It’s a reunion. The three siblings meet with warm hugs and greetings. They’ve each travelled from separate parts of the state to be here. The siblings — Margaret, Bill and Richard — gather in a small hunting shed to discuss this place, the land that is their heritage.

Here, 240 acres of cropland, wetlands, forest, creek and prairie come together to form the family’s legacy. Named for their mother’s family name, the Whannel farm is an experiment in conservation and agriculture.

The group actually totals four. Margaret’s husband, Larry Stone, joins the siblings. He’s become a major influence on the land and how the siblings operate the farm.

“I really have lamented the expansion of farming in Iowa and the loss of areas we had. When you travel across the state, you see whole sections of corn or beans with hardly any habitat out there other than the field,” he said.

Modern farming has disfigured the Iowa landscape. Fields advances endlessly. Meanwhile, natural habitats succumb to its reaches. When Larry began assisting in the management of the farm, he knew he wanted to push back on that expansion.

The farm was given to the siblings after their mother passed away in the 1980’s. Since then, they have been running the farm. They crop share 150 acres of land, working in tandem with a local farmer to grow corn and soybeans.

Each sibling lives hours away from the farm. But they’ve held on to this part of their life.

“It’s our family’s place. You think about all the people that lived here and what they did and imagine the stories that are hidden around here,” Margaret said.

It’s an emotional tether to the land. A piece of their family that’s been in their hands for more than 150 years.

But the current state of agriculture is a threat to the future of their farm. It inspired them to change.

“From the standpoint of water quality in the state, diverse, sustainable farming would benefit us. We can strike a better balance than we seem to have right now,” Larry said.

And the Whannel farm is searching for that balance.

Strips of native prairie hug a hill of farmland. Roots from the plant form a barrier, reducing fertilizer runoff. Above ground, the grasses and wildflowers provide habitat. A bioreactor sits at a low point on the edge of a different field, waiting for runoff to enter. There, nitrogen in the water chemically reacts with bacteria in woodchips to convert to atmospheric gas. Oxbows, water bodies in the forest, pool water runoff. Nearby vegetation filters the water before it reaches the creek, where it gets swept downstream into a larger water system.

Their farm is a sandbox. Areas are sculpted for conservation experiments. They’ve become stewards of the land.

But these experiments aren’t just limited to the family. Students from Iowa State often use the land for their own research.

“They figure out concepts that they want to try on their own little scale. But then they come back to the farmers and they’re looking for 40 acres or they’re looking for 100 acres for a big trial. The cooperation between the university and the cooperation of the farmers is an important part of making this all work,” Bill Keith, the middle sibling, said.

Research has guided the family’s conservation practices. It’s only fair they help contribute to it. And they have the flexibility to do it.

“We are fortunate that we all are not trying to support large families on the farm. We are not trying to squeeze every cent we can out of the land,” Larry said.  

The lack of financial burden allows for the ability to experiment. But it’s not the reality most Iowa farmers face. There are reasons other farms don’t look like theirs. For most, farms are a livelihood.

That’s not the case for Whannel farm. Each sibling has had a career outside of agriculture. The key to this push has been a cooperative farming partner.

“When we put it in CRP, the farm operator loses out on some of the crop land that that he had been farming. We’ve been lucky to have our farm operators, the McKinley family, who have been very supportive of the conservation work that we have done,” Larry said.

The Conservation Reserve Program has guided the family in their journey. Through yearly rent payments, the program incentivizes farmers to not farm the land. But it’s not always enough.

“The first time when we wanted to put stuff in the shallow water wetland, there was a limit on the number of acres you could put in. And it was so small that if you’re trying to do something big, it wasn’t feasible to use,” Richard Keith, youngest of the siblings, said.

CRP has limitations. Rent payments may not be competitive. Contracts can last a decade. Strict guidelines must be followed. It’s not always economically sound. Unless someone is compelled towards conservation, there isn’t reason to use it.

“Programs aren’t necessarily aimed at the more diverse farmers, right now. We only have corn and soybeans on the farm. I’d like to see the opportunity to have any kind of federal support for hay or oats or any kind of diverse crops,” Larry said.

They’re breaking the mold. Finding ways to farm while care for the land. It’s not a new concept, but it’s been killed by the modern production of crops. It’s a lean towards efficiency in the name of profit.

The Whannel farm is not a business to be passed on to the next generation. It’s an ecosystem. It’s a collection of practices that value the land over the crops grown on it. It’s a reunion between the land and nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *