About the Spencer Award winners: Couple strives for connections in their operation

It’s all about connections for Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf, the newest winners of the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

First, it was their desire to be connected to “quality habitat” that drew them to buy land next-door to East Twin Lake, a natural, glacial wetland and upland woods complex in north central Iowa. Next, a notion that they could sustain the land and it could sustain them nudged them toward farming. More recently they’ve invited family, farm crew members and their community into this love of the land, testimony to their belief that “sustainability is deeply seated in relationships.”

Connections also have helped them with numerous challenges during the past year, including the drought. By June they were watering fruit and vegetable crops almost daily, and found a need to trust at a wholly new level.

“Our crews weathered the heat diligently all season,” said Jan. “We didn’t have bumper crops on anything but our CSA boxes were full every week.”

They started one of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises in their region in 1996. Jan became involved in a community effort to open a small local farmers market in Belmond. By 2002, it appeared that local food production opportunities were going to continue to grow, so the couple decided to take a leap of faith. Tim left his off-farm job as an engineer, and they set about to expand the CSA and farm full-time together.

Their pace reflects the name for their operation, One Step at a Time Gardens. Their outlook is in their farm motto: “Raising healthy food…raising hope.”

From their website: “Our motto comes from our vision that raising food with our crew, from this land and for our members, customers and friends opens channels for reconnection on a profound level. Sustainable life choices come in many forms. We believe food – how and where it is grown, and the eater and farmer connection – is an important first step.”

They own 132 acres, of which nine acres are used to grow vegetables. They also raise about 650 chickens each summer in a pastured-poultry operation. They have converted 45 acres to permanent cover, including prairie grasses and flowers, shrubs, trees and restored wetlands. In addition to cover crops, they use composted animal manures, diverse crop rotations, shallow cultivation, mulching and grass pathways.

They admit they’ve been extremely busy this season, and that they’ve had little time to ponder the award. They sat down recently for a Skype interview, and to talk about their farm. Here are excerpts.

What makes your operation sustainable?

Tim: Sustainability to us is looking at many aspects of the farm: habitat, soil use, energy use, the social connections and what impact we’re having in our community. As farmers we’re using resources – soil, water, energy – and we try to look at how we can give back… What are we doing to improve the soil? How can we improve habitat?

Jan: Sustainability is deeply seated in relationships. We have a relationship with the farm – it gives to us and we try to give to it. It’s made possible so many other relationships that make our life full.

Tim: I don’t know if you ever become a sustainable farm. We’re always learning new things, there’s always more you can do. You can work at getting better at something.

What do you enjoy about the farm?

Tim: We meet a lot of interesting people, which is fun. We have participated in lots of on-farm research … One of Dr. Mark Gleason’s  students came two or three seasons, looking at pollinator habitat related to cucurbits (cucumbers and melons). We used to have commercial bee hives on our farm, but that person retired so we wondered what was pollinating our crops. Through this project with ISU, we’ve discovered the farm has a significant population of bumblebees, and squash bees, - a native bee that has evolved around the squash plant. By golly, we had both species.

Jan: We began hiring interns in 2003 through the ‘Life in Iowa’ summer student internship program offered by Iowa State (a Leopold Center project). We learn as much if not more from them as they do from us, we always look forward to the energy and enthusiasm that they bring to the farm. They are hungry for information, and our operation improves because of their questions.

What advice do you have for a beginning farmer?

Jan: Pay attention to those folks who can help you achieve your goals and recognize that people are also looking your direction for that same kind of help. We wouldn’t be where we are without the help of so many different folks. It’s always give-and-take. We’ve learned from other farmers, family members, farm crews, PFI, partners, extension and many other connections.