by Tom Parker
First impressions are formed within seventeen seconds, psychologists claim, which was roughly the same amount of time it took for the sleek charter bus to inch down the narrow driveway of Rolling Acres Farm. Passengers, attuned to endless fields of corn and soybeans that marked their passage across Iowa, stared out on a place vastly different. The blue house, the white barn, the outbuildings, all seemed to be emerging from or receding into dense stands of trees, shrubbery and wildflowers. Its centerpiece was an old bus painted to resemble a giant ear of corn with social slogans scrawled down its side. “No Human is Illegal,” one read, and another, “Solidarity Caravan to Cuba.” As first impressions go, it was indelible.
That unmistakable sense of divergence from the norm was reason for including the organic farm in “Thinking Outside the Box,” the Kansas Farmers Union’s latest farm tour series spotlighting agricultural operations that, in the words of David Nees, “have the motivation to try different things and not be afraid of change.” Other organic farms included the David Nees Farm, Early, and Farm Sweet Farm, Harlan. The two-day tour concluded with a visit to Farmall-Land USA, Avoca, a 26,500 square foot museum featuring 150 full-size International Harvester tractors, pedal and toy tractors, artist’s prints, and other IH memorabilia. Funding was provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant.
The bus, O’Brien said, was a remnant of caravans transporting medical supplies and computers to Cuba via Monterey, Mexico under the auspices of Pastors for Peace. “We’ve been very social-minded people,” she said.
Since 1976, O’Brien and Harris have been involved with organic production and cultivating local food markets in Atlantic, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. In addition to producing a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers, they raise antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys and chickens. She is currently running as a candidate for the Iowa Legislature.
They first met in high school, where they made an unlikely pair. She was a city girl with no farming experience and he was a farm kid who planned to continue the farming tradition of his father and grandfather, but with a drastic shift in focus. He didn’t want to be a grain farmer, he told her, nor a soybean farmer or a corn farmer, either. He wanted to be an organic farmer, which, in the rolling cornfields of Iowa, was unconventional if not controversial. For her, the idea resonated on a deeper level. “There was something in me that was already there,” she said, “something that made me want to be a farmer.”
After they married, they started with two acres of strawberries, a quarter acre of asparagus, an apple orchard and a you-pick-it raspberry patch. Dairy cows replaced Harris’ cow-calf operation. They raised children, too, first one, then a second, then a third.
O’Brien was now a farmer’s wife, but the designation felt constrained and limiting. Her work with Prairie Fire Rural Action during the farm crisis of the 1980s had taught her that women’s voices often went unrecognized or unheard. “We were half of it, but we weren’t counted as part of the economic unit,” she said.
With her husband’s help she learned how to operate and repair machinery, plant crops, take care of the cows and oversee the daily operations of the farm. “It took about two years,” she said, “but once it was done I could call myself a farmer.”
Denise O’Brien ran for Secretary of Agriculture of Iowa in 2006 and is currently running for the Iowa House of Representatives for her district. O’Brien and Larry Harris have been involved with organic production and cultivating local food since 1976.
Dairy prices hit rock bottom in 1995. With no market for their milk, Harris took a job off-farm as a crane operator. O’Brien ran the farm and started the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, an organization that continues to flourish.
As O’Brien led participants deeper into the farm, they passed a greenhouse and several long tables piled high with fresh garlic. A flatbed trailer was heaped with onions that had been picked that morning. “We’re really pleased with the onion crop,” she said. “They were raised from seed, which we can do now that we have a greenhouse.”
The inclusion of the greenhouse and high tunnels, including a moveable four-season tunnel anchored to a pair of rails, had transformed the nature of the business, she said. Everything from carrots to cucumbers and tomatoes were easier to produce in the high tunnels, the yield was much greater, planting could start three weeks earlier, and the use of trellises made picking cucumbers and tomatoes less physically demanding.
The latter was becoming increasingly important as O’Brien and Harris grow older. They were hoping some of their children would take over the farm, but none have any interest in doing so. They love coming to the farm, she said, but only to visit.
“They saw their parents work hard all their life,” she said, “and while we liked it, it’s still physically demanding work from morning to night.” And at their age, they simply can’t do as much as they used to.
“It’s a hard lesson to learn,” O’Brien said. “My husband is the same way. We’re 68. I like the physicalness of everything, but because we had a labor shortage this summer and because I decided to run for political office, I’m rethinking how I’m going to do things next. I may only want to farm in high tunnels and cut down on what I sell.”
Yields were increased with the addition of a four-season, moveable tunnel. The inclusion of the greenhouse and high tunnels, including a moveable four-season tunnel anchored to a pair of rails, had transformed the nature of the business.
Though the farm is certified under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), O’Brien admits that she’s not real pleased with the new regulations. “I’m really at odds with having to do all of this because some of it is costly,” she said.
“There are more regulations. It’s harder on small farms. Sure, it costs bigger producers, too, but they can gear up and claim it as the cost of doing business. I think the problem comes from bigger producers.”
Several Kansas farmers Kansas agreed. “Big producers like it because it eliminates their competition,” one said.
“And that’s us,” O’Brien said. “I go along with it, and I carry my regulation book. As for being super strict about things, I’m not. I think a little soil on some of our stuff isn’t the worst thing. We’re an organic farm, and that doesn’t mean that our soil is the most wonderful, but we don’t have the chemicals unless they drift in. I think overspraying is more of an issue than the FSMA stuff.”
A friend of hers whose farm was just 15 minutes away was the first to get drifted on this year, she said. Her husband and son were out gathering eggs when what appeared to be rain started falling from a cloudless sky. It was later tested for dicamba, a broad-spectrum herbicide with a known tendency to spread to neighboring crops. According to one farmer, it has been documented to drift 11 miles from its source. “It’s getting to be more of an issue,” she said.
“I’m a commercial farmer,” a participant said, “but I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re crazy if we think we have to keep every weed out of everything.”
“You’re right!” O’Brien said. She looked around a grassy clearing striped with prairie forbs and rudbeckia, rattlesnake master and Joe Pie Weed, and the remains of the high tunnel taken by the wind.
“I mean, we don’t have a pristine looking place, but…,” she said, her voice trailing off to the drone of insects and a sharp laugh. “A weed is just a plant out of place, they say.”