Wendy Johnson is a former president of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s board of directors. Johnson co-manages her family farm with her father in Floyd County, a 1000-acre corn and soybean commodity farm integrating practices that work toward using less inputs. The farm is 100% no-till and uses mostly winter hardy cover crops for continuous roots in the soil.
In 2015, Johnson started Jóia Food & Fiber Farm, now a 130-acre perennial-based grazing and organic grain farm, that supplies direct- to-consumer food locally and regionally. She is restoring a riparian area to help stabilize the stream bank; planting silvo-pastures and shelterbelts; and grazing a growing 100% grass-fed 150 ewe flock and some cow-calf pairs. In 2020, Johnson started Counting Sheep Sleep Company, an online wool bedding product company.
IFT: Tell us about how PFI was founded. When and why?
JOHNSON: We were founded in the mid-1980s at the height of the farm crisis. I was old enough to understand how the crisis affected farmers in our area, especially our family farm. Once it was over, many of the diverse farms, those that had livestock and crops and that used to dot the Iowa landscape, were gone. Many of the farms that survived got bigger and streamlined everything in the name of production and efficiency. For some farmers at that time, borrowing money to buy more land to grow corn wasn’t really an option.
And that’s when Dick Thompson and some other like-minded farmers, as well as some people at Iowa State University, got together and said – what if we could hang on to our farms by cutting input costs? We could increase profitability enough to get by and help out the environment in the process. That was easier said than done, and it turns out PFI needed to create a network of on-farm researchers to figure out how to actually cut the input costs.
So that’s at the core of who we are, but we’ve grown a lot and become a lot more diverse. The majority of our members are still corn and soybean farmers, but we have lots of livestock farmers, farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, and farmers who grow perennial crops like fruit and nut-bearing shrubs and nut trees. Really, if you can grow it in Iowa, a PFI member probably is. And we have everyone from people farming on just a couple acres to those running big corn, soybean and livestock operations.
IFT: What do you see as PFI’s main mission?
JOHNSON: PFI’s mission is equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. We create learning opportunities via farmer-led events, on-farm research and educational content through our robust network of farmers. In addition, we provide funding and technical assistance to help farmers adopt regenerative farming practices and grow farm businesses. Our vision is an Iowa with healthy soil, healthy food, clean air, clean water, and resilient farms and vibrant communities.
IFT: Tell us about your membership – how many farmers are in your organization?
JOHNSON: First of all, we’re member-led and the vast majority of our members are farmers – right around 80% are either farming or hope to be farming. The rest are people who are interested in learning from PFI and supporting what we do.
We just recently celebrated our 6,000th member – and, we’re growing rapidly. It was just a few years ago we had 3,000 members, and when I joined the organization in 2012 we only had around 1,500 members. I think that’s just a testament to the increasing number of farmers that believe in our mission and find a lot of value in what we do.
IFT: How important is on-farm research to PFI and agriculture?
JOHNSON: On-farm and farmer-led research is at the very core of what we do. I think it’s an important distinction to make that PFI farms aren’t just the hosts for research (although a lot of us host studies being conducted by Iowa State University and others). We are actually the ones coming up with the trial ideas, setting up the plots and collecting the data. We have a great staff that helps us with the analysis and writes up the results, but we as farmers are truly leading the research. I don’t think there’s really any other organization out there like that.
IFT: What are your priorities for 2023?
JOHNSON: As always, we kick the year off with our annual conference in Ames. That’s coming up Jan. 19-21 and people can register on our website, practicalfarmers.org. It’s a really great opportunity to experience the breadth of what PFI is all about. You’re going to be able to find a session on most any topic related to agriculture. But more than that, you’ll be able to meet PFI members. It’s a really positive atmosphere and a great group of people.
One of the newer aspects of PFI is our cost-share programs. We have a bunch of different programs that provide funding and technical assistance for an array of farming practices, but our most popular programs are our cover crops and diverse rotation cost-share programs. Interest in cover crops has been growing like crazy the last few years, and these programs are a great way to get a little funding and technical advice to help you get started.
IFT: Take a look a few years down the road – how do you see ag changing?
JOHNSON: I am not a trend forecaster but we are in truly transformative times with consumers in the driver’s seat and food businesses very aware of this. With global tensions, climate change and times of inflation, I believe consumers are wanting a “less is more” story to what they consume. Less inputs, less fossil fuel use, less trips across the field, less infrastructure, less road miles from farm to fork. In simple terms, simplicity is in, extravagance is out.
There’s also a push to support beginning farmers of color and new Americans as farmers and landowners. They will help revitalize rural communities and economies more than we may realize today. The Biden administration is the first to admit and understand that we have a lack of people who grow our food and recognize the loss that brings to rural communities. In essence, we currently are not resilient and our food security is at risk if we don’t begin to grow more farmers too.
Agriculture, just like society and our political system is on a pendulum, and fortunately and unfortunately the pendulum has to swing the other way. I wish the pendulum wasn’t on an extreme swing but more of a light sway, but a pendulum has to have balance and that’s how I see ag changing, having more of a balance.