Having a Field Day

With 60% of Iowa’s farmland owned by people over 65, a great farm transition is underway. The Wilson family of West Fork Farmstead in West Chester is willing to talk about it
Posted 7/26/23

“As a child, my perception of farming was that my parents worked extremely hard and made no money,” Natasha Wilson told the group of farmers gathered at her West Chester farm on July 14. …

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Having a Field Day


“As a child, my perception of farming was that my parents worked extremely hard and made no money,” Natasha Wilson told the group of farmers gathered at her West Chester farm on July 14.  

Worse yet, unlike other kids, she was expected to help her parents with their jobs.  “I thought this very unjust, and so I did not think of farming as a career,” she said.

Life is full of surprises and reversals, isn’t it?

Today, Natasha, along with sister Claire, is in the process of transitioning the family farm from their parents’ care to their own.  In the family since the 1930’s, the farm was once home to 400 acres of row crops and 120 head of farrow to finish swine.  Her parents transitioned it to corn and soybeans in the early 1990’s, and now it is transforming once again to a pasture-based rotational grazing system for primarily swine, cattle, and chickens. 

How exactly West Fork Farmstead is navigating this generational hand-off was what dozens of farmers had gathered to learn during the Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day earlier this month.  Those who turned out had various concerns of their own, and by all indications, came away from the event upbeat, their heads filled with new ideas to try.

The 3-hour event began with attendees seated at tables in a large, air-conditioned barn, listening to Natasha’s story.   She had spent 17 years away from the farm, embarking on a professional career, only to reach a breaking point at which she realized she didn’t want that to be her life.  Her work was “extremely stressful and extremely demanding,” and she realized, “I don’t care about this at all, it’s not meaningful to me.”

That epiphany led Natasha into a conversation with her parents, Brian and Nancy Wilson, about coming back to the farm.  With a husband and children in tow, what would that future look like?  How could the farm support them? After more than a year of contemplation, Natasha took the leap, moving her family in with her parents at the farm in 2020.

COVID extended that temporary housing situation longer than expected, but it gave the Wilsons a chance to refine their needs and values.  

Brian and Nancy knew they wanted animals back on the land; they had a few, but those were just for their own food supply.  Natasha wondered if those animals they were raising for themselves formed a good model for a sustainable business; if they wanted pastured meat, eggs, and honey, was it possible others in the community did as well?

The answer appears to be yes, and the Wilsons are in the middle of building that enterprise. The farm’s transformation is a work in progress.

Field Stop 1: Swine

The field day attendees trekked out of the barn and into the heat and humidity, armed with umbrellas, sunscreen, and bottled water.   Their first stop was at a temporary set-up of Cargill structures where heritage breeds of pigs, most notably Berkshire, were hiding from the sun.  

Brian shared how he first discovered Berkshire meat at a fine restaurant: “I had never tasted it before, but I was immediately enraptured with it when I tried it, because it is very, very delicious,” he said.

“Our next project will be a new home for them on pasture,” Natasha explained, adding that they plan to finish about 70 swine this year.

The tricky bit is that pigs tend to ruin pasture.  

“Pigs are notorious for rooting,” Brian said.  “We don’t want to disrupt them from doing what’s part of their nature, but I also don’t like the holes everywhere.  So, we’re figuring that out.  We will get there.  Right now, this is our best option.”

Field Stop 2: Cattle and Chicken Pasture

The group walked on until they found themselves surrounded by 60 acres of permanent perennial pasture, land that had been home to corn and soybeans until the Wilsons received funding from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to convert it.  

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helps farmers and ranchers integrate conservation into working lands.  Funding from that program “really made this possible for us,” Natasha said.

The Wilsons planted hundreds of trees and ran water lines out for their 65 head of cattle so they don’t have to haul water daily.  The cattle, of a variety of breeds, are rotated through the pasture.

The 300 broiler chickens are contained in a 20 x20 DIY chicken shed that Brian designed and constructed from old confinement buildings for about $2,000, a fraction of the $10,000 it costs to purchase something similar.  Every morning the Wilsons pull the shelter with a skidloader to a fresh patch of pasture.  

Heavy weights and rubber flaps keep the structure flush with the earth; even a crack underneath would put the Freedom Ranger Color Yield chickens at risk of predation, a serious issue on the farmstead.  A previous set of structures left room for raccoons to reach under and chew legs off, leaving the Wilsons to find so many dead chickens in the morning, they thought there must be a disease.  

“It was terrible,” Natasha said, but the new structure has offered adequate protection against raccoons, owls, and foxes.  Unfortunately, “Everybody likes to eat chicken,” she said.

A second challenge the Wilsons face with their boiler chickens is the lack of a proximal poultry processor.  They drive 300 miles round-trip to Brummel Poultry Processing in Rock Falls, Illinois, a drive they must repeat the next day to retrieve the meat.

Field Stop 3: Laying Hens

The farmers and farming-curious (several of the field day attendees were farmstead customers) traveled on across the property to their third stop, the laying hens, which are based out of livestock trailers and moved once a week depending on pasture conditions.  

“Literally every inch of them [the livestock trailers] has to be covered with chicken wire,” Natasha said, again due to predator pressure.  

The Wilsons collect the brown eggs with rich yellow yolks three times a day.  

When they first started, they weren’t sure how to sell the eggs, so Natasha created a Facebook post.  That drew responses; today, Natasha and Nancy deliver eggs every other week to about 40 subscribers.

That direct-to-consumer model has worked for the Wilsons; “90-95% of what we do is direct to people, no grocery stores, no restaurants,” Natasha said.  

They also partner with the Coralville food pantry and other farmers who run CSAs.  Natasha sends out a newsletter every other Thursday through Mailchimp, and she created a website, westforkfarmstead.com, through which people can order all the farm’s products.  For those who live close enough – Iowa City, Kalona, Wellman, Washington – the Wilsons will deliver; for others further out, customers may pick up.

Field Stop 4: Warehouse

The final stop on the farmstead tour was the Wilson’s newly renovated warehouse space, which has been licensed and inspected by the state.  Here they keep all the meat they produce in individual freezers.  

Natasha explained that they reason they chose smaller freezer units instead of investing in a large walk-in was to avoid a potential catastrophe should the walk-in fail.  

The Wilsons hope to move their egg washing and packaging process into an area of the warehouse eventually, but that will require more finishing work inside the space.

Attendees ended the field day back inside the barn in which they began, this time treated to a delicious lunch prepared by Nancy of foods produced on the farm.  Pulled pork sandwiches with homemade sauce, a variety of salads, baked beans, and an assortment of dessert bars and cakes delighted eyes and satisfied appetites.  

As folks of all ages and genders happily enjoyed their lunches, they shared with The News their reasons for attending the field day and how valuable it was to them.  

The farmers’ concerns varied: some were transitioning their farms from one generation to the next and wanted to see an example of how that could be done.  Others ran similar pastured-based operations and valued the opportunity to socialize with others who shared the same lifestyle and concerns.  One farmer wanted ideas about how he could improve his marketing; another pair of farmers needed insight on how to scale up.  All of those asked said they had learned things they could use and were uplifted by the experience.

Practical Farmers of Iowa has many field days, workshops, and resources that beginning and experienced farmers can take advantage of: visit practicalfarmers.org, call 515-232-5661 or email info@practicalfarmers.org to learn more.