Matt Roe stands among rows of blueberry bushes planted two years ago at Terraceberry Farm west of Corydon. Photo by Jason Selby
PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA, BASED OUT OF AMES, MATCHES MENTORS WITH YOUNG AGRICULTURAL ENTREPRENEURS AROUND THE STATE
Strawberries, blueberries and honey—an atypical assortment on a southern Iowa farm, but one that Matt Roe can call his own. Roe was not raised with an agricultural background. He did not inherit the family farm, nor did he grow up on one. He attended Iowa State University to study horticulture under Dr. Nick Christians, but found tending golf courses for rich duffers in Edwards, Colo. unfulfilling.
“Lots of mundane, doing the same thing all day, making everything look extra perfect and beautiful for a bunch of rich guys to go out and play golf,” Roe said. “And just the excessive use of water and pesticides, and all the chemicals—it’s just a tremendous amount, especially out west where water is such a concern. They had to irrigate every single day. Kind of in a desert, some of those parts, then you’ve got this lush, beautiful golf course. I just wasn’t too passionate about that.
“I figured if I didn’t like it out there [in the scenic Rocky Mountains], I didn’t think I’d like working on a golf course here.”
Though his timing was awful to start a farm—he chose the drought year of 2012, with its record number of 100-degree days—Roe is still engineering the possibilities, in part thanks to Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Savings Incentive Program, which matches farmers just starting in the industry with mentors.
The program matched up Roe with Bill Kimble of Pella, a veteran strawberry farmer.
“It definitely helps to have someone who has been there, done that,” Roe said. “To tell you what works, what doesn’t work. Just hearing some of the challenges that he’s had, the same [challenges] that I’ve had. My first year of planting [strawberries], I didn’t have any irrigation, and we had a drought. I was worried I was going to lose every single plant. Somehow we didn’t.”
Roe had planted eight different varieties, 8,000 strawberry plants in the spring of 2012, to see by trial and error what would work. Kimble has guided him along by suggesting two or three successful varieties with high tolerance to drought and disease.
“I was very naïve,” Roe said. “I didn’t have much experience with doing a large scale thing like this. I just thought that they’d grow up and be lush, and I wouldn’t have an issue with weeds, but within a month-and-a-half, you could not see strawberries out here. I spent three weeks solid, every day just pulling weeds and hoeing. I kept telling myself, if I can make it through this summer , it should only get easier after this. And it has. I’ve learned a lot. There’s a big learning curve.
“Last year was the first year I had fruit from the strawberries,” Roe said.
Strawberries fruit from late May to early July. The main way he sells his crop is by taking them to farmers markets. When he sold them in Corydon, last year compared to this year, he found a tremendous increase in people purchasing strawberries from his stand.
Roe grows his strawberries on a one-acre plot. He has added an electric fence and an irrigation system. He hired a group of around eight Amish workers to help pick his strawberries this year.
At first, he intended to go all natural, but found with strawberries it was difficult not to use some kind of weed control and fungicides.
“People expect to have nice, big, beautiful strawberries like what they get in stores from California,” Roe said. “They may not taste the best, but they stay fresh. That’s one thing I’ve learned about strawberries—they’re very perishable.”
Roe said not using as much fungicide comes at a cost, but so does using too much. If there is fruit visibly growing, he will not spray. He tries to reach a happy medium between idealism and practicality.
“I spray a little bit, but I don’t want to go overboard. The basic notion that these are chemicals—I know that we deal with chemicals every day, there are chemicals everywhere—most are perfectly safe, but there’s the unknown. Just the idea that you’re going to spray something on the actual fruit, I don’t like doing that and I haven’t done that. I spray only if there are flowers. If there is actual fruit—you never know about that stuff.
“In 20, 30 or 40 years we could be using something today that we think is safe, and find out it’s not. That’s happened in the past.”
It was by chance that Roe was introduced to the Savings Incentive Program, which has helped guide him in the early stages of his journey, when he was taking a class about small farm markets in Feb. 2013.
“That was a really good class to learn about all the resources available. One of my fellow classmates had just got accepted into that year’s savings incentive [program]. That’s how I learned about it.
“The savings program is a wonderful opportunity for beginning farmers, not just for the monetary aspect,” Roe said. “Not only do you get matched up with a mentor, you also have to make a business plan within two years. They have set dates—they check in and make sure you’re on schedule. For me, it’s helped me take a step back. You get lost in all the ‘to do’ lists, but when you have to sit down and look at where you’re going, it’s nice to get that perspective.
“They also require you to go to a certain number of events each year, which is good to make sure you’re constantly talking with other likeminded people and learning about different stuff.”
Terraceberry Farms sits a few miles west of Corydon on old Highway 2, next to Dr. Joel Well’s airplane hangar. Matt lives with wife Jocelyn, and sons Harrison, four, and Sawyer, two, in Allerton. Jocelyn helps out on the farm, while also running her own hair salon in Corydon, Total Image, with Angela Buban.
Roe grew up in Allerton and graduated from Wayne Community High School in 2004. Jocelyn, the daughter of Dr. Joel and Bonita Wells, graduated from Wayne in 2005.
After beginning with strawberries, Roe planted his first 600 blueberries last year, and again picked a less than ideal time to do so.
“A very difficult winter,” Roe said. “A lot of the blueberries, the top eight inches died. I didn’t lose many plants, but there’s a lot of dieback. We didn’t even have any flowers this year, because there’s so much dieback.”
The blueberries must be picked of their flowers the first couple of years, and will not produce fruit until the plants are older. Roe planted a second batch of 1,000 plants this year, curving around the hillside to protect against erosion, leading to a pond with a gasoline pump and Big Foot filter to feed the irrigation system. Blueberries have a shallow root system and do not tolerate drought well. To protect against weeds, Roe terraced the blueberry plants with heavy mulch, making only spot-spraying necessary. Roe, along with friend and high school classmate Chris Moore, gathered sand, sawdust and compost.
“I put all this stuff in his feed wagon and mixed it all up, and he spit it out in these rows.”
Roe and Moore also built a bed shaper, which gathers soil and mounds it into a raised bed for the blueberry plants.
In his first job out of college, Roe worked for a Japanese company out of Eddyville, Ajinomoto, which is famous for production of amino acids.
“My job was to work with the byproducts—it’s a complex process to make all that stuff. I worked on a team that worked on research and development on this one product that was very acidic, and so we thought it might be useful for blueberry growers, because blueberries require acidic soil.
“So I talked with lots of growers around the midwest, and I talked with lots of different university experts, and learned that in Iowa there are very few blueberries grown. The main reason is, not because there’s no demand, but because farmers don’t want to mess with amending the soil. So I thought, well, I could try my hand at that.
“An acre of blueberries can yield up to 10,000 pounds, but around here maybe 5,000 pounds would be typical. Since there are not many blueberries grown in Iowa, I can see myself going to some of the larger grocery stores in Des Moines like Gateway Market and Whole Foods.”
Roe said that at the downtown farmer’s market in Des Moines, blueberries sell for six or seven dollars per pound. There are machines to pick blueberries, but since Roe’s operation is not yet large enough to warrant the expense, they will be handpicked.
Roe might not stop at blueberries. One berry gaining in popularity, which he is considering planting, is the antioxidant-high aronia berry. In a CBS News article from July 14, Iowa farmer Andrew Pittz said, “We want the aronia berry to be to Iowa’s heartland what the peach is to Georgia.”
Roe also sells honey for Log Chain Apiary, and counts Ann Garber as a mentor. Garber has given him the value of her decades of expertise. He is taking classes to learn more about honeybees. He has a few starter beehives, and plans to expand, perhaps, to an apiary with the idea of packaging honey.
“The challenging part of bees is having them make it through the winter,” Roe said. “I didn’t know anything about bees. I knew there were a few things in the news on their decline. I learned a lot about that—60 years ago, you would get 150 to 200 pounds of honey per hive, and now, the average is probably 50 to 60 pounds. It’s a combination of different things—pesticides, and a lack of variety of food sources around here. A [non-native] mite introduced around 15 to 20 years ago has just decimated the population.”
Roe also said the honey market is competitive, and he was fortunate to get into the downtown Des Moines farmers market with the product.
PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA
Sally Worley is Operations Director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a statewide organization whose main office is located in Ames.
Practical Farmers first offered the Savings Incentive Program in 2011 after a year of planning. They started it based on feedback from their membership, which indicated that beginning farmers should be their first priority.
“So we convened a group of farmers to help determine exactly what beginning farmers most needed to be successful,” Worley said. “And we created the Savings Incentive Program based on feedback from both beginning and experienced farmers, as well as business people. It’s a two-year program. It assigns a mentorship with an experienced farmer, [and] attending events on farming, production and business topics for beginning farmers, writing a business plan, and then checking in with our staff to make sure they’re on track for the program.”
The beginning farmer also puts money toward a farm asset—enrollees are encouraged to save up to $100 per month over a two-year period. When they meet all of the requirements of the program, the program provides a one-to-one match, up to $2,400 for a farm asset, for a total of $4,800. Enrollees open and manage a savings account with Practical Farmers’ partner bank.
The first two classes of the program have graduated. There are 74 members that have either graduated or are currently in the program.
“We try to get feedback from all of our classes,” Worley said. “We want to make sure the program is useful to them. We don’t want to be wasting any of their time, since most of them have additional jobs and are very busy. The cash match is a draw for them, but they really like the mentorship. They like the accountability of having to write a business plan, because that’s one of those things that everyone should do. We’re kind of holding their feet to the fire to get it completed, so they appreciate that.
“Overall, the feedback’s been really positive from them. I think their mentors give them a lot of wisdom about farming for the long term, and also just perspective on the kind of lifestyle it is and what it takes to be successful in farming.
“It’s a needed thing—support for beginning farmers right now. The age of the average farmer is continuing to increase. However, we have a large beginning farmer network here—we have about 1,500 beginning Iowa farmers who come to Practical Farmers of Iowa for information. They are eager to begin farms, and they’re a really dedicated group. It’s important to provide them some support to help them be successful.
“Unless you’re inheriting a farm business, it’s really hard to get right up to the table. These beginning farmers and their families are being innovative in what enterprises to get their foot into the door. If you go to our website, you can see profiles of all of our participants. They’re very diverse. You have people doing specialty crops like Matt, people doing livestock, then you have more traditional corn and bean and livestock farmers in the program as well—it really is a good snapshot of all of the beginning farmer enterprises in Iowa.
“I fell fortunate to be able to work at Practical Farmers and work with beginning farmers. The whole organization in general works with a group of farmers—by definition a hard-working group. Those we work with are really open to sharing with others, so they have the point-of-view that helping everyone succeed at farming will help farming in general, rather than that competitive [mentality].
“Our organization raised almost $300,000 for our savings matches. A lot of those were from other farmers in the network who open up their pockets. They don’t have the deepest pockets, but they were so committed that they felt it was important to put money toward this program.
“It’s encouraging when someone comes to one of our events for the first time. They’re pleasantly surprised with how much sharing is going on. There’s a lot of respect, and they’re willing to learn from each other.
“We are actually recruiting right now for our next class.”
To be eligible, applicants must either be farming on their own and have farmed for five or fewer year, or have some experience working for a farm business. Applicants must reside or farm in Iowa and be members of Practical Farmers of Iowa. To join, click on www.practicalfarmers.org or call 515-232-5661.
Recruitment lasts through Oct. 3. They are looking to enroll up to 25 additional farmers. Applications are available at the Practical Farmers of Iowa website, or by contacting Sally Worley at 515-232-5661 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roe is one of the featured farmers on the application page:
“Matt Roe, a current enrollee, says he wasn’t initially looking forward to the required reviews but had a change of heart once he saw how they helped him. ‘They really help me recap my progress and look at the big picture,” says Matt, who raises berries and nursery crops with his wife at Terraceberry Farm near Allerton. ‘I’m learning that it’s so easy to get lost in all the to-do lists of stuff that needs to be done on a daily basis—but it’s very important to take a step back and review how things are going and if I’m still headed in the same direction I set out in.”