Hanson's path leads back to Wesley family farm
WESLEY, Iowa — Sara Hanson’s plans for Prairie Sky Farm are different than most of her neighbors’ farms. She won’t be growing corn and soybeans, although she will help her father with his.
She will grow vegetables. She planted salad greens, spinach, kale, bunching onions, lettuce heads, radishes, mustard greens, carrots and beets the first week of April in the high tunnel hoop house. Row covers provide added protection from the cold.
The alfalfa and prairie grass she seeded last summer are greening up. Last week’s snow slowed plans for tilling more ground for vegetable production, but the area is staked in the alfalfa field for when the soil dries.
Tomatoes, egg plants, peppers, leeks and onions that she started from seed in her upstairs office are now repotted and in flats that she takes to the high tunnel during the warm part of the day and returns to the house during the cool nights.
She grew up on a farm three miles north of here and lives in what was her great-aunt’s house.
Her father, Bruce, grows row crops and also owns a photography business in nearby Wesley. Her mother, Mary Kae, is a high school social studies teacher in Algona. Her two brothers have jobs in northeast and northwest Iowa, and support her decision to be the farmer in the family.
She attended Central College at Pella for two years where she studied English and biology and spent a semester in Wales. Her final two years were at Iowa State University where she double majored in wildlife biology and English.
Conservation and wildlife are interests she’s had since high school when she volunteered at nearby Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge. She spent several summers during college doing prairie restoration work for the Nature Conservancy and interned with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
After college she worked for Windom, Minn., conservationist Tony Thompson at his Willow Lake Farm. She planted and harvested and worked on prairie restoration, prescribed burning, native CRP seedings and selling prairie seed.
Her next job was at Vermont Valley Community Farm near Madison, Wis. She worked with Barb and Dave Perkins’ produce operation, which consisted of a 500-share CSA and some wholesaling.
"Keeping in the back of my mind that I might come back to Iowa and farm, vegetable farming seemed on a scale that was manageable to me," Hanson said. "I loved the greenhouse work, and you didn’t need a lot of acres to get started."
After two years at Vermont Valley, she got a seasonal job at Deep Creek Green, north of Yellowstone Park in Livingston, Mont. After a summer, she became assistant manager and was there four years. The operation had four acres of vegetables, cut flowers, a nursery operation and a commercial kitchen where Hanson organized cooking classes with commercial chefs.
"When I look back, the things I’ve done have been a path leading back here," Hanson said. "I’ve worked for some wonderful farmers who have been good role models and mentors."
Knowing that she wanted her own farm and missing her family and the "horizon to horizon" view, she returned to the Midwest. Shortly after she came back, her great-aunt died, and in 2008 Hanson returned to Wesley. She bought the three 3-acre building site where her great-aunt had lived plus another seven acres from her father.
She knew she needed a job until she got her farm running. She managed Fresh Connections Food Co-op in Algona for several years, getting it open and on its way. Needing more time to focus on the farm, she stepped down from that position last summer. She received NRCS cost-share funding to put up her 30-by-72 foot high tunnel greenhouse, enrolled her ground in the EQIP organic transition program, planted alfalfa and put in a CRP buffer.
To balance her need for cash flow, she has worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, soil sampled and done temporary work with Pioneer in Algona. She also helps her father when he needs her.
Within five years, Hanson would like to have 100 to 200 CSA shares and wholesale a couple crops. She has plans for a packing shed, walk-in cooler and a handling/wash station. She’d like to have summer interns and the opportunity for community members to come to the farm and work. Looking ahead 15 years, she’d like to farm more of her family’s land, potentially growing organic row crops.