Debra Robinson Tackles the Tractor and Lots More as a HOP Mentee

by Leigh Adcock Aspiring farmers of both genders express the need for on-farm work experience to help them become successful beginning farmers. For women, they tell us that working with experienced female farmers is crucial, as they make their way into the male-dominated field of farming.

WFAN has provided on-farm work experiences for aspiring women farmers for more than a decade, through our Harvesting Our Potential program – most recently with support from Ag Ventures Alliance.

We have matched more than 30 aspiring women farmers with experienced women farmer mentors since 2012, and program evaluations show that about 70% of the aspiring farmers plan to continue their farming careers. Many of the remaining women plan to use their on-farm experiences in food systems work.

One of our 2016 mentees, Debra K. Robinson, worked from April through October on the farm of Jolene Caldwell, co-owner with her husband Charlie of Black Squirrel Vineyard and Winery near Council Bluffs, Iowa. Debra says the experience taught her a great deal.

“I learned how much work goes into grapes, how to mechanically harvest and process aronia berries, make fences and how to drive a tractor,” she said. “I also learned about making kombucha!”

Charlie and Jolene live on a farm that has been in the family for more than 100 years. According to the vineyard’s website, Charlie’s granddad, Thomas, started grape growing on the farm in the early 1900’s and sold grapes to the Council Bluffs Grape Growers Cooperative. As World War II came to a close, the herbicide 2-4D was being used more and more on corn acres. The spray drift from the herbicide killed almost all of Iowa grape vines, including his granddad’s.

Charlie’s mother started to bring back a few grapes on the farm during the 1960’s. Now with 14 acres of vineyard and aronia berries, Charlie and Jolene have reintroduced wine and table grapes and aronia berries to the farm. All of the grapes, aronia berries, and orchard are certified organic. Jolene, a natural herbalist with 20 years’ experience in natural health, keeps busy with her natural health business, raising three kids, and helping with raising milk goats, sheep, llamas, pigs, horses, and chickens.

“We had a lot of good conversations around the lunch table about how to make a farm profitable, about marketing and the labor situation when it comes harvest time,” said Debra. She added, “I liked discussing tractors, as right now I don’t have one.”

Debra has a farm, but is currently renting it out. She says in two years she plans to return home and start farming her land. She intends to put in some pasture and get livestock, and begin a small market garden.

WFAN’s Harvesting Our Potential program is made possible through support from Ag Ventures Alliance and Iowa Women's Foundation.