Published Sep 5, 2023

“Have you heard of Practical Farmers?”

By Practical Farmers of Iowa

PFI member, Rebekah Ahrens, reflects on the vital role PFI played in the early days of the launch of her family’s farm and how she continues to rely on PFI resources for support today.

Ahrens family

The Ahrens family. Photo courtesy of Brittney Belha.

My husband and I, two IT people in our mid-30s, decided in 2018 to move to my family’s farm. My dad was running a dairy goat operation and had made it clear there was room for us to learn more about managing the farm, which he hoped we would want to take over one day.

We wanted to be closer to family, raise our kids on the farm and have them learn from their grandpa in case they wanted to farm someday. I left my day job while my husband shifted to partially remote so we could live on the farm, in a house we built 500 feet from Dad’s house. Over the first 18 months, our oldest son got 25 chickens and it became clear to Dad that shifting from dairy to meat goats would be smart. I unabashedly advocated for getting sheep.

Sheep at twisted oak

Sheep lounging in the grass at Twisted Oaks Farm.

My husband built a small lean-to for the sheep, and in October 2020 my dad and I went off on an adventure and came home with six Corriedale ewes. Naturally, we hadn’t planned for every detail and didn’t have any straw bedding for the small building. Dad didn’t know anyone selling small square straw bales. I snapped a picture of a flyer at the feed store and made a phone call.

It would turn out to be one of the most important calls of my life. It was a Saturday morning and Dad and I went to this farm to pick up the straw. Of course, it turned out to be someone Dad knew, so we all chatted a while.

Later I got a text from that same farmer: “Have you heard of Practical Farmers?”

I got online and did some digging. They had a conference coming up in January 2021, which I signed up for. Due to COVID-19, it was held virtually that year. I sat through the conference and was blown away. One session showed us how we could change our plan to better graze with the goat herd using electric netting. Another talked about how to raise a flock of sheep similar to the one we had just started. Our family, including our then 9- and 11-year-old sons, watched the PFI film, “Livestock on the Land,” together.

Allis Chalmers

Allis-Chalmers tractor on Twisted Oaks Farm.

After the conference, Dad and I sat down and laid out a five-year plan for the farm using parts of things we knew already, plus a lot of great lessons from the conference. We knew there would be a lot of fluidity to it, but this was our first joint farm plan. And it was a good plan.

Support Through Upheaval

Two months later, our world changed. It was March 13. We’d made it through the cold stretches and were ready to start on our first spring projects. It was a nice Saturday, which we spent doing different projects: moving the goats from the pen we had used to keep their kids warm during extreme cold back to the main barn area; cleaning manure out; rearranging the barn to get more machinery under cover before it rained all week.

It was another fulfilling farm workday. Sadly, it was the last workday I had with Dad – he died that night. Suddenly, we were on our own.

Between caring for animals, family that descended upon us and planning the funeral, I had no time to process, grieve or care for myself. I now had 28 more goats in my charge, in addition to our own sheep, our son’s chickens and Dad’s 12 bottle baby goats that were living in our garage. We entered survival mode.

I started identifying what on the to-do list we didn’t know how to do. It was a long list, from maintaining the Allis-Chalmers tractor to baling and storing hay – the chores Dad always did. For the rest of that year, we’d talk about the tasks coming up and identify what we didn’t know. Then we’d research, discuss and make a plan – as well as a Plan B and Plan C in many cases.

I can’t emphasize enough how much I used PFI content to help with our research.

From farminars and book suggestions to videos from past conferences, I took it all in as fast as I could. We made tons of decisions, some of them impossible. We sold the goats to simplify the operation because we had fewer workers and bought our own tractor because we couldn’t maintain the old one. (But we kept the Allis-Chalmers my grandpa bought.)

As winter crept up, I saw a Practical Farmers workshop called Establish Farming. I signed up, sat through some classes with former PFI staff member Greg Padget, did some homework and listened to other PFI farmers like Dayna Burtness of Nettle Valley Farm talk about how to plan the next couple of years. In the short time we spent together, I learned a lot. During one class where we discussed our obstacles, I said we felt like we were failing at a lot of stuff and making crap up as we go.

Greg looked at me with a smile and said, “It sounds like you’re farming.”

A Community Behind Us

We were farming. We had made it through the first season without Dad. Some stuff had gone really well, some had been horrible. But we made it.

Yarn from sheep at Twisted Oak

Yarn made with wool from the sheep at Twisted Oaks Farm.

With Greg’s words percolating in my mind, in January 2022 I drove from our farm in Illinois to my first in-person Practical Farmers conference in Ames, Iowa. The theme was “Facing the Horizon.” While listening to the practical advice of other farmers further on the path than myself, I noticed many of them sharing similar stories – the heartaches of repairing damaging choices of the past; the gut-wrenching pain of watching storms destroy years’ worth of effort.

Overwhelmingly, I felt I had found a family – one that holds your hand and reminds you that you can do this. A family that laughs and cries together through hardship and triumph; that moves together towards a future that can be made ever brighter and more beautiful.

I have only been connected to PFI for about three years, but in that time I have gained the skills to calculate my farm’s profitability, improved practices to make our operation more efficient – which improved our work-life balance – and expanded our network.

Wherever you are in your farming journey, I encourage you to tap into this resource and join Practical Farmers of Iowa.

I did the math the other night. We are nearing the day where we have been on the farm longer without Dad than we had with him. My immediate reaction was a return of all the grief that will never truly go away. After a little more reflection, though, I realized we’re still here. We’re still farming and we’re not alone.

Rebekah Ahrens
Twisted Oaks Farm
Milan, Illinois

Twisted Oak

Oak at Twisted Oaks Farms.

Thank you to Rebekah Ahrens for sharing her family’s story with us. Check out her Twisted Oaks News for more updates and stories from their family farm.

Please become a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and find the support you need to succeed. Membership starts at just $25! Check out our member benefits page to learn more about member levels and perks.

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