Stewarding “iowa’s Public Farms”

In 1930, with the Great Depression taking hold, a group of farmers and businessmen around Kanawha set out to raise money to buy Iowa State University’s first outlying research farm. Northern Iowa’s staple crops differed from the rest of the state, and they wanted a direct way to link to Iowa State’s expertise.  The plan was that the association would own the land and the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station would operate it, conducting research projects.

Northern Iowa had considerable acres of barley, flax, sugar beets and potatoes. Diseases in sugar beets and potatoes were a growing problem. The farmers hoped that by aligning with Iowa State experts, together they could turn things around. The partnership worked.

Despite trying economic times, the group met its goal and on May 4, 1931 the Northern Iowa Experimental Association was organized with 350 stockholders creating the 85-acre Northern Research Farm. Experimental work dealt with problems related to corn, wheat, oats, barley, sugar beets, flax and potatoes.

“That’s been the foundational premise repeated over and over across the state,” says Mark Honeyman, research farms coordinator. “These associations own the land and provide it at a very low fee. They give advice to the college on what kind of research they’d like done there. We staff it, equip it, build the buildings and conduct research and field days. The relationship is very enduring and very positive.

Eight associations own farms in that Iowa State operates for research and demonstrations.  Three other locations—McNay, Allee and Brayton Forest—are on land given to the university.

The farms are scattered across the state for many reasons. “The soils are different, the climates are different and to some degree the agricultural enterprises and communities differ,” Honeyman says. A common thread is the partnership that brings together farmers and researchers, either campus faculty, extension field specialists or farm staff. Annually, about 130 project leaders conduct nearly 600 research trials.

“The research farms are fairly humble, it’s one or two people, it’s a network of plots and that’s it. It’s a fairly low budget operation, but the information that they generate is incredibly solid,” he says.
An example of association input came in 2006 when the Northwest farm was facing cutbacks that caused it to close one of its locations. Rodney Mogler, an association member who was part of the discussions, farmed near the closed location.

“We suggested creating a research program on private farms that the college and extension adopted, and now it’s being expanded across the state. I feel comfort- able with on-farm research results from my home farm and that of my neighbors,” Mogler says.

Honeyman says other states, especially large ones, generally have research stations staffed with faculty that do research. The association model works in Iowa because of its size and Iowa State is centrally located.

“These grass-roots farm associations are Iowa’s public farms,” he says.