Advocate Stories: Practical Farmers for Sustainable Agriculture

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Headquartered in Ames, Iowa, Practical Farmers helps farmers throughout the region share information and become more profitable while protecting the environment and their communities. They encourage farm diversity, sustainable agriculture and family farms that can meet the growing demands for fresh and local foods.

This past March, we had the pleasure of meeting and working with staff and members of Practical Farmers at the beautiful Iowa Arboretum. While the biggest snowstorm of the season raged outside, we were treated to the stories of this close and supportive community—and, at lunch and dinner, to their locally grown produce and meat. We spoke recently to Executive Director Teresa Opheim and Communications and Policy Associate Drake Larsen about the importance of personal storytelling to their work.

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Teresa: There’s a lot of information out there telling farmers what they should do. But before farmers act, they need to hear the stories of other farmers who’ve actually made a change or improved their farm. So helping farmersshare their stories is absolutely key to what we do. We hold about 90 events each year to give them opportunities: field days, workshops, an annual conference, meetings that feature on-farm research and demonstrations. At our core, we’re about storytelling.

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Drake: A large part of my job involves publishing reports of farm research, writing research articles or features about specific farmers or farm practices. But ultimately, the best way for farmers to share information with other farmers and with the public is through their storytelling. The interesting thing about sustainable agriculture is that there are no cookie-cutter answers, even after we do this robust research. Not everything fits for everyone. It really takes a lot of sharing and storytelling to make the knowledge useful for other farmers.

Living Proof: Are there central themes or common elements you hear in the stories farmers tell?

Teresa: They almost always involve humility, admitting that they made mistakes and learned through trial and error. And the stories are very specific, with practical details about how something was done. The press often covers stories superficially, but farmers want to hear specifics: the planting space between rows, the number of passes, what time of year, how much rainfall you had. Practical details they can then evaluate. And also humor—especially about livestock. Livestock and mud.

Drake: The stories that stick with me are the stories that have that “a-ha” moment where something prompts a farmer to make a change. Some farmers are brought up in an alternative farming system and they understand the tenets of sustainable agriculture. But I like the stories of farmers and families who are doing things the conventional way, and then something really prompts them to forge a new path. And oftentimes, that means going it alone.

Teresa: Isolation is a common theme. Neighbors thinking you’re doing something weird, when you’re actually doing something innovative, something that better protects the environment. Another common theme is the distrust of authority.

Drake: If you look back across the history of agricultural, there’s a lot of folks—whether folks from academic spheres or policy makers—that have led farmers down paths that may or may not have been in their best interests. Sometimes changes are good for farmers; oftentimes they’re not so good. So their stories bring credibility and trust. Other farmers know the lifestyle. They know what it takes to live on the land. Farmers’ stories that are shared every day, face to face, are really the ones that are useful to farmers and that help them face change. They’re telling these stories across kitchen tables.

Living Proof: Neither of you are farmers. So, what’s your story? We love to hear how staff members of organizations like Practical Farmers end up doing this kind of work.

Teresa: I’m a 7th-generation Iowan and I grew up going to my grandparents’ farm. After law school I left Iowa, not planning to return. But whenever I came back to visit, I would notice what was happening to my native state. There were fewer and fewer farms and larger and larger fields. More big buildings. You could see the transformation taking place from an agriculture, with the emphasis on “culture,” to the industrial farming model.

After my grandparents died, their farmstead was sold off and the farmhouse ripped down. At one point, my mother and I drove by and saw people ripping apart the house. They were going to salvage the wood, which was good—but it was an extremely difficult thing for us to see. Over the years, on subsequent visits, I watched the farm be slowly obliterated. About 5 years ago, all that was left were 2 trees in the ditch. I went by this spring and there were no trees. That’s exactly what we don’t want to happen in rural Iowa.

I had been thinking, over the years: what could I do that would honor my grandparents and their farm, and help improve my state? When I decided to have a child, I was living in Washington, D.C. and I thought, “I want to have a child in Iowa.” So I decided to return and work for an organization that was trying to preserve what was best about Iowa agriculture, but also moving it forward to the needs of today. So that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Drake: I was born and raised in Iowa. Agriculture has always been part of my life, but I never was really connected intimately; I’m about 2 generations removed from my Iowa family farm.

But I grew up in ag landscapes and developed a passion for conservation, specifically wetlands and water biology. I followed that career path and worked for a decade as a field researcher. I first worked with the snow goose, which nests on the coast of the Hudson Bay. Snow geese are burgeoning in large part because of waste grain they eat in Iowa during their north and south migration. But because of these large populations, they’re destroying the tundra. I was researching this.

Then I worked in the boreal forest of the Northwest Territories, studying a little duck called the Lesser Scaup, or Bluebill. Unlike the snow goose, the Bluebill is experiencing major population crashes because of landscape changes in Iowa and Minnesota.

One night, I was lying in my tent in the boreal forest, 2 thousand miles away from home, listening to ducks fly overhead, and it hit me: for 10 years I had been traveling to the arctic to study birds that really had problems that started in my Iowa backyard. From that moment in my tent, I knew that my conservation passion needed to be focused on helping to create more sustainable agriculture closer to home—versus watching birds far from home.

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