018 through 2020, and for developing a strategic plan that maps out goals and strategies for the following three years. From survey responses, under the plan’s pillar that “PFI builds community in Iowa and beyond,” for instance, we’re able to report that 73% of our members have formed friendships, business relationships or other relationships through their association with PFI.

This is just shy of our goal to have helped 80% of our members report fostering connections through PFI – but it’s still a strong testament to the value of PFI to members. We also learnt that members overwhelmingly value our communications: a resounding 99% of respondents said they read PFI’s communications, including our quarterly magazine, weekly “Practical News” emails or website.

From our farming members, we learned that 84% of respondents raising field crops (corn, soybeans, hay or small grains) have planted cover crops, and 62% have increased their use over the past three years. Among our members who are non-operating farmland owners, 55% report increasing their financial investment in conservation practices over the past three years.

While PFI’s strategic plan goals are lofty, we’re glad to see that we have met, or are close to meeting, many of them. Yet there’s always room for improvement. Only 24% of our farmer members report being satisfied with their work-life balance, well below our goal of 40%. Only one-third of farmers report gaining better control of their on-farm expenses, far shy of our 65% goal. In the next strategic plan, we will continue our efforts to support farmers, farms and food systems that are viable.

Throughout the summer of 2020, many staff and board meetings were devoted to reviewing survey results and strategic plan progress, and brainstorming our plan and goals to strive for over the next three years. More results from this “report card,” along with the newly minted strategic plan, will be shared this winter.

Guiding Our Programming

Throughout our history, we’ve been known for coordinating on-farm research and field days. Survey results confirm that after 35 years, our membership is still thirsty for both research reports and field days as a preferred learning format: 74% of respondents rate field days as important or very important, and 73% report the same for research reports. Following these are two learning formats PFI has been strengthening for the past few years: e-newsletters and videos, ranked as important or very important by 60% and 56%, respectively.

PFI’s program staff are further able to analyze these results by groups of people in their area of work. Not surprisingly, mentorships ranked higher in importance to aspiring farmers than any other experience level, and research reports are most important among those who have been farming for 11-30 years. Member socials are more important to horticulture farmers than they are to field crop farmers, and the reverse is true for videos. Specific information like this is crucial for developing relevant programming for our members, and for being able to find funding to carry out that work.

When asked what areas PFI should place the most emphasis in the future, soil health ranked head and shoulders above 22 other topic areas, with 52% of respondents selecting it. This was followed by cover crops (40%), beginning farmers (36%), diversified crop rotations (35%) and on-farm research and demonstration (32%).

Members who are actively farming were asked to list two short-term goals and one long-term goal for their farms, along with any barriers keeping them from meeting those goals. These open-ended responses provide detailed information from specific farmer-members, but when aggregated also give us a snapshot of their goals in general.

The most frequently cited farm goals fall under the category of business improvement, which often relate to the scale, structure or profitability of the farm business. The next most-cited category of goals involved adopting or improving in-field production practices, such as expanding cover crop acres, transitioning to organic, improving pastures and boosting soil health, among many others.
For long-term goals, farmland and farm business transfer issues surfaced as a common area of importance.

Along with all this valuable information, we asked all members if they were interested in getting more involved with Practical Farmers of Iowa. In the PFI spirit of grassroots knowledge-sharing, hundreds of members expressed interest in hosting events, speaking at events or with the media, serving as a mentor or serving on a PFI committee. In addition to daily interactions our staff have with our members, this information helps us identify areas of expertise, interest and enthusiasm to continually cultivate farmer-leaders and advocates in Iowa and beyond.

Member Quotes

“Contacts and friendships are the best part of PFI. Farming can be lonely, so it really helps to have this association.” – Mary Swander

“PFI community has become like a second family. It’s fun to keep in touch with people from around the state. PFI members always seem willing to share what they are doing, what works and what doesn’t.” – Eric Madsen

“PFI is a critical support network for our farming family. We chose to move home to Iowa in large part because we were familiar with PFI’s resources and knew we’d feel well supported with PFI!” – Natasha Hegmann

Farmer Goals

“Be able to better utilize my equipment and resources (manure, no-till, cover crops, etc.).” – Adam Smith

“Develop and maximize our cow-calf marketing opportunities working primarily with local farm networks.” – Matthew Tentis

“Securing an appropriate succession plan for the next generation to farm.” – Darren Fehr

“Get more biomass growth out of my cover crops before planting spring cash crops.” – Rick Pellett

“Expand sufficiently to be able to hire a full-time or part-time employee.” – Bart VerEllen

“Stay profitable while raising young children.” – Lindsay Kaiser

“Add more aftermarket products to achieve year-round sales.” – Terry Troxel