What is it like to be a CSA farmer in Iowa? (Part 2)

March 11, 2016
by Carrie Chennault, graduate research assistant

Today’s post is the second in a series featuring farmer Julia Slocum, who operates Lacewing Acres. This is a certified organic vegetable farm located just north of Ames. For those of you who haven’t read the first post, I encourage you to check it out! This second post takes us on Julia’s journey starting in Iowa and coming home again to farm.

Aspiring to farm

Julia wasn’t always a farmer in practice, though you might say that she’s always been an aspiring farmer in spirit. She grew up in Ames and attended Ames High School. Looking back and re-reading her high school journals, Julia now realizes that she began expressing interest in farming as far back as her senior year.

Farming wasn’t at the forefront of her mind, though. So she set off to the University of Iowa to study international development and Spanish. After graduating, Julia’s work gave her opportunities to travel abroad while based in Washington DC.

She saw the urgency of crises abroad. So she embarked on a career in which she could be a part of addressing important international development issues. The effectiveness of the organization for which she worked, she said, was rooted in the leadership of staff and volunteers designing and implementing campaigns in their own regions.

As she witnessed the power of people working in their own communities, Julia eventually came to question her place as a privileged white, middle-class woman in that field. She asked herself what specific and necessary skill set she was bringing to this work. Other than just caring a lot, what did she really have to offer? Traveling nationally and internationally, Julia recognized both how different and similar places are.

CSA farmer 2 julia squash
Julia at market with a squash.

“People everywhere are just trying to live their lives,” she said. And that gave her a sense of peace and calmness. It was okay to go home, to be in Iowa. In fact, she began to feel that was where she might be most effective in contributing to positive changes. The time came to choose between pursuing a position in Nepal and returning to Iowa. Julia said, “I knew this [Iowa] is where I want to be. This is my home.”

Iowa work

Following a bicycle tour to raise awareness for affordable housing, Julia returned to Iowa to join the Conservation Corps. On the journey to farming, the Conservation Corps played a critical role in boosting Julia’s confidence. She said that originally, “I didn’t think that I could do it [vegetable farming,] because I didn’t study horticulture. Also because of the physical labor, working outside, and the equipment and machinery.” The Conservation Corps eliminated all the doubts that were holding her back from giving it a shot.

The next step in Julia’s journey was her first farming position on a goat dairy in New Mexico. Next, she worked for a season with Foxtail Farm CSA in Wisconsin. Julia then came back to her hometown of Ames. There she held jobs with Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Farmers Union. She also worked for a season at One Step at a Time Gardens.

What Julia loved most about One Step at a Time was their focus on people and building relationships. Taking those lessons with her and recognizing she had much yet to learn, Julia was ready to start out on her own, to learn by doing.

Lacewing Acres began through barter: an acre of pasture in exchange for a CSA share, and a second barter to time-share equipment. After two seasons, Julia moved her farm to three acres in her current location. She now rents from Prairie Bloom Farm, next to Prairie Moon Winery.

Tackling tough issues

Today, with her heart both in Iowa and looking out to the world, Julia remains passionate about tackling tough, urgent issues. For Julia, coming home to farm in Iowa was a special and unique opportunity. Being at home “puts you in a position where you can love a place and also be very critical.”

When listening to Julia talk, it’s easy to see just how much she loves Iowa and her community. She also draws connections between Iowa agriculture and what happens in the rest of the world. “It is a matter of urgency for Iowans to be figuring out alternatives ways of feeding ourselves,” she said. She described her personal stake as an Iowan in thinking about how we promote our culture and form of agriculture in other places, and how we take responsibility for the broader impacts of conventional farming.

Julia’s care and concern for her community, food, and agriculture led me to ask her: “If you could make one change or tackle one issue related to food in Iowa, what would it be?”  \She responded that it would be for everyone to really think about and answer the question, “What does it mean to grow food sustainably? And what am I doing to support that?”

Right now she sees sustainability as a buzzword. But it’s also a word with a real meaning. To her, growing food sustainably means figuring out how to grow our food indefinitely. And it means growing it in a way that cares and provides for the well-being of people, soil, water, and the broader ecosystem.

Defining sustainability

Thinking about the sustainability question in terms of her own operation, Julia said that it’s a struggle. She doesn’t feel that her way of farming is necessarily the answer, because it’s difficult economically. As she put it, hand weeding everything is not sustainable; you need some economy of scale.

Defining what is sustainable is important. Because small farms, according to Julia, are the marketing team for this new vision of agriculture. She described the political role of smaller farmers who are developing new relationships with citizens. They are talking about the importance of eating good food, sustainable practices, and the need for strong regional and local food systems.

Julia reflected on her farm and other small farms as an answer to growing food sustainably. She said, “It’s a piece of the puzzle. At this point in my life, it’s the best option of how to live, the best life I can envision for myself. It’s the best option for me, the ground (if it is going to be used for agriculture), for the people. I’m producing something good for them.”

Julia feels the reality of the urgency of these issues. She knows they are hard to talk about and emotional. She described the personal process of grappling with concerns about her community and the world as a political reawakening that she and many small farmers are undergoing.

Looking ahead

Julia recognizes herself as coming from a place of privilege. This has allowed her to make choices in her life. And she hopes that people who share in those privileges will think more about their choices too. Farming gives Julia ample time to think deeply about things. She’s already formulated several ideas for children’s books to help younger Iowans navigate the challenges of sustainably growing food. I’m looking forward to reading her books someday.

As Julia and I wrapped up our conversation, I asked her to share a fun fact about Lacewing Acres. She replied, “You know the green lacewing, the beneficial insect? It’s a metaphor for life. I didn’t know what they were. I never saw them before, but they’ve always been here.” Julia told me about the egg stalk of the lacewing, the tiny silk thread that shoots off the stem parallel to the ground with a little egg on the end. “Now I see them everywhere.”