116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
They say if you can see it, you can be it.
This is why Black farmers and some agricultural groups in Iowa are working to show young people of color how they can make a living from the land.
Haseeb Muhammad, 18, of Waterloo, started working last summer with Mike Cook, mowing and doing other yard work. Then Muhammad visited Cook's produce farm, where he planted seeds, weeded, watered and later helped take the crop of cantaloupe, tomatoes, squash, green beans and other produce to the Waterloo Urban Farmer's Market.
“I never really thought about farming,” Muhammad said. "Once I went out to Mr. Cook’s, he showed me the way a young Black man might be able to make a career out of that."
More than 30 percent of Iowa farmers haven’t identified a successor, according to a 2019 survey of Iowa farm families by Iowa State University. These farmers, whose average age was 61, think a son or daughter will take over operations, but sometimes those children — into their 30s and 40s — haven’t worked on the farm as adults and have taken to other professions.
And often farmers are reluctant to hammer out succession plans, said Melissa O’Rourke, an extension farm and agribusiness management specialist for ISU.
“When you talk about a successor, you’re admitting you’re going to get old and die and that’s such a difficult thing for people,” she said.
“The other reason people don’t talk about that or hesitate to talk about it is because they just don’t want to give up control. That’s part of not facing aging. If I’m giving up control of my assets and decision making, I’m admitting I’m not always going to be able to do this.”
These challenges are particularly keen on large farms that use a lot of automation because there are not as many on-farm roles for the younger generation, O’Rourke said. But they also may pertain to farmers with fewer acres — which is the case for many of Iowa’s Black farmers.
Cook, 65, of Waterloo, is a third-generation farmer in Black Hawk County. A mechanical engineer by profession, Cook first planted sweet corn in 1985 and used the proceeds to buy equipment for traditional row crops.
Now he farms 120 acres of corn, soybeans and produce. He plans for his oldest daughter, Nicole, to take over with her husband in future years. For now, Cook is using his farm as a classroom to teach about machinery, entrepreneurship and hard work.
Cook met Muhammad last year when Cook was teaching an advanced manufacturing course at TechWorks Campus in Waterloo. In this course, high school students are introduced to robotics, computer-aided design and electrical work, among other topics, and they learn to operate manufacturing equipment, such as calipers, rulers and scales.
“I noticed as I was showing them some of the products John Deere makes, they were interested, they were riveted,” Cook said. He (Muhammad) is one of two I noticed had an interest.“
The teen reminded Cook of himself. Smart, but easily distracted. More interested in making plans with friends than with making plans for his future.
Cook invited Muhammad out to his land, which transformed from a field of leftover cornstalks in the early spring to a lush green soybean field by midsummer. The relationship has grown through the seasons, with the teen helping Cook change the oil and tires on the tractor before planting season.
“It teaches you work ethic,” Cook said of farming. “It teaches you that the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
Celize Christy wanted to study veterinary medicine at ISU, but when she got there in 2012, she realized most of her fellow animal science students were white and from rural backgrounds.
Being a Dallas native and a first-generation college student born to immigrants from Panama, Christy, now 29, felt like an impostor.
“As brown and Black people, as we’re talking about agriculture, the cultivation of food, when we think about history, the people growing and cultivating food in rural areas, these areas haven’t always been a safe place for brown and Black bodies,” she said. “As a person embodying a brown and Black body, you are bringing all of that with you.”
Feeling like an outsider, Christy struggled to make friends until she picked up a second major in global research. She got involved in the Latinx student organization, which shifted her perspective.
“Not only did I find community, but saw that we’re all here trying to help each other succeed,” she said.
Christy graduated from ISU in spring 2016 and then enrolled in a graduate program in rural sociology and international agricultural development at Penn State University.
She earned her master’s degree in 2018 and went to work for Practical Farmers of Iowa, an Ames-based nonprofit that represents a diversity of Iowa farmers interested in sustainability.
As beginning farmer education coordinator, Christy got to help new farmers go through many of the same struggles she faced.
“I identify with people who are just trying to navigate the system,” she said. “My heart always sings when I’m able to connect somebody to resources.”
Practical Farmers of Iowa has been working to expand community programming to be more inclusive of farmers of color with field events hosted by Black and Latinx farmers and providing more programming in Spanish, Christy said.
Christy recently took a job as an organizer with HEAL Food Alliance, a national coalition of organizations that represent more than 2 million rural and urban farmers, food chain workers and public health advocates.
Paying it forward
This summer, back in Waterloo, Muhammad is helping Cook plant green beans, sweet corn and Crenshaw melons, a yellow-green melon similar to a cantaloupe.
Muhammad plans to move to the Des Moines area in the fall, when he will enroll in engineering classes at the Des Moines Area Community College. He hopes to transfer those credits to a four-year engineering program, such as electrical engineering at ISU, he said.
“Mr. Mike encouraged me more to take that route,” Muhammad said of engineering. But having experience working the land has shown him there are other options.
Cook said mentors teens like Muhammad because he had family and nonfamily mentors when he was growing up.
“If I get five minority kids who say they want to be an engineer because Mike Cook helped, then when the good Lord comes, I have no regrets,” he said.
This story is the second in a series The Gazette is reporting on Black farmers in Iowa and the challenges they face. We will be focusing on topics such as representation on state and local farm groups and how to tap into new markets. If you have a suggestion of a farmer or other source we should contact, email Erin Jordan at email@example.com.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; firstname.lastname@example.org