An Inspiring Beginning Farmer: Sara Shepherd

Update on Sara - March 1, 2016

Sara Shepherd has come a long way since taking her first Annie's Project class in the winter of 2013 and then helping us share her story with the summer of 2013 video. She's taken several Iowa State University Extension and Outreach farm management courses and even become a member of the Adair County Extension Council. As a beginning farmer, Sara has made several key decisions and charted a course for a successful future.

Leap of Faith

Two things became apparent to Sara Shepherd in 2012; she needed a flexible schedule if she was going to have a cattle herd of her own; and she wanted to spend time with her Dad as he weakened due to ALS. Sara remembers, “The real decision to be self-employed was a huge leap of faith, and I jumped big! The scariest part was not knowing if I would be able to pay my bills.” But, she had some savings from her urban career that would cover her living expenses for six months and a few free-lance marketing jobs lined up.  

“I signed up for an Annie’s Project farm management class not knowing what my future in farming was going to be, but I wanted to learn as much as I could,” explains Sara. Before her father passed away he gave Sara farming lessons. “I was very grateful for my class because it gave me the opportunity to figure out some of the missing pieces and ask my Dad questions as I continued to learn. It’s about more than passing the land to the next generation, its passing that knowledge base that is the true legacy,” says Sara.  

Now at age 35, Sara has grown her marketing business, runs a 77 head Charolais operation, and owns or leases 600 acres of land. “Beginning farmers are a minority, and being a woman doing the work myself is even more unique. I’m growing corn and soybeans and doing the daily management and decision making for my cattle,” explains Sara.  

An inspirational role model for young women; Sara shows it’s possible to make difficult life changes, learn to manage a farm, and build a future in a rural community. “I’m a beginner, but at the same time, it’s a passion of mine to mentor and grow new farmers,” says Sara. She hopes youth see her as someone they can come to with questions and who will help them.  

Sara continues to educate herself on new and innovative ways of doing things. “I’m a trend setter. I want to produce the best agricultural products as efficiently as I can,” she says earnestly.  Business diversity matters to Sara, too. “I decided to put up a windmill on my ground because all the power goes to the local grid to power nearby communities. I want to take advantage of as much technology as I can and give back to my community,” she adds.   

Sara shares, “Through this whole process, and just life, I’ve learned that it’s never what you plan for, but God has some amazing ideas and dreams for you. Sometimes I feel like my short-sited vision isn’t big enough for him. It sure is exciting though!”  

Early Career  

Sara grew up on a south central Iowa beef cattle farm and was active in 4H, FFA, the Iowa and American Junior Charolais Cattle Association, and other youth activities. She attended Waldorf College in north central Iowa to study business, finance and management information systems.  

Sara’s passion for community led her to a becoming a Chamber of Commerce Executive Director. The next five years was spent working with the Humboldt-Dakota City chamber, and the Eagle Grove chamber. Sara enjoyed her work with economic development as it allowed her to facilitate activities that would grow and give back to the communities. “Our communities, especially the rural ones, are an ecosystem. A strong agricultural community, a strong school system, and a strong downtown or business sector are all intertwined to impact the vitality of all people in rural America. I learned how important it was for all of them to work together to build a strong community. I am forever grateful for the small business owner and those that volunteer and give back to their communities to help make them thrive,” Sara says. 

Marketing and information technology drew Sara’s career interests next, as she spent another five years focused on strategic market planning and implementation for a telephone cooperative and then an insurance company. Marketing and information technology were always a part of Sara’s career, but she appreciated being able to focus on these before she became self-employed. She describes why, “Laying out national strategic marketing plans and helping launch new products and companies, taught me how to tell the story. You have to break through all the noise to get the job done. I learned so much that I feel the agriculture and small business communities have yet to tap into.”  

Throughout these various employee experiences, Sara slowly developed and grew her own independent market consulting business and maintained her family farm ties. As her life situation began to shift in 2012, she was both well prepared for and open to significant changes.  

Support for the Journey

When Sara’s Dad became sick with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he wasn’t able to continue to do the farm work; especially to take care of the cattle he loved. The difficult decision was made to have a complete dispersal of his Charolais cattle herd.  Leading up to that dispersal, Sara helped her Dad get ready for it in many ways. “Doing chores and checking cows as I waited for them to calve opened my eyes to how much I enjoyed farming, and the possibility that I could do this in the future,” she says.  Then she started to have discussions – and several agreements – with her Dad about the possibility of her farming. “The extended family had planted some seeds about the future too,” she adds.   

Sara’s Dad decided he would give her weekly farming lessons. “It was largely an information dump,” she recalls, “He talked and told me how he did things and I took tons of notes and tried to ask questions. I was very grateful for my Annie’s Project class because it gave me the opportunity to figure out some of the missing pieces and ask more questions as I continued to learn,” says Sara.  

“I had lots of neighbors, farmers, friends, bankers, vets, extension agents and others supporting me in my journey. I built a circle of experts and figured out who I could ask for help and ask my ‘not so dumb’ questions to,” says Sara.

Beginning Farmer

To grow her business, Sara is putting most of the heifers back into her herd; she’s adding eight of those heifers this year. She sells the bulls mainly in the spring to purebred and commercial breeders; she’ll have seven bulls for sale this spring. Sara had semen collected from her herd bull and is promoting him. Her marketing experience is proving to be valuable as she is starting to sell some semen. She plans to grow her operation by developing relationships with other breeders and potential customers.  

“My goal for my crop operation is to have my selling price for grain be better than the average price for the year. I’m improving each year,” she says. Sara wants to take the new Women Managing Crops class through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Women in Ag program, and possibly take the Women Marketing Grain class again. “I took the marketing class last June and it was a lot to take in all at once,” she says. She’s also trying to learn about cover crops to possibly utilize them in her operation. In 2014, when Sara first started the cropping operation, she and all of her landlords completed an application to receive the Iowa Department of Finance Beginning Farmer Tax Credit for the next 5 years, which was helpful.  

Marketing Consultant 

To supplement her farm income and help make her farming goals possible, Sara runs a consulting business called Sara Shepherd Marketing. “My marketing business focuses in three areas; agriculture, small business, and non-profit work; this has just naturally developed from my background,” says Sara. She puts together strategic marketing plans that are either project/objective based (to meet a specific goal or purpose) or time-frame based (such as a 6 month plan).  

“The opportunities I had with Annie’s Project to tell my story, helped me to help others to tell their story,” Sara says. The Adair County Farm Bureau hired Sara to share the stories of local farmers as a way to educate non-farmers about agriculture. Sara is calling the series of stories “Whose Your Farmer.”  She created several types of marketing pieces including roadside banners, pop-up banners, posters, table tents, and window clings. Sara is also diligently using social media to expand the reach and share these stories widely.  

Community Volunteer 

Sara’s approach to mentoring and volunteerism is being involved and being a role model for the youth. “One of the things that I think is really important is that legacy, or long term vision, of how agriculture is going to continue to move forward,” says Sara. She’s just starting out herself, so she looks for others who can mentor her. But at the same time, she can fulfill that mentoring role for others, and help them develop a vision for their own future. “Because of my involvement with the FFA in the Stuart and Greenfield communities, I’m trying to get a formal mentorship program set up for those students interested in showing cattle, but don’t have that opportunity,” adds Sara. She is trying this out on an informal level first to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Sara serves on the Adair County Extension Council and several cattle organizations. 

Sara has an amazing capacity to learn, work on the farm, work in marketing, and still find time to volunteer and engage with her community. “I’m very passionate about all these things,” she explains, “I try to be organized and plan time for the things that are important to me.”