The Encouragement of Sisters

One of the best things about creating a pilot project is the amazing research work involved.  Meeting farmers, teachers, gardeners, entrepreneurs and others has prodded my thinking and directed my decisions.  As wonderful as researching is there are times when my shy gene rears its head and I nervously think, “Why did I set up this meeting?”


It was this sentiment that flooded my thoughts as I drove across the Mormon bridge into Iowa last week, heading to the Iowana farm.  My boss, Nancy, had told me about Terry and Cynthia, the farmers who embrace educating others about organic farming.  When I’d reached out to Terry initially, she was warm and welcoming, inviting me to “come in through the kitchen door”.  Even so, as I drove into their lovely farmyard, I was bashful.   

That lasted for about 2 minutes.  Once I entered the warm kitchen and was invited to sit down at the table, the stories naturally began.  I first heard from Cynthia, whose PhD from Northwestern in interpersonal communications has her currently working with other educators to put their lessons online.  Cynthia’s passion and broad background in training teachers and education at all levels was evident as she delivered vignettes of what she’s learned by learning with others.  Terry, meanwhile, had been chopping and sautéing veggies for lunch, as well as brewing a lavender/basil tea that we enjoyed while lunch was cooking.  When Terry finished preparing lunch, she started by explaining how she and Cynthia visited this farm, their grandparents’, every summer from California.  She shared an early memory of riding on the harness of her grandfather’s horse team above the cultivator as it dug up soil on either side of the corn rows.  As she explained this memory, I could smell that warm soil being overturned and releasing the pungent aroma that defines Spring planting to me.  It became the driver to Terry’s life as she completed working 27 years in the Stanford Physics department and moved to Iowa to start the Iowana Farm.

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Terry shared the development of their certified organic farm, in the valley of the Loess Hills. These hills, without much clay, have eroded to provide 80 inches of top soil in the valley where this farmland is situated. This organic farm teaches school children, volunteers, interns and CSA subscribers by providing farming opportunities throughout the year to work together planting, weeding, harvesting and processing food.

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When Terry and Cynthia turned their attention to why I had asked to visit the farm, I shared my childhood dream and both of them smiled from the inside out. Explaining how I see this farm coming to life to provide magic for the marginalized made it more real for me too. As I told them about Fontenelle Forest, being granted 2-3 acres next to the forest and my desire not to dig it up to create beds but to use it in it’s natural state, Cynthia lit up like a firecraker! She said, “This is exactly where agriculture is moving - towards being biological, not chemical”. The girls were at the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference where they heard about Michael Phillips’ book, “Mycorrhizal Planet” which encourages a nondisturbance priniciple to build soil structure and fertility to last for ages. She also told me, “Trust your instinct” which resounded deeply in me.

As I prepared to leave, we quickly decided that more meetings were needed for us to define how to imagine an agricultural systems that functions like an ecosytem. So, while I drove up a bit bashful, I left the farm excited.

Perhaps my favorite quote of the day was from Cynthia, when she said this about sisters: “The thing that may annoy you most about your sister usually turns out to be one of your best qualities”.

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