Traditional Methods Informing Modern, Diversified Farming Operation
Final in a series of five farmer feature profiles distributed by the Kansas Rural Center.
By Jennifer Kongs
Nina and Jeter Isely manage 1,100 acres in the Northwest corner of Kansas, where they run a diversified operation that comprises heritage-breed beef cattle, organic wheat, fruits and vegetables. They market to local and coastal customers, as well as sell through the High Plains Food Co-op, which delivers orders to the Denver market. But living near Bird City, Kansas, was not the original plan.
The family lived and started raising children in Philadelphia, where Jeter held a job in corporate finance. Throughout the years, they returned to Nina’s family home in Nebraska. A combination of wanting to leave “corporate America” and wanting to give their horse-crazy children a chance to experience rural living led them to purchase the farmstead with 320 acres, abandoned for 25 years before they bought it. When KRC visited in July 2018, the house and outbuilding had been renovated and expanded.
The couple, working with volunteer farmers-to-be from around the world, manages Y Knot Farm, which includes two hoop houses and a couple of large garden plots of organic vegetables, organic hard red winter wheat, and heritage Belted Galloway cattle for lean, grass-fed beef sold locally and to customers on the coasts. Although the vegetables were added as a way for the family to have access to fresh, organic produce—in limited supply at the stores in this part of the state—they have become a financially valuable part of the couple’s farm income.
“The farm runs on three legs: wheat, cattle, and—although not planned—the produce. As people are becoming more health-conscious, we are seeing increasing sales,” Nina says.
The Iselys chose to raise the Belted Galloway breed largely for the nutritional makeup of the meat the animals produce. “Genetically, the animals have no back fat,” Jeter says. “This is the antithesis of your typical, commercial beef.”
In 2017, they were the second largest registered Belted Galloway breeder in the country, with just more than 50 breeding head on pasture. The couple sells meat to Colorado, Nebraska and locally in Kansas, as well as to online customers who live on the coasts.
The organic wheat market requires the Iselys to work outside the conventional market. They keep bagged samples in cold storage to send out to brokers to find market opportunities. “We can’t compete in the industrial, conventional market,” Jeter says. “While the U.S. is great at producing cheap commodities for export, we are not great at producing the higher quality, value-added products. As a country, we are trending toward going in the red on agricultural imports versus exports as we sell cheaper products and purchase higher end food, such as organic vegetables and organic wheat.”
“And it hasn’t always been this way—Kansas has been a leading producer of fruits and vegetables, not just grains, in the past,” Nina says.
Y Knot’s products are sold directly by the farm and through the High Plains Food Co-op, which is a cooperative of producers in their area who transport and sell into the large Denver market. Direct sales, including the newer, local Fresh 7 restaurant and “informal” community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) take the rest of the vegetables. The majority of the meat is moved through direct sales.
Y Knot farm raises Belted Galloway cattle for the nutritional makeup of the meat, and sell their grass-fed and grass-finished beef locally and to both coasts.“Families hear about the beef and we sell a family pack or a steak bundle pack and we typically ship, although some come to pick up directly. We sell both in bulk or specific cuts, depending on the customer,” Nina says.
Diversity has proven key to sustaining the farm for the Iselys, as has looking to traditional farming methods and combining those methods with modern research to inform holistic, innovative approaches to their land and crop management. “Close to when we started, we had a Kansas State University biologist visit to get us a 10- to 15-year plan. We asked, ‘How do we combine farming while increasing wildlife, birds and yields?’” Jeter says.
As part of those goals, the Iselys are strictly organic, using crop and herd rotations, tree windbreaks, and replacing pesticides with black plastic, neem, diatomaceous earth, and seaweed fertilizer. They admit it requires more time weeding, but the couple only has one or two part-time helpers through the year and sporadic international volunteers through the World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) program. (The WWOOF volunteers stay in a small retrofitted outbuilding for extended stays, anywhere from a week to a full growing season; the Iselys provide room and board in exchange for labor.) The farm’s diversity and holistic approach has led them to a number of unique approaches and unexpected partnerships.
The couple estimates that they have put in about 4,000 trees and bushes, with half of them planted in the past two years, as field windbreaks. They’ve planted about 25 different species across a total of 1⅓ miles of windbreaks, both near the house and out in their wheat fields. The Iselys are focusing on trees that have multiples uses, such as plum trees, nut trees, and Osage orange.
“For the windbreaks, we were supported by National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs to provide black plastic, drip watering systems, and a second well. The process took a while; it wasn’t received well at first, because trees are considered to steal water from crops in conventional commodity crop farming. NRCS found research showing a 23 percent increase in yield in wheat fields planted with tree windbreaks, because trees will reduce evaporation in field out 12 to 15 times the height. A 50-foot tree will reduce evaporation for 1,000 feet. The trees reduce evaporation and breakage cause by wind, a big deal here,” Jeter says.
The farm’s high tunnels were majority grant funded by NRCS, and the Iselys added out-of-pocket income to purchase sturdier components to withstand the winds in Northwest Kansas. “We made it four years with this hoop house and are just now going to replace the plastic cover, which is untypically long in this area,” Jeter says.
Nina says that, in many ways, reaching out to K-State has been useful and their contacts have been supportive. “They helped us find organic seed potato growers in Colorado and even started our organic tomatoes at the university.”
“Our neighbors ask a lot of questions and are curious. Overall, they’ve become supportive. They are curious about how long we will make it and develop. In the west part of the county a major producer is taking a portion of his operation organic now,” Jeter says.
The farm is not without its challenges. “Profitability has been hard, and it’s not for a lack of budgeting and planning. Grass-fed, grass-finished is a slow way to raise a beef to sale — it takes five years from buying a heifer to have your first dollar from selling meat, and that makes a financial lag that’s hard to plan with and make it through to the profitable side. Plus, in 2017, we lost multiple head of cattle to a mountain lion,” Jeter says.
Two years earlier, we lost a wheat buyer and were stuck with extra wheat to move. This year, we’ve lost 30 percent of our wheat crop to hail, which is better than a lot of others in our area but still a dig. And while we can typically sell our higher protein wheat for $12 or $14 a bushel, in years when the wheat has had lower protein it only sells for $ 7-9 a bushel on average,” Nina says.
Nina and Jeter remain committed to growing change and working with others in the region to create viable markets for specialty crops, grass-fed meat and organic grains. As the current President of the High Plains Food Co-op, Jeter has taken a front seat to making the Denver market a feasible option for Western Kansas growers. “This year, we’ve grown to delivering $2,500 a week to Denver, from starting at $50 a week last year. The hard part is that these are all volunteer deliveries, and because of hail damage to our recently purchased delivery truck, these volunteers are driving personal vehicles. It isn’t sustainable,” Jeter says.
Jeter and the co-op members recognize that volume, both in production and deliveries, would change the game—allowing the co-op to pay a delivery driver and purchase a distribution hub. They also envision helping to supply local grocery stores throughout Western Kansas, hoping to help keep them open by doing deliveries both to and from the Front Range. “We need an investor or foundation to help us move across this volume barrier into economic sustainability. We’re right there, we know it will work, but we just can’t push ourselves across the line,” Jeter says.
The Iselys are managing their farm and land in line with their values for food and farming, and like many specialty crop and non-commodity-crop farmers, are paving a unique path to achieve their goals. The couple describes their neighbors as curious about what they are doing and are excited that someone they know relatively nearby is turning a portion of his production to organic. They will likely continue to face challenges and year-to-year frustrations as long as the markets favor large-scale, industrial monocultures. But, as evidenced by the various program and research support the farm has received, change is on the horizon.
Jennifer Kongs is a freelance writer with Bark Media in Lawrence, Ks. who produced this story as part of KRC’s Specialty Crop Block Grant funded by the Kansas Department of Agriculture through USDA’s SCBG Program.