Innovative Farm Finds Everything It Needs Close at Hand
Story and Photography by Matt Low
It doesn’t take long to see that things are done differently when a farm aims to be self-sustaining, relying solely on resources the farm itself can provide. That is to say: When thought is given to the impact of land use—by humans and animals—on the land itself, or when decisions about feeding livestock acknowledge that the health of the animal will be passed on to the health of the consumer, or when the business of building and maintaining a farm looks beyond this year’s bottom line to include the long-term prospects of both living and future generations, something other than business-as-usual is taking place.
For three years now, all of the above, and then some, have been the standard of practice at Grandpa’s Farm, whose 140 acres are located squarely within the Loess Hills, about halfway between Honey Creek and Missouri Valley, Iowa.
There are many things to admire about this farm, to be covered in due course, but the choice of name should not be overlooked, as it says a great deal about what the Nelsons value most: family in the immediate sense, but also family across and through generations, reaching back to Kim Nelson’s own father and grandfather, who first farmed this land in the early 1960s, and looking ahead to what is now the fifth generation to participate in revitalizing this area of the Loess Hills.
Grandpa’s Farm did not always look the way it does today, in part because the farm once included an additional 30 acres that the government took by eminent domain in the 1960s to build the “scenic overlook” two miles east of the I-680 / I-29 interchange. But the most notable change the farm has undergone is a dramatic shift in operating procedures. Like most farms in the region, this one began with row cropping corn and soybeans, which was the farm’s primary business through its first two generations, and continuing while the farm was rented after most of the family had resettled in New Mexico.
More recently, a decision had to be made about either selling the farm or moving back to Iowa to make something of the farm themselves. Despite all having dependable, high-quality jobs in New Mexico, the Nelson family—Kim and his wife, Bonny, their children, Beau, Kara and Kameron, Kameron’s husband, Dustin Koyle, and their four children—chose the latter.
From the start, however, the current generations of Grandpa’s Farm knew that they did not want just to continue with the corn and bean operation but instead were more interested in a “new and diverse business plan,” as Dustin puts it. Based partly on experiences they had while in New Mexico and partly on a home-cooked Christmas Eve dinner of rack of lamb, that new plan involved a lot of research into managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), with an emphasis on grass-fed cattle and sheep.
In principle, this sort of grazing seems like common sense: Let the animals eat their fill on one part of the farm, and then move them somewhere else so that the first grazing patch can recover. In practice, considerable planning and labor are involved in preparing grazing areas for animals, such as replacing land once planted to corn or beans with a nutrient-rich pasture mix, or clearing out timber for shadier grazing areas in the hot summer months. As the animals are moved around the farm, so too must the temporary, solar-powered electric fencing be moved, creating roughly one-acre segments that the cattle or sheep graze until it’s time to move to another area on the farm, and the process begins again. From March through November, this is the routine for both animals and farmers, and the frequent contact clearly has created a mutual respect between the two. Beau posits that all of this work is done “to raise happy, healthy animals,” and this fact does not seem to be lost on either the cattle or the sheep, who respond amicably to the presence of the family in their midst.
The family concedes that they hesitate to give names to the animals that they are raising, because doing so makes it that much harder to part with the sheep or cattle, which is of course unavoidable in this business. Late winter is lambing season, and during my visit the entire family took great joy in moving among the ewes and lambs, some of whom were only a couple of days old. Somewhat more surprising was the ease with which Beau and Dustin moved through the much larger cows—and one bull—who were nearing the end of their time in their winter quarters and ready to move back out on the pasture. Though most of the family continues working full- or part-time off the farm, it is evident that working with these cattle and sheep is the true vocation.
And these are not just any cattle and sheep—considerable thought went into choosing the breeds that would thrive in the grazing system used by the farm, and that also would provide customers with a unique type of meat not commonly found in the supermarket. For example, all of the sheep are the Katahdin breed, named for the mountain in Maine, which is its place of origin. This is a medium-size hair sheep, and thus distinct from the more common wool sheep that are less adaptable to their environment and generally have a gamier taste. The meat from the Katahdin is milder in flavor and more reminiscent of the lamb used in Mediterranean diets.
Perhaps the best endorsement for anything named for this mountain comes from Thoreau, who visited Mount Katahdin while taking a break from Walden Pond in August of 1846, and the delirium he expressed upon summiting the mountain: “Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” All emphasis is Thoreau’s, and if just seeing the place inspires such enthusiasm, imagine how good that lamb must taste.
A nontraditional approach has also been taken for the cattle raised at Grandpa’s Farm. While some of the cows are of the more familiar Angus breed, an effort is being made to introduce two breeds less common to this part of the country, with a number of Spanish-origin Corriente cows mixing with a large, orange, almost bison-like Scottish Highlander bull named Obi. The Corrientes have a long history in the American Southwest and Mexico, and therefore they are more efficient foragers and have developed a higher degree of drought tolerance, something that may be necessary in a larger part of the country in the near future. As for Obi, Scottish Highlanders marble earlier than most other English breeds of cattle, making their meat leaner and healthier for consumers.
Grandpa’s Farm has partnered with a USDA meat processor in West Point, Nebraska, that follows the same high standards, which helps to ensure that the meat never encounters unwanted chemicals or acids. Even in the winter months, when the animals are kept off the pastures, they are fed a high-nutrient alfalfa hay that is grown and bailed on the farm. As with all other aspects of the operation, this, too, is free from chemicals, harvested by the family and defies conventional farming practices, which rely heavily on grain to feed livestock at times when grass doesn’t grow. This is notable, because none of the animals on Grandpa’s Farm are given growth hormones, another common practice of larger livestock operations.
Despite doing things differently themselves, the Nelson family maintains strong relationships with their neighbors in the Loess Hills and sees Grandpa’s Farm as one part of a diverse agricultural community in the region. This is part of the inward focus of the farm, as Kara Nelson describes: “We just believe in what we do wholeheartedly, and it works for us. It was also a major conviction to be able to save the family farm and raise our own food and live a life that we are proud of.”
Readers of Edible Omaha may be familiar with the writing of Wendell Berry and therefore have shared in the conundrum of admiring what he writes about farming, without actually having experienced firsthand what he describes as a “good farm.” For example, in one essay he writes that, “On a good farm, ecological responsibility is inherent in proper methodologies of land management, and in correct balances between animals and acres, production and carrying capacity. A good farm does not put at risk the healthfulness of the land, the water, and the air.”
This is as good a description as any of the work being done at Grandpa’s Farm. To support this and similar farms in the area, especially in the Loess Hills, is to support an agriculture that promotes the health of the land, of family, of consumers and of the community to which they all belong.
Interested in purchasing grass-fed beef and lamb this season?
Find Grandpa’s Farm at the Saturday morning farmers market in Downtown Omaha from May to October.
As the cattle and sheep herds continue to grow, the plan is to sell directly to area restaurants, with opportunities for those interested in visiting the farm also in the works.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He and his family enjoy exploring the growing number of sustainable food options available throughout the area.