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Reclaiming Resilience From the Ground Up

Practical Farmers of Iowa: Envision landscapes with healthy soil, healthy food, clean air and water, resilient farms and vibrant communities

Photo of Laura Frescoln
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Practical Farmers of Iowa

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Practical Farmers works with many partners and always seeks to collaborate with new visionaries. Our biggest collaborators are our members, most of whom are farmers; these members guide our every action. We also partner with organizations on specific issues, ensuring that we work together to reduce redundancies and avoid wasting valuable resources. Examples of partner organizations include: Center for Rural Affairs, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy & Environmental Education, Renewing the Countryside, Iowa Soybean Association, Pesticide Action Network, Xerces Society, Land Stewardship Project, Pheasants Forever, Iowa Cattleman’s Association, Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, The Pasture Project, Iowa Ag Water Alliance, Iowa Environmental Council, National Sustainable Ag Coalition, MOSES, Beginning Farmer Network, National Young Farmers Coalition, Conservation Districts of Iowa and Sustainable Food Lab.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Ames, Iowa

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United State of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Des Moines Lobe in Iowa: covers an area of 31,125 km2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Practical Farmers works with farmers and stakeholders across Iowa to foster sustainable change by equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. The Des Moines Lobe is of particular interest because it has been intensively altered for agricultural purposes.

The Lobe was shaped by the last glacial episode 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. When the ice retreated, a relatively flat landscape remained, and wetlands and prairie potholes created a natural mosaic filled with diversity. As technology progressed, it became possible to tame the Lobe. The plow was used to convert millions of acres of prairie into cropland, and wetlands were drained using subsurface drainage tile.

The rich, prairie-built soil of the Des Moines Lobe has provided an abundance of food, fuel and fiber at a global level, but at great cost. The Iowa of today bears little resemblance to the original diverse landscape. The natural system of prairies and wetlands has been replaced with corn and soybeans, both relatively short-growing, warm-season annuals. Travel the Iowa countryside between November and May and you’ll see bare fields vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain. Below ground and seemingly invisible, the vast biological networks responsible for our healthy, productive soils are also left vulnerable, starved for nutrients that come from continuous living cover and intact ecosystems.

To ensure our economic, environmental and social sustainability, we must commit to a different vision for Iowa. We need to restore our soils, wildlife habitats and waterways so we have a food system that regenerates our land and our communities.

This place and the people in it are important because they represent a larger mass of farmers who struggle every day to make a living, raise their families and contribute to their communities. We know these farmers. They are our members, our neighbors and our family. They guide us and the work we do through farmer-led innovation and knowledge-sharing.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Des Moines Lobe is a region rich in beauty and diversity. The state is bordered by two major river systems: the Missouri to the west and the Mississippi to the east. In between are hundreds of smaller rivers, creeks and streams that weave through diverse farmscapes overlaid on glacier-sculpted land. Framed by vast skies and verdant fields–where prairie storms roll in quick, thunderheads visible for miles–the landscape is a tapestry of sights, sounds and drama unique to this place. A land of four seasons, temperatures often plunge below 0 in winter and top 100 in summer. These extremes, bolstered by a pioneer spirit, have forged in Iowans a mix of hardiness and pride in our ability to handle whatever comes our way, including lengthy droughts and frequent floods linked to climate change.

We are strong, resilient and family oriented. We care about our roots, both figuratively and literally. Our figurative roots are the pioneers who settled on the prairie, breaking sod on their new farms using only horse and plow. Our literal roots are the crops and livestock that have sustained our livelihoods ever since. Driven by markets, we currently grow mostly corn and soybeans. But an inherent curiosity, a need for resiliency and hope for a return to diversity are prompting many farmers to reincorporate other crops and livestock into their systems.

Iowa is dominated by down-to-earth rural communities connected to the land. This small-town culture has bred a strong sense of community. We know our neighbors and their hopes and struggles. Possessing a strong work ethic, we don’t hesitate to pitch in, and we’re quick to offer a helping hand and a kind word. For two weeks every summer, we celebrate our roots and our connections to each other at the Iowa State Fair. Often drawing over a million visitors, the fair is a ritual destination for many Iowans (and non-Iowans) eager to see what new food can be deep-fried–and to support our state’s agricultural heritage.

Standing on some of the most fertile soil in the world, many residents of the Lobe still struggle with food insecurity and health issues from diets lacking fresh fruits and vegetables. Many Iowans still boast a preference for a “meat and potatoes” diet. Those who support the local fresh-food movement are often the growers themselves, or those dwelling in Iowa’s more diverse urban centers.

Rural Iowa is largely Caucasian, but a growing number of Latinos are making Iowa their home. Our urban areas are melting pots, with many ethnicities represented in our cities and at our three state universities and numerous private universities and colleges.

The hopes of Iowans are not that different from other communities across the globe. We envision a world where our kids and grand kids are healthy and happy, a world where our current struggles become the problems of the past and the future is full of promise, prosperity and healing. We envision a world of collaboration, compromise and community. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Today’s food system is depleting our natural resources faster than they can regenerate. Conventional farming practices have oversized ecological and economic footprints, affecting everything from environmental quality to human health and the vitality of rural communities. In the Des Moines Lobe, over 90% of land is used for agriculture. With a global population nearing 10 billion by 2050, pressures on the environment will only intensify, especially in rural Iowa. How we farm matters.

What we grow also matters. In Iowa, we export what we grow and import what we eat. Our diets are linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and many Iowans are food insecure. Without a sustainable vision, by 2050 Iowans will battle rising health issues traced back to what we eat and how we grow it. Food deserts will expand, leaving communities with little choice but to consume cheaper highly processed foods, exacerbating health issues.

In Iowa, our economic base is agriculture. Unfortunately, in Iowa’s current corn and soybean system, input costs can outweigh revenue and many farmers rely on government subsidies to survive. Without a sustainable vision, by 2050 more farmers will face insolvency. This trend will leave Iowa’s rural communities with fewer people and businesses to sustain thriving, healthy communities. Iowa’s culture is rural-built on the foundation of agriculture. But Iowa’s rural communities are dying, slowly starved of the people, businesses and services that once made them prosper. Without a sustainable vision, by 2050 we will lose our rural culture. Our neighbors will go elsewhere to find economic opportunities and our connection to the land will be lost.

Changes in technology have let us grow more food on less land. New farming equipment and plant technologies have eased labor and boosted production, but these advancements have also ushered in new challenges. Chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are now the norm, and technology can’t keep up with evolving threats. Without a sustainable vision, by 2050 we will continue to see ripple effects and unintended consequences of this technological treadmill, as already evidenced by herbicide-resistant weeds and dramatic declines in beneficial biota.

“Get big or get out” is a mantra farmers have heard since the 1970s. Aimed at maximizing production, this policy encouraged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow and acquire more land. As a result, small farms are getting squeezed out. Policy also encouraged agribusiness consolidation. Today, a handful of corporations control the food system from seed to harvest to processing. Farmers have less control over what they grow and how they grow it.

Without a sustainable vision, by 2050 the status quo will force more farmers to call it quits, commodity markets will continue to be governed by a few stakeholders, and our monoculture production system will further degrade our land. Reliance on subsidy and market intervention will continue unabated. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The ecosystems that existed on the Des Moines Lobe prior to European settlement offer a blueprint for our future. This environmental blueprint illustrates the interconnectedness of living things and the negative impacts when balance is disrupted. We don’t want to go backwards in time, but we must respect the ingenuity of natural rhythms as we craft a sustainable path forward.

Our vision for the future is one where our food system is the most productive in the world while supporting a resilient, diverse landscape that mimics natural processes. In our vision, soil is protected 365 days a year with living cover and sustains a complex ecology that retains and recycles nutrients for food production through rotationally raised crops and livestock. In our vision, soil health and resilience improve thanks to increased organic matter and minimal soil disturbance, and we rebuild our capacity to naturally filter and store water, helping waterways in the Lobe and downstream heal and thrive.

In our vision, everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or economic status, has access to healthy, fresh food grown in their communities. We will grow and retain food locally and rely less on imported, processed foods that are less nutritious and more prone to market and policy volatility. Diverse cultures will flourish as they grow food unique to their cultures and pass knowledge and skills to the next generation. When this vision is realized, the diet and health of all Iowans will improve.

Our vision recognizes the vital role of small family farms in a thriving society. Fostered by a deep connection to the earth and the stability that flows from being empowered to make a living on the land, these farmers become anchors for their communities.

Our vision embraces technological advancements in farming, processing and transportation that replace our dependence on fossil fuels with an infrastructure that is clean, affordable and accessible to all. Our vision is one in which current food system drivers are dismantled, allowing collaborations between all food system stakeholders and resulting in a diversity of voices informing and influencing decisions and policies.

Our economic vision provides a healthy living for all, from farmers to consumers. This vision is based on local, regional and global markets, not government subsidies, price supports and short-sighted policy. When families thrive, communities thrive. Our vision is one of bustling main streets, active with educational, recreational and spiritual opportunities. We envision neighbors sharing meals, stories and hopes for the future. This vision calls on the curiosity and innovation of our people. As one farmer states, “We do a lot of weird things on our farm and sometimes you feel like the lone voice crying in the wilderness. And then you get together at a PFI social or a conference and you think, yeah, these are my people. I am home.”

Together, we have the courage and will to ask the critical question: “What if?”

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050, Iowa resembles a verdant patchwork quilt, symbolic of a diverse and healthy landscape. New markets have resulted in diversified crops, protecting and regenerating the land and providing financial stability for families in the process. Roots grow in the ground 365 days a year.

In 2050, rural Iowa is strong. Ethnically diverse communities are thriving as people connect to their neighbors and communities and generate a growing demand for schools, churches, grocery stores, farmers markets and many other small businesses. Families have access to healthy local food and food insecurity is scarce.

In 2050, agricultural stakeholders are backed by policies that are fair and equitable; all stakeholders have the means to influence policy and programs that better their lives.

In 2050, water recreation has returned to the Des Moines Lobe. Rivers and lakes that once posted health warnings are bustling with families. Recreation connects Iowans in the Lobe to the land and attracts visitors, providing an economic boon.

Challenges will always exist. Our hope for the future is to create a conscious collaboration that is forward-thinking. This collaboration should not merely focus on solving the problems of today, but should also seek to look towards the challenges of tomorrow. It is a future permeated with an understanding that we are all linked by multiple threads and that our actions do matter.

Sam Bennett, an Iowa farmer who is farming with the future in mind, was asked about his vision for the next several decades. Sam replied, “I sure hope it looks different. I would like to see more diversity on our landscape. Diversity that we had 50 years ago. What used to be normal, I would like to make normal again . . . I am not borrowing this land from my dad or my grandpa, I am borrowing it from my kids and my grand kids. It’s my responsibility to leave this land in better shape than I found it.”

 In 2050, we all share this sense of responsibility and hope.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision for a food system in the Des Moines Lobe in 2050 can be summed up in two words: reclaiming resilience. This vision reflects a commitment to stewardship of our land and resources through policy and markets that encourage regenerative and resilient farming practices. At its heart is a focus on nurturing soil health to foster an agricultural system that is resilient to changes in precipitation and other climate change impacts. Our vision for the Des Moines Lobe in 2050 includes a thriving, diverse landscape with diverse farms, an abundance of healthy food, diverse communities and diverse people who are environmentally, economically and culturally resilient. 

According to Matt Liebman, an agronomist with Iowa State University, our landscape has changed significantly in the past century: “The Iowa landscape began to transform dramatically in the 20th century. With the development of farm chemicals and machinery, crop rotations got much less diverse and enormous increases in productivity took place. That’s what we’re living with today: a highly mechanized, extremely specialized, highly productive, narrow-diversity system.”

Our vision seeks to reverse this trend. In our resilient future, thriving local farms supply a bounty of nutritious food, creating jobs, connecting people to the land and stamping out food insecurity and waste. From farmer to chef to consumer, everyone in the food web has a stake in how food is grown, processed and distributed. Our vision for 2050 includes deep and personal connections to the food we eat and the land we use to grow it.

This newfound understanding cultivates a sense of shared responsibility. In a resilient food system, consumers in the Des Moines Lobe demand more local food options that are grown and raised in environmentally and socially responsible ways. Grocers and chefs work closely with producers to satisfy local demand and offer seasonal products that reflect the area’s diverse cultures, signaling respect, inclusivity and a shared sense of place. From this ethnic and cultural diversity flow new markets for growers to expand their enterprises.

In 2050, our envisioned food system has transformed from highly specialized and narrow to a thriving, inclusive tapestry of farms, farmers and rural communities. All residents of the Des Moines Lobe, urban and rural, have access to local amenities and services. Rural Iowa again attracts young families seeking economic opportunity. Growing food is a viable profession for all seeking to make a living off the land. The threads of resilience have left tangible imprints on people’s lives, and our youth learn early on about the importance of diversity. Our children grow up connected to the land, deeply aware of those vital links; from these young people come the leaders of a food system vision for 2100.

Our vision includes a resilient food system that is economically feasible and stable. John Ikerd, an agricultural economist for the past 30 years, says, “I can’t tell you how long we can continue to prop up this unsustainable agriculture, but we can’t do it indefinitely.” When asked what makes a system sustainable he says, “It’s about looking at agriculture as part of a living system, because it is all interconnected. You have to have farming systems that function in harmony with nature and natural principles. The regenerative, resilient, diverse ecosystems have to be reflected on the farm.”

In our vision, myriad farm enterprises and sizes form the economic bulwark of a resilient and sustainable food system. An array of crops, longer rotations and livestock on the land are once again the norm, and with them, diversity is restored to landscape. New and more diverse markets provide stability to small family farms and reduce competition between small and large farms. This economically resilient food system realigns wealth and profit distribution, putting more money in the pockets of the farmers as food prices reflect their true cost and farmers reap the rewards of their labor.

New markets and a strong demand for local food result in more greenhouses, high tunnels and other means to extend growing seasons and increase local food production. With the bounty, farmers access more revenue streams and supply nutritious food to local communities for more months out of the year. The upsurge in local food cascades to tertiary enterprises, such as regional processing and distribution businesses, passing prosperity through the food system. Grocery stores and farmers’ markets source abundant healthy, locally grown food; these businesses directly support local farmers.

Our vision for a resilient food system in the Des Moines Lobe of 2050 is largely influenced by technology. Advances in automation provide complementary information and services to help grow nutritious crops with fewer inputs. This engenders opportunities for those with technical skills to make a living in our rural communities. Renewable resources, such as solar and wind power, help farms supplant their reliance on fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy. Our vision for 2050 is an agricultural system that uses technology to supplement and improve on natural systems and processes, not replace them.

In our resilient future, we produce food, fiber and fuel on the Des Moines Lobe using methods that are environmentally sound and attuned to natural systems. Cover crops and diversified rotations help break pest cycles common in monoculture systems, suppress weeds, increase biomass and control erosion. Perennial pastures replace annual crops on vulnerable lands, keeping our precious soil in place. Prairies cover lands not ideal for annual crops, proffering habitat, roots and beauty to enrich our ecosystems.

In 2050, our lakes, rivers and streams are clean and our fields hum with life. An oasis of plant and animal life has replaced the biological desert of corn and soybeans. Impaired waterways and nitrate scares are worries of the past. The Des Moines Lobe is again one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the world, and the majesty of the tallgrass prairie in bloom during high summer attracts visitors from across the globe.

This vision is realized, in part, because agriculture has weaned from its dependency on chemicals and is less beholden to the companies that produce them. Integrated pest management prevails, and with it, farmers are attuned to the soil ecosystem and the role of beneficial insects. Farmers are once again the arbiters – of the crops they plant, the inputs they use and the future of their farms and food systems. Government policies and programs support diversity, innovation and conservation. Dialog is influenced by a broad, interdisciplinary coalition that brings all stakeholders to the table as equal partners and collaborators. Government programs are implemented locally, linking people and policy, and elected leaders are responsive to the needs of all Iowans living in the Des Moines Lobe.

By 2050, landowners and farmers routinely work together to develop long-term goals. Lee Tesdell, a landowner in the Des Moines Lobe noted that, “in Iowa, 60% of the farmland is not farmed by the owner.” In our resilient future, we have recognized the stakeholders and succeeded in bridging the gap between landowner and farmer. By 2050, land ownership is a treasured partnership, where mutual goals of land stewardship and quality of life are honored and openly discussed.

Voices from the past can be a critical guide for the future. One such voice, Aldo Leopold’s, paints an extraordinary vision for the land. Though Leopold probably did not label himself as a “systems thinker,” his description of complex connections and entwined ecologies demonstrates an exquisite understanding of these principles. In his seminal work, “A Sand County Almanac,” he says: “The lines of dependency for food and other services are called food chains . . . The pyramid is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the cooperation and competition of its diverse parts.”

As Leopold so astutely observed, a resilient system only thrives when cooperation and competition exist in balance, all parts weaving, connecting and overlapping. It is at these intersections that we find both challenges and opportunities.

For the past 34 years, Practical Farmers of Iowa has created a community that successfully balances competition and cooperation. We are a member-based research and education non-profit that has grown from a handful of founders to a diverse network of over 4,200 members. We welcome everyone and membership is not required to be an active part of this grassroots movement. Our network is full of farmer leaders who innovate and collaborate to share their vision. This network impacts farmer decisions every day. Farmers want to learn from credible sources – other farmers. This farmer-led knowledge-sharing is the foundation for meaningful and sustainable change.

We have outlined some of the challenges that inform our vision. The opportunities lie within the people of the Des Moines Lobe. They share common values that guide our resilient food system vision. These values include: welcoming everyone; curiosity, creativity, collaboration and community; exchange of knowledge; supporting the next generation; and stewardship of our land and resources. These values represent the voices of farmers, community leaders, business owners, academics, government workers, community members and those just interested in our agricultural roots.

We work with the people in this place each day to achieve our mission – equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. But these values are shared by people beyond the Lobe. Connecting with this commonality – the many shared threads of our common food system – is the root of our vision for changing the norms of today. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Sofia Lopez Nunez

Hi Laura Frescoln Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is missing responses in some questions. Feel free to make continue making changes and update it until January 31, 2020. We'd love to see a more developed version! This will help the community provide you with feedback and possibly even collaborate with you.