LOVILIA, Iowa — After three years of changing the grazing practices, John Hogeland has seen a significant change in the heath of the pasture.
“Even though two of the last three years we’ve had moderate droughts, we’ve always had grass,” said John Hogeland who with his wife, Beth Hoffman, returned to John’s family farm in south-central Iowa. “A lot of our neighbors have run out of grass because they put cattle in a pasture and leave them there.”
The farmers are grass finishing their cattle and they move the cattle to a new section of the pasture every day. The cattle are divided into two herds — a cow/calf herd and a herd of yearlings.
“Our farm has hills that are steep enough that you should really not row crop it,” said Hogeland during a webinar hosted by American Farmland Trust. “But it makes great silvopasture, we are getting wildlife back and we’re seeing more different types of grasses coming in that are native.”
Goats have also been added to Whippoorwill Creek Farm.
“We are trying to break the cycle of invasive weeds — multiflora rose, honeysuckle and honey locust and cows will not touch them, but goats love them,” Hogeland said. “That is allowing the release of a lot of oaks and hickory trees that were overtopped by the honeysuckle and allowing the native grasses to come back.”
Transitioning the farm from Hogeland’s dad to Hogeland and Hoffman has been quite a challenge. After completing his degree in English at the University of Iowa, Hogeland moved to San Francisco to enroll in culinary school.
“I worked as a chef for eight years and a butcher for 12 years, but I always wanted to move back to Iowa,” he said.
Hoffman grew up in New York City and lived in many areas of the country.
“I’ve been a journalist for the past 25 years covering food and agriculture,” she said. “During the summers we’d come out to the farm in Iowa and I began to think about farming as a possibility for us.”
“Our biggest challenge was my dad because many times when I talked to him he discouraged me from getting into farming because he said there was no money in it,” Hogeland said.
“It took about a year to get our lease figured out with John’s dad because we wanted to do things differently,” Hoffman said. “He was afraid that we would fail and not be able to provide him income because he didn’t have a retirement fund so he needed income from the land.”
These concerns were valid, she said, because he knew the financial strains of farming.
“We wrote everything down for buying the cows, leasing the land and costs such as fixing tractors, fencing and fuel,” she said. “We found that we’d loose $25,000 our first year and that was $6,000 more than we allocated.”
The numbers improved after the first three years since the purchase of the 30 cows would be complete.
“We estimated we would make $20,000 to $30,000 per year if everything went OK, but in farming it often does not,” Hoffman said.
She has written a book, “Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America,” about their experiences of moving to the family farm.
“When compared to other industries, young people are not able to enter farming and it’s not because people don’t want to work hard, farmers often work too hard,” she said. “But they don’t want to work that hard and make no money.”
Many agricultural issues are included in Hoffman’s book.
“It looks at questions about why most farms are not making money, what the off-farm income is all about, the history of agriculture and how we ended up in this place, the misunderstandings I see and myths around farming I believe limit not only the public’s view of farming, but how farmers view their career choice,” she said. “And there are new narratives we can use to find solutions to these problems.”
The approach of the Iowa farmers is to avoid debt.
“Not only is the land so expensive, but the machinery, as well, so you can get in the mode of trying to stay on top of the next thing,” Hoffman said.
“We are trying to maintain a low input system,” Hogeland said. “My dad started farming in his late 30s and he was 74 when he paid off the farm. At 74, it’s pretty hard to start something new.”
Hogeland and Hoffman are developing a system to encourage people to start their own business on their Iowa farm.
“It’s different than a co-op,” Hoffman said.
“We think one of the great things about farming is the equity you can build in the business, so we want people to come on and own what they’re doing,” she said.
“There is a young man we hope is coming to run chickens on the farm and the rent he will pay is the ecological service of these birds eating the fly larva from the cow poop,” Hoffman said. “We want him to build the equity and wealth in owning that project.”
“He can leave with the birds, his branding and all the things we think is important for farms to build, so it’s not just a piece of land,” she said. “He will have a brand and customers — the things that make a business have more value.”