Beginning farmers in northeast Iowa area are building a robust network

Beginning farmers in northeast Iowa area are building a robust network

by Kayla Koether
Northeast Iowa Food Systems Specialist

Northeast Iowa’s local foods-based beginning farmer network is off to a strong start! After an initial get-together in November, the crowd was so excited to have opportunities for networking and collaboration that we decided to meet monthly. With two meetings now under our belts and around 30 people in regular attendance, the enthusiasm and comradery have been palpable. We’re planning dates for educational workshops, and even work nights for farmers to do paperwork together.

Farmers and aspiring farmers from throughout the region attended the first NEIA Beginning Farmer Network gathering. Here’s a map showing some of their homes and farms!

Farmers have really valued the opportunity to make relationships and get to know others in the region who are producing and marketing local foods. Together, we’ve identified so many ways the network could help them as we work to strengthen the local food economy and make fresh, local food more available in our region. Participants’ ideas have included equipment sharing, an intern clearinghouse, bulk purchases, swapping skills and information, and doing big farm projects together. Business classes were one project already in the works for the group to add to the rich opportunities we’ll create together.

Emily Fagan, John Rafkin, Korbin Paul, and Andrew Wunschel at the December Network gathering.

During our first meeting, we created a map of all existing relationships in the network. Following the work of June Holley, a sociologist and network weaver, part of our intentional work as a group will be to connect people and strengthen relationships. We’ll continue to use this map to help create more linkages for local farmers, deepen existing relationships, and make use of the skills and assets across our network.

Network members use small group discussions to problem-solve at the December gathering in Decorah.

On the surface, hosting a beginning local-food-farmer get-together seems like a small task. But this gathering of local food farmers and allies culminated only after a lot of groundwork, which included meeting with individual beginning farmers to identify their needs and securing a Rural Business Development Grant from USDA Rural Development. Then, farmers and aspiring farmers took a complex survey to share their needs and interests. At the first meeting, we shared the survey results so the group could quickly evaluate what educational opportunities and farming enterprises they’re interested in, what we should work on as a network, and how to schedule gatherings around 40+ busy schedules. We’ll keep adjusting as we grow, change, and approach new projects.

Katie Wiste chats with Caite and Jim Palmer after the gathering, while the youngest network member, Charlotte Palmer, catches a catnap.

I’m so excited to support these farmers, help build relationships among them, and support a rich community with fruitful collaborations. I know the deep knowledge and enthusiasm within this network will catalyze new projects and activities, as well as helping northeast Iowa’s beginning farmers grow their dreams into businesses. If you know a beginning local food farmer or a local food ally in Northeast Iowa who wants to connect, please invite them to join us!

You can contact Kayla at koether@iastate.edu.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Local Foods Program
Curtiss Hall, Ames, IA 50011
localfoods@iastate.edu; 515-294-3086
http://www.extension.iastate.edu/ag/