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Ag engineer gets hands dirty at veggie farm

SOLON- Kate Edwards rented an acre of land in 2010, christened it Wild Woods Farm, and dug into the clay hilltop near Sugar Bottom Road.
She dug in to the work, too, she said, and she should know farming.
An agricultural engineer trained at Iowa State University, Edwards said her grandparents have been her biggest influence on her love of farming. She said she wasn’t sure how far back her family has been farming, but you can tell it’s in her blood.
Growing up in the shadow of the 1980s farm crisis and its impact on her family sent her on a mission to fix the state of farming. Her grandparents, one set in Monticello and the other in New London, barely survived the farm financial crisis when low prices and high debt forced many to foreclose.
Edwards’ forebears now help her out not just in spirit, but with canning and fixing equipment.
Edwards said she’s always had great respect for farmers, but it’s become harder to become a farmer today. Farmers are told to go big or get out, and she said many just get out and leave the profession.
Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Next Generation coordinator, Luke Gran, said that hyper-specialization and decreased crop diversity have made farmers dependent on subsidies and crop insurance.
Both house and senate versions of the U.S. farm bill, which expires on Sept. 30, have increases to the $11 billion crop insurance program.
Farming is a very capital-intensive start-up company, Gran said, unlike a software company which needs no land and little equipment or resources like fertilizer and seed.
But beginning farmers like Edwards are less rare than you might think.
Gran estimated that, based on beginning farmer loans last year and those in the PFI network, about 3,000 new farmers joined the ranks of Iowa’s roughly 90,000 farmers.
Edwards is a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and was one of 25 chosen to participate in their Savings Incentive Program (SIP), part of PFI’s Next Generation initiative to help new farmers get started.
SIP is designed to help with some of the start-up costs of farming. The program matches new farmer savings, up to $2,400 or $100 per month for two years, for equipment purchases. PFI eventually will give 100 new Iowa farmers a boost to start their new ag adventure. A PFI fundraising goal exceeded expectations when they raised $298,000 as part of a 25-year anniversary campaign.
Edwards is saving for a mobile high tunnel (or hoop house) for extending the growing season. In two years, she’s doubled the size of her field where she and one part-time worker plant and cultivate the fenced-in farm.
The savings program also provides new farmers with a mentor and help with a farm business plan.
Gran said new farmer mentors have been an important part of the program.
Edwards’ mentor, Susan Jutz of ZJ Farms, said she was inspired by Edwards’ Wild Woods Farm and what she’d accomplished starting on one acre of land.
Jutz is the former president of PFI and has operated a vegetable farm on 80 acres in Solon with sheep, prairie and pasture since 1994. She said PFI’s membership is a generous network of like-minded folk who connect to share information, techniques and resources.
The group does field research on topics like no-till planting and row cover crops that interested even a veteran like Jutz.
Edwards said she even exchanges text messages from Jutz as they discuss planting schedules and spacing, seed varieties and equipment.
Jutz and Edwards will team up for a fall share program that runs from October to December and will provide five parcels of storage crops, greens, carrots and broccoli. Wild Woods Farm is on Facebook at facebook.com/veggiefarm.
In September, following the scorching summer drought, Edwards had so many tomatoes that, even after canning and supplying weekly shares to her 32 CSA (community-supported agriculture) customers, she donated 75 pounds to local food rescue non-profit Table to Table.
For Edwards, “Farming is about community and heritage.”
She has the heritage, not counting the heirloom seeds, from her family, and she’s building a new community with her micro-farm.
She also admitted that she’d planted a lot of tomatoes and was experimenting with different techniques of spacing and caging them.
Another mentor of sorts has been her landlord, Dick Schwab, who said he’d wanted to see a new farmer sustainably use some of his land. Schwab also assists with Edwards’ venture as a volunteer, putting up deer fence and helping spread composted manure.
She has 300 hills of sweet potatoes that are getting ready to be dug, but as for the future of her farming career, Edwards has three goals.
She wants to own her own land, raise animals and someday grow sweet corn, a crop which can frustrate farmers who use organic practices, largely because of corn worm which are difficult pests to control without chemicals.
Ever the engineer, this farmer’s granddaughter will figure out a way to do it.