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PFI turns 30, mission still growing

By Staff | Mar 15, 2015

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AMES – Practical Farmers of Iowa, founded in 1985 by central Iowa farmers Larry Kallum and Dick Wilson, turns 30 years old this year.

Plans to celebrate the milestone are just getting under way.

While PFI has 2,800 members – a third of whom are not farmers, but have an interest in agriculture – the annual conference and trade show, in Ames in January, drew more than 6,000 people.

That was no surprise to Sally Worley, PFI’s operations director, since most of PFI’s event are open to the public.

-Farm News file photo Actor Elizabeth Thompson portrays Angela Martin in the play “Map of My Kingdom,” during a February performance in Lytton. In the play, commissioned by ractical Farmers of Iowa, Angela Martin tells the audience of how her grandmother’s decision to sell the family farm without consulting the family affected the family.

Worley said PFI’s original motive for forming is that farmers wanted to talk together, sharing farming practices and outcomes, along with learning new information and science that would help them become more successful.

And, today, she said, “They want even more events from us – farmer-to-farmer. So we can reach across the state helping farmers strengthen their farms and communities.”

While specific elements of the 30th anniversary celebration are yet to be nailed down, Worley said it will definitely include a field day at one of the founding farmers’ farms.

If this field day is typical, more than 50 percent of the attendees will not be PFI members, she said, which is all the better.

Grains, livestock, fruits, veggies

Dan Wilson, a farmer from Paullina, in O’Brien County, is the president of Practical Farmers. He said the current focuses are mentoring young farmers and a renewed interest in cover crops.

In addition, Wilson said, the small vegetable or fruit producers working on 2 acres of land are sometimes the family members of those who grow 1,200 acres of grain.

In any case, he said, the two groups that have been rather separate over the organization’s history now associate with one another more than in prior years.

“We’re kind of the reverse of an old idea,” Wilson said. “When we started in the 1980s, one thing we worked with was cover crops.

“It became just another thing we had to manage for. There wasn’t the focus on nutrients and water. We lost a lot of our pasture.”

And, he noted, “Now we are concerned about Des Moines’ water.”

That city has recently complained that field run-off, ladened with nitrates and phosphorus, is costing it more to remove from its water supply.

Starting, transitioning are key

Among PFI’s focuses are researching and sharing best farming practices. Its Beginning Farmers program and Generational Transitions guidance programs are designed to keep the family farm strong and in production.

Leaving a farm in limbo through lack of planning can cause setbacks of all kinds for family members and the land.

The Beginning Farmers program was founded three years ago and has 1,500 mentors and members.

The young members are offered a savings incentive program and must write a farm business plan. They also attend various ag events and work with a network of established farmers as they grow their knowledge and savings toward buying farm assets, Worley said.

Potential mentors apply to be farm trainers and must be approved by a PFI committee. The trainees then work with farmer-mentors, who must give them extra education and opportunities as they work together, Worley said.

“Our members are really pushing that,” she said, citing data gathered from members. “A really big boom of farmers is going to retire really soon.”

To that end, PFI commissioned a play centered on that issue, “Map of My Kingdom,” by Mary Swander, a playwright and author who is also Iowa’s poet laureate.

PFI has a group called Labor for Learning, headed by 12 trainers who are currently planning research projects for the coming growing season.

Participating farmers-to-be work in four main areas – management, livestock, crops and energy.

This is also the organization’s third year for cover crop trials and record keeping, Worley said.

Energy concerns have also come into the picture recently.

Worley said young farmers are now finding ways to cut use of finite energy sources so they are less impacted by costs.

“They are tracking energy use,” Worley said. “They get actual data for cookers and dryers, and figure out how to make them more efficient.”

Fruit and vegetable producers are now more integrated with field crop producers (within PFI), too.

“There are a lot of cross-sections,” Worley said. “People are doing many things.

“We’re doing things that make an impact for them.”

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