Improving Conservation Through Agriculture: A Tale of a Farmer and a Landowner

by Ash Bruxvoort When Deb Jacobi (blue shirt in photos) saw a posting for a USDA meeting about Farm Service Agency programs for women farmers and landowners, she made a note to attend. Like most of us she had good intentions, but life almost got in the way. “I was on my way home from work, I was tired, stressed—I almost didn’t go.”

She has about 100 acres of land in northeast Iowa protected under the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The land will be released from its CRP contract in 2017, and she wanted to find out if she could connect with a beginning farmer who needed access to land.

“I told myself, this is your biggest asset. You have to go.”

But once she got to the meeting, she realized it was mostly about commodity support payments for corn and soy farmers. Most of the women in the room were married to farmers and managed the farm accounts. Eventually Deb raised her hand and asked, “I’m interested in a program I read about for supporting beginning farmers with my CRP land. Will we talk about that in this meeting?”

That’s when Kayla Koether (brown shirt in photos) raised her hand and said, “I’m interested in that program, too!”

“And then it became pretty clear that we were the only two people in that room who were there for that program,” said Deb. Afterwards they exchanged information, but Kayla said she felt unsure of how to move forward.

“It’s like love at first sight, but you don’t want to put too much pressure on the relationship,” she said.

“Speak for yourself, I could do that,” Deb responded, laughing. “Actually when we exchanged information, I realized I knew Kayla’s dad and had an awareness of his ranch and what he was doing.”

Kayla grew up on her family’s farm in Clayton County, IA, where her dad, Greg Koether, introduced her to rotational grazing.

“My two brothers are quite a bit older than I am. By the time I was able to help, they were off at college. Dad had to rely on me pretty heavily,” said Kayla. “I went to sheep and goat schools, holistic management classes, farm conferences. He encouraged me to speak and have a voice in the matter, and asked for my input on the farm, too. It was really good for my personal development.”

She said there was no mistake that she was the “weird kid” showing grass-fed cattle and long-haired sheep at the county fair. She said she was always at the bottom of her competitions, but it didn’t bother her. She was already hooked on farming.

“Kayla’s dad was doing grazing as a conservation practice before people said grazing and conservation in the same sentence,” said Deb.

Kayla said her dad took a holistic resource management course in the mid-80’s that changed her family’s farm. Before the class, she said, her dad was mostly doing conventional crops, with a few uncommon grains like amaranth mixed in. After the holistic resource management class, he turned everything into a perennial grass-based rotational grazing system.

Deb had always envisioned her CRP land becoming a vegetable farm, but she said her thinking was “limited” by her vegetarian diet and lack of farm experience. Her parents purchased her land in Winneshiek County, IA, when she was growing up as place where, “if the world goes to hell, at least the family will have a place they can go and feed themselves.” She said her parents remembered the Great Depression and believed land was the greatest asset.

“I want to steward the land in a way that reflected my family’s values,” Deb said. But she didn’t grow up on a farm; her work experience is in dental public health and policy. She didn’t really know what farm management would entail. “My dad spent any recreation time he had here. His love of the land and wildlife really influenced my conservation ethic.”

She said she knew she wanted to steward the land in a way that would give back to nature, but it wasn’t until she heard Kayla talk about her plan that things clicked.

Kayla and her partner, Landon Corlett, had moved to Decorah, IA, with a plan to rent expiring CRP land for rotational grazing. While waiting for an opportunity to rent land, they are both working off-farm and saving to build a tiny house that will allow them to move to wherever they end up.

“They’re the dream partners because they’ve done a lot of things to get them in the place to make this happen. They’ve developed skills. It’s like everything has brought them to this,” said Deb.

Kayla never really left farm life behind. She attended Grinnell College and studied international agriculture and rural development, a major she designed herself that consisted of biology, anthropology, and political science courses. She traveled extensively in college, spending time on Vandana Shiva’s farm in northern India and studying abroad in Mongolia to learn about grazing systems and pastoralism.

After school she did an AmeriCorps project teaching kids in Clayton County schools about food and nutrition. Following that, she and Landon went to New Zealand to work on farms for several months. After returning to Iowa, they moved to Decorah to “figure out what [they] were going to do with [themselves].”

“The whole contract grazing idea has come about because that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I know," said Kayla, "but also from a deep concern for land stewardship and human nutrition. The possibility that the Omega-3’s [in grass fed beef] can help fight obesity, can be anti-carcinogenic, and are extremely nutrient dense … those are things I think are really important.

“For some people, they want to farm and they pick an enterprise. For me, I’m interested in this facet of land stewardship and this facet of human nutrition,” she said.

She feels that part of holistic management is having a personal goal for how you want to live your life. The vision should include your land and your community. “Very broadly, we want to have time to be outside, we want to have close relationships with people, we want to be good land stewards.”

Improving Conservation Through Agriculture

“In addition to wanting to graze, they also want to share what they’ve learned and build the science and practice of grazing in Iowa,” said Deb.

Kayla said the big vision for her and Landon’s enterprise includes monitoring how the land changes after going from CRP to rotational grazing. She said CRP is “kind of seen as the be-all-end-all of conservation in the state,” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. “There are ways to use land that could actually do the ecosystem services that wild animals might have done and improve the soil organic matter, improve the habitat for wildlife, and improve the species diversity.”

“We can produce food that people want in a way that is conservation,” added Deb.

The team is in the early stages of their planning process. “We go for walks, do a lot of talking,” said Kayla. “There’s a lot of research that goes into it.” Deb’s land won’t officially come out of CRP until 2017, but grazing is allowable once every three years. Kayla and Landon are looking into starting smaller on the land they have available to them and doing a small rotational grazing pattern first. “Then in 2017, we can start to grow.”

In the meantime Kayla, Landon, and Deb are doing their research and tapping into educational programs and resources. In 2013, Deb attended Farm Dreams, a one-day farm business planning workshop offered through WFAN , to begin making a plan for managing her CRP land. As her plans have grown and changed, she has returned to WFAN for assistance and guidance. Earlier this year, Deb and Kayla both participated in WFAN’s intensive collaboration with an Iowa State University Annie’s Project Business Planning course, to develop a business plan for both of their roles in the enterprise. Deb also attended WFAN’s Harvesting Our Potential Learning Circle that took place in Story City in June 2015.

“I might not be involved with the farm work, but I want to learn and be involved with as much of the process as I can be,” she said. At the learning circle she learned more about programs that might help Kayla and Landon reach their goals sooner. Kayla and Landon are also participating in Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Savings Incentive Program to help get their enterprise off to a good start.

Kayla says she realizes not everyone will graze cattle like she and Landon plan to, but they hope to encourage more young farmers to take on rotational grazing as a viable way to get into farming.

“If you’re talking about the goal in the here and now, the goal is to get the grazing going in a way that we feel really good about and to show improvement for the land," she said. "Long term, we want to show other CRP landowners that this could be a good thing to do on their property, and help other young people do the same thing.”