Standing in the middle of a farm field in Northwest Iowa, the world stretches out all around you. The only trees for miles are groves of oak and pine that surrounding a scattering of farmhouses.
Other than that, and the few dozen hog barns on the horizon, the world is flat. And it’s covered in corn and soybeans.
The vast majority of Iowa is farmland and as of 2015, the Iowa Farm Bureau registered 18,698 century farms. That means nearly 25% of farms in Iowa have been in the same family for at least one hundred years. Another 837 of those farms are heritage farms which means they’ve been owned and operated by the same family for 150 years.
And that’s crazy. Because so much has changed in that time.
Seed and machinery have gotten more expensive. Farms are bigger. Kids are moving to the cities and they don’t come back. Crop insurance is wildly expensive. The weather is more unpredictable than ever. And market prices fluctuate every other day.
And yet somehow, against all the odds, generation after generation manages to save the farm.
Throughout this story, you’ll learn about the challenges family farms face. And you’ll hear from two women farmers about how those challenges impact their lives.
Dawn Fedkenheuer’s farm in Bode, Iowa is officially 156 years old. But when her great-great-grandfather created the farm, it took him six years to file the paperwork. So the Iowa Farm Bureau approved the farm as a heritage farm this June.
Her house is full of secret treasures and photographs from the past. In fact, she jokes, all her grandparents and great grandparents died in this house. “You know what,” she said. “If there's a ghost in here, they're awfully darn friendly because I've been living here for how long.”
Dawn’s kitchen is the original structure of her family’s farm. Today, as the late summer sun filters through the windows, it’s the staging area for a grand production of canning green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Dawn and her husband farm their 160 acres themselves. But it's not enough to keep them afloat, so they work full-time jobs. Dawn also has a acre’s worth of garden and a smokehouse which keeps her family and friends stocked with food all year round.
April Hemmes’ family established their farm in Hampton, Iowa in 1901. When her grandfather was starting out, he had just three blind horses. It was all he could afford, April shrugged. Today, April farms 850 acres of land which she calls, “The Empire.”
She is the sole owner and operator of her farm which is unusual. Farming is a profession dominated by men. “I do all my own planting,” she said. “I farm, my husband works. I farm with PMS-- personal man servants.” The sound of her booming laugh must drift miles up the road.
April has been farming full-time for over 31 years. She grows soybeans and corn and in the past raised cattle and hogs. Through her involvement in the farming community, she’s traveled the world, and studied farming from Uganda to Texas.
She farms in the legacy of her father and grandfather but makes it known that her farm is very much her own and she knows what she’s doing.
PASSING THE TORCH
If your farm is going to stay around for 100 years, the first challenge you need to pass is in convincing at least one person to stick around generation after generation. In 1862, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was created, farmers made up 90% of the population. As of the most recent Agriculture Census (2012), only 2% of the population were farmers.
The loss of farmers also has an effect on rural communities. The 2012 ag census found a 21 percent drop in farmers ages 35-44 years old. With fewer farmers in that age bracket, there are fewer kids in town, so rural schools are consolidating, businesses are collapsing and towns are disappearing.
So there’s an age problem in farming. The average age of an Iowa farmer in 2012 was 57 and that’s up five years from what it was in 1997. That means that fewer of the younger generation are sticking around to keep up the farm.
Which means farms have had to improvise. Some rent land but keep the ownership in the family. Others have seen daughters take over the farm for the first time. The American Farmland Trust predicts that in the next 20 years, over 75% of transferred farmland will be owned by women.
Dawn took the helm of her family farm when her father turned 70. She has six siblings, but she was the only one who wanted to farm.
“He said, ‘I'm retiring when I turn 70. I'm retiring. Are you interested in farming?’” Dawn said. “Dad wanted us to farm, so we got to move in.”
Dawn and her husband run the farm themselves now, but her dad stays involved. “Dad will still fabricate or make a part instead of going and buying it because he said he will help out on the farm until he dies,” she said.
She does worry about the future of farm towns. She notes that the closest town doesn’t even have a grocery store anymore. “The only reason why they are surviving is because of the [grain] elevators that are still in the towns and we have to haul our grain somewhere.”
It wouldn’t surprise her, however, if soon the farm cooperatives that run grain elevators start coming out to the bigger farms to haul their grain for them.
April took the whole farm over in 1993. Her father and grandfather were still working on the farm at the time. In that summer of ‘93, the Midwest was hit with record rainfall. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers flooded miles past their banks.
“Grandpa said, ‘This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.' And I said, ‘Good, got that over with,’” April said.
Her grandfather lived ‘til he was 101 and April said he was driving soybeans to town for her when he was 98 years-old. In the last year, April lost her father, so now she holds the legacy in her hands.
April’s farm is close to the little town of Bradford, Iowa. The only time she ever goes into town is if she needs her pickup repaired. “Towns are going to be fewer and fewer,” she said. “There’s no businesses, you know. There’s like one or two.”
Many young people in her area have moved to cities and there’s no one left to create a town.
MACHINES OF THE FUTURE
To run a small or average-sized farm in Iowa, you need a lot of equipment, most notably: a handful of tractors and the biggest investment of all, a combine. A combine is the giant harvesting machine that corn and soybean farmers use to harvest their crops at the end of the season.
The combine base itself costs between $300,000 and $500,000 brand-new. Then, you need attachments which will tack on another $100,000 or so. In contrast, you can get a nice house in town for $50,000.
There are two big ways that farmers today make that payment happen. The first is buying used machinery, but even a used combine can cost $200,000 easy. The second way is through financing, and agriculture loans are required to be payed out in five years time.
With the constantly improved technology of farm machinery, costs of equipment have skyrocketed. The Kansas Farm Management Association found that total machinery investment on farms doubled between 2004 and 2013.
When you inherit a farm, you also probably inherit some machinery. But that machinery is often outdated and therefore less efficient. Some farmers can’t afford to upgrade, so they’re constantly repairing and replacing parts on tractors from as far back as the 1950s.
When Dawn first took over the farm, she needed new equipment. And because she and her husband didn’t have a lot of money, they took out a loan.
“We make a $20,000 machinery payment every year because dad said, ‘You're going to farm. You need equipment,'" Dawn said. “So it's fine. But we both have to work full-time because you can't make it.”
She also noted that consolidation of agricultural machinery manufacturers is becoming a problem in Iowa because the smaller companies that sell less expensive machinery are disappearing.
“John Deere just bought Hagies out. Which is a Hagies sprayer in Clarion [Iowa],” she said. ”They’ve been in business for over 100 years, a family company that started as a little field sprayer is now humongous with the booms 120 feet that fold up, and their sprayer is up front instead of John Deere's, that's in the back. And John Deere just bought them out."
April also made huge investments in equipment. She said there’s probably $1 million worth of machinery in one of her sheds alone. She uses agriculture loans to finance her purchases.
“The combine was $200,000 used and you have to pay in 5 years-- that’s a typical ag loan,” she said. “I tell people I have to pay for a house in five years.”
She notes that her family’s farm machinery has been upgraded since the three blind horses her grandfather started out with. “You can’t hardly do anything anymore without plugging it into a computer, calling the John Deere man,” she said.
But she loves the new machinery all the same. “What excites me is all the technology yet to come,” she said. “I push a button and the tractor drives itself!”
ACRE BY ACRE
Another major factor in the sustainability of family farms is the size of your farm. With increased technology, farmers are more efficient than ever, so they can farm more land. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Iowa lost 8,100 farms in 15 years and the average size of an Iowan farm increased.
To keep up with the industry and stay afloat, family farms have had to figure out how to get bigger. From 1950 to 2000, Iowan farms doubled in acreage.
And as farms consolidated, mid-sized farms disappeared. In Iowa, medium-sized farms declined nearly 17 percent in five years.
Meanwhile, land has gotten really expensive. To rent an acre (that's just a little bit less than a football field) of land in Iowa in 2016, it’s costs an average of $235. And buying an acre of land will set you back an average of $6,482. In an era where a 500 acre farm is considered midsize, those prices add up.
Dawn and her husband Don want to expand the size of their farm. Ultimately, Dawn would like to make farming her full-time job. But right now they don’t have enough land to make enough money to afford to quit her job painting houses.
“I don't know how many acres it would take,” Dawn said. “Probably 500, maybe, for me to stay home.”
They’re looking into renting land from an older woman in the town over. “A lot of the men have passed,” she said. “So the women are having to make the decisions now on who's going to rent their farm.”
As a very small farmer, Dawn’s caught between a rock and a hard place. She needs more land to make a living but it’s also expensive to run a big farm. She pointed out that it takes a lot of money to pay off the machinery to run a big farm, “In order for them to keep up with the acres they have, they have to go big, or there's no way they can do it,” she said.
April’s family farm has been nearly the same size since her grandfather was farming. She says this helped them weather the changes in farming. “We got through it really well because we owned all of our land then.”
She notes that it would be a lot more difficult to expand today because land has gotten so expensive. When her grandfather was buying land for the farm, prices were much lower. “He bought land for $100 an acre in the ‘30s. It was $2000 an acre the last ground I bought,” she said.
She did however buy herself a bit of land on her 40th birthday in “the eastern part of The Empire."
She has considered renting out some of her land to other farmers in the past, but decided it wasn't worth it. “I have chosen not to rent more land because I didn’t want to manage people; I wanted to manage the farm,” she said. “I wanted to be able not to work 24/7.”
IT'S IN THE DNA
If you want to make money as a small or midsize farmer, you need to get the best possible crop out of your land. That means you need to plant good seed. And what that good seed is, is a more complicated question than ever.
In 1983 agricultural biotechnology companies figured out how to modify plant DNA. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency approved the first crop of genetically modified seeds. If you were a farmer, this changed your life. With seeds modified to be their most efficient, taking care of crops got easier but buying seed got costly.
Nowadays, almost all soybean and corn crops in the U.S. have been modified. In 2015, 94 percent of the soybean crop and 89 percent of all the corn planted in the country was modified to be tolerant of Roundup, a heavy-duty weed killer.
So GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are really new and they’ve taken root fast. On the one hand, fields require fewer chemicals. On the other, it’s made seed prices exceedingly expensive.
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court sent down a decision that gave people the right to patent genetic modifications. What that means is that big seed producers, Monsanto is the name you’ve probably heard, get to legislate how their seeds are used and they can charge a lot of money for them.
Of course, GMOs have been controversial in the public. Consumers worry about the quality of the food they’re eating. But seed companies and farmers argue that genetic modifications just ensure a good, reliable crop yield by making their plants resistant to disease, weeds and insects.
There are a lot of different debates surrounding GMO crops. But the reality is, they’re everywhere and that’s not changing anytime soon.
Dawn worries about the effect that genetically engineered crops have on seed prices. She thinks the prices are hurting small farmers.
“A bag of corn is between three and four hundred dollars. For a bag of corn!” She said. “Beans are 40 or 50. They keep putting more and more stuff into it.”
In an upper alcove of her farmhouse, Dawn has a constant reminder of how farmers used to reuse seeds. On spiked rods hanging from the ceiling, her family hung corn cobs to dry out. Then they’d scrape the seed and use it to plant next year’s crop.
“You can't do that no more,” she said. “You haven't been able to do that for years. You could go to jail.”
April is adamant that GMOs have saved her time and money. She also says they make her a more sustainable farmer-- both environmentally and economically -- since she hasn’t had to fertilize her fields in years.
“They don’t think we raise safe food and we do. We’re not out here polluting the environment,” April said. “That’s what hurts me is someone thinking I’m out here puking chemicals.”
She worries about public perception of genetically engineered crops and wants people to understand that they’ve made her a better farmer.
“Think of all the technological advancements that you have had and then if someone wanted to take it all away,” she said.
In farming there are a lot of things you can’t control. You can’t control the weather. And you can’t control the market. That means that when farmers plant their crops, they’re taking a huge risk.
It costs a lot of money to plant a field. And you’re really not sure what return you’re going to get when you harvest that crop in four months time. Anything from tornados to drought to bugs to disease can wipe out your field and bank account in the blink of an eye.
That’s one of the reasons why the federal government created crop insurance. In 2015, 94 percent of farms in Iowa were covered by crop insurance. This insurance guarantees that in the event of crop failure by uncontrollable forces (weather, insects, etc), farmers still get paid. Average insurance plans vary from 50 to 85 percent of a farmer's annual yield. That means, if can afford the most insurance coverage, you’re still only getting 85% of the income you would get if your crop hadn’t failed.
So most farmers buy insurance, but even when they do they still nervously watch the sky and the market and pray they won’t lose too much money this year.
Many also work to diversify their income in the event that their crops fail. Some farmers use greenhouses that allow them to extend the growing season for a small crop of fruits or vegetables. The USDA suggested farmers add alternative crops the typical crops like soybeans and corn. Other farmers look off the farm for income diversity. It’s estimated that between 50 and 60 percent of farmers work a second job.
Every farmer has a unique set of ways that they manage risk. But from crop insurance to side jobs, they all make sure they have some sort of safety net.
To keep up the farm, Dawn and her husband both have full-time jobs. Dawn paints houses and her husband is a manager for a farm cooperative.
“I have a scaffolding that pulls behind the truck that I can roll up myself,” she said. “So I can go up 14 feet and then I put a ladder on top to hit the peaks to paint.”
She also sells vegetables from her garden, and most years she raises hogs and chickens. She grinds her own livestock feed by mixing her corn with protein and oats, and then butchers and prepares the meat in the fall.
“We have a walk in cooler that we're putting together,” Dawn said. “If we get the darn thing going, then we can [butcher] anytime in the summer or winter.”
Though she makes sure that her crops are insured every year to keep from losing everything, she never knows if she's going to make enough money. “With the grain prices, it's the only job where you don't know how much you are getting paid,” she said.
In the past, April raised hogs and cattle in addition to crops, but she now only farms corn and soybeans. She well aware that there’s an enormous amount of risk in farming.
“Thank God for crop insurance,” she said.
April also has a keen eye for finance. “I treat [farming] like a business. Yes it’s a way of life, but it all has to be about the business,” she said. “I told my husband, if we’re going to do it, there has to be diversity of income.”
So April’s husband works in town as a salesman while she runs the farm. That gives April security in an event that something goes wrong in the market or in the sky.
And at the end of the day, she says, “Everyone thinks banking would be the problem. But banking’s black and white. You either got it or you don’t.”
A HAZY FUTURE
Iowa sees over 300 applications each year for farms that have reached the century milestone. And they’re seeing more and more heritage farms as the years go by.
“I keep thinking it’s going to go down,” Becky Lorenz, coordinator of Iowa’s Century Farms Program said. “But every year we get over 300 applications.”
But just because more farms are reaching that milestone doesn’t mean that the state of family farms is particularly secure. According to the 2016 Iowa Farmer and Rural Life Poll, only 49% of farms have a designated successor. That means that nearly half of Iowa’s family farms are left wondering if they’ll make it through the next generation.
Dawn worries about what rural Iowa communities will be like in the future. In the past, she said, “I knew everybody. I knew every house. There’s no jobs in Livermore. There's nothing around this area at all hardly. You have to go quite a ways.”
She’s also nostalgic for farm communities of the past. “When Grandpa Roy and my Grandma Mildred lived here, you always had neighbors who helped,” she said.
But now, with the population draining and farmers competing for land, that lifestyle doesn’t exist.
While she knows the community changes are inevitable, it’s important to Dawn that her farm stay in her family. “We have two daughters,” she said. “And five grandkids. And our youngest is already, Owen he's nine. They all grew up fast.”
Dawn doesn’t have any plans to retire soon, but she thinks that there will be someone to take over the farm when she does. “We’re hoping my grandson will,” she said. “He loves it out here.”
April also worries about what’s happening to rural Iowa and family farms.
“There’s not a whole lot of young people in farming,” she said. “The good prices the past couple of years brought a lot of kids home, but it's the real world now.”
April doesn’t think her daughter, a student at the University of Washington, will want to farm. Though she’s far from retiring, April still spends a lot of time thinking about what her farm will look like when she’s done.
“I don’t have anybody coming home to farm after me, so I’ll have to rent it out,” she said.
She fondly remembers her father and grandfather working long past their retirement, and hopes she’ll keep farming at least a few acres when she gets old.
She loves her farm and she loves farming. And she hopes more young people get involved in the industry.
“It has so much to offer,” she said. “I mean this is my office.”
THERE IS NOTHING ELSE
Family farms are changing and the future is murky. But one thing is certain, Americans depend-- as an economy and as individuals --on the food provided by family farmers.
Those farmers want you to know it. April worries because, “People are so far removed from where their food comes from.”
She feels that poorly affects the public and political conversations about farming. Since farming is an industry heavily regulated and influenced by state and federal governments, everything from crop insurance to subsidies are influenced by public perception.
Dawn echoed that sentiment.
“Even a small farmer provides a lot of food for the world,” she said. “And I think for as much work as we put into work, I don't think we get appreciated enough, and I don't think we get paid enough to support our family.”
Both women are deeply connected to their land and to farm life. Dawn lives in the buildings constructed by her great-great grandfather and drives her father’s tractors.
“The moments being able to be outside and be in the ground and with the ground-- it’s the same ground my great-grandfather farmed,” April said. “I want to leave it better.”
Despite all the challenges and uncertainty, both women love farming. It’s a business, it’s a life and it’s a legacy.
“There’s just nothing else,” April said. ”There’s nothing else I’d rather be and nowhere else I’d rather be.”