Last week, our team (Claira, Irene, and Elston) hopped in the car to get our feet in the field and visit two of Iowa’s most outspoken regenerative farmers – Denise O’Brien and Seth Watkins.
A slew of dogs, cats and chickens greeted us as we arrived at Pinhook Farm, where Seth and his family live, just outside Clarinda, Iowa. The three of us piled into Seth’s pickup alongside Denise and made our way to the pasture. Purple chicory twinkled at us, and tall grasses brushed our knees. Seth credited the lack of thistle in the pasture to his rotational grazing practice, which limits overgrazing and promotes robust pasture growth.
As Seth called “come on, boss”, and enticed the cattle along with a mixture of ground corn and soy, the cow-calf pairs made their way into the new paddock. They had ducked into the pond, and Seth would return that evening to repair the fence with his son so that the pond would once again be off-limits to the cattle, preserving water quality and ecological diversity there.
We drove on, through prairie reserve and past no-till corn and soy. When we got to the top of a hilly section of pasture, Seth shared that they learned that there was a mass burial of Irish railroad workers at the foot of the hill, along the old tracks. Seth clearly has an eye on the history of the land he stewards – he also noted that over his tenure, his farm (320 acres in his ownership, two thousand rented from other landowners) has dissolved eleven homesteads. A key to his stepping into climate action was recognizing that he is “part of the problem,” having subscribed to 1970s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s call to “Get Big or Get Out.” In a TEDx talk he delivered in Des Moines last year, he shares more of his story, his practices, and how he is reorienting to stewardship instead of production and working to Get Small in the name of responsible stewardship.
Denise O’Brien (founder of Women, Food and Agriculture Network, amongst many other things) also wrestles with the issue of size and responsible stewardship. Over the last 45 years, her farm, Rolling Acres, outside of Atlantic, Iowa has taken many forms. Once farming over 500 acres, she now cares for 17, which are host to prairie strips, a neighbor’s rotationally-grazed sheep flock, an orchard, and an organic flower and starter plant operation. In the past, they have run an organic veggie CSA, a U-Pick berry operation, a Holstein dairy herd, and regenerative row-cropping. Denise noted that while 500 acres felt like a hustle, when they settled around 400 they were able to steward in a way that felt responsible. Currently, Denise is building a strawbale home on the property where she and her husband will live, making their current home available for her daughter, son-in-law and four grand-children.
Both farmers spoke about the next generation – each hope to hand their operation off to young farmers. Denise and Seth are both working to improve their farm systems and infrastructure as well as building political power through legislation and community in order to make this a more hospitable place for the next generation. They spoke about things like creating local food systems so that the burden of marketing table food is not on farmers, about building bike trails in their communities, and about increasing land access for the next generation.
At lunch, Denise looked at Seth and told him how it energized her to speak with him about their ideas and strategies for building a brighter future – that she now felt prepared to go home and continue fighting. As I look forward to organizing conversations amongst farmers and faith leaders in my community, this comment reinvigorated me, affirming that conversation is powerful and vital to creating positive change.