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Growing her roots

Putting in the hard work at an Iowa City organic farm

It’s the Wednesday before Labor Day, and Corbin Scholz’s tractor and one of her trucks have broken down in her field at Rainbow Roots Farm. The timing is unfortunate with so much work to be done: in the height of the harvesting season, she has to prepare for the Iowa City farmers market that Saturday and is heading out of town with her team for a two-day farmer’s convergence in Decorah.

Scholz calls her brother, a mechanic, who comes to the farm and shows her how to work around the problem until she can get the tractor repaired. She’ll have to leave the truck where it is and use a backup in the meantime. It’s not ideal, but that’s life as a young organic farmer and small business owner. You have to be scrappy. You make it work.

Scholz, 26, didn’t come from a farming background—she grew up in Iowa City and had planned to go to medical school. But after graduating pre-med from the University of Iowa, she realized that career path wasn’t right for her.

“It didn’t seem like something that I would have thrived in,” Scholz said. “I didn’t have any passion for it.”

She spent some time after college searching for that passion and found it in regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. That led her to attend the Organic Farm School in Clinton, Wash., north of Seattle. Over nine months she learned farming basics like how to run a greenhouse and how to operate a tractor, as well as business skills like marketing and how to apply for grants. Armed with her new agricultural knowledge and skills, she returned to Iowa City at age 24 to start a farm and make an impact in the community where she grew up.

Her parents were skeptical of her decision, but supportive.

“My parents’ first reaction was, ‘You’re not going to make any money,’” Scholz said. “It’s hard for people to understand when I tell them I’m going to take out a $20,000 loan and pay it back with $4 bunches of carrots. My parents have always been supportive, but now that they’ve seen the business grow they’re a lot more supportive.”

A rocky start leads to organic growth

Scholz’s first year of farming was difficult, to say the least.

“Everything was different in Iowa than in Washington—the climate, the pests, the soil,” she said. “I was renting a three-acre hay field in Solon. There were so many weeds. I didn’t have access to water or electricity, I didn’t have access to the field when it was raining. It was a tough year for me.”

After her first year, the landowners offered to rent her a farm a few miles north of Iowa City on Rapid Creek Road. The previous tenant had made enough money to buy her own farm, and the landowners were looking for someone to take over the lease. The property had a house and was a much better fit for her needs. She jumped at the chance.

“Now I have a place to live, I have room for my animals, there’s water, there’s infrastructure,” Scholz said. “And the landowners are really chill. They don’t micromanage me. They let me do what I need to do for my business to thrive.”

And Rainbow Roots Farm is thriving. Scholz grows 60 varieties of vegetables and has two pigs, Breakfast and Nubby, which till and fertilize the soil and eat food scraps. (The pigs are purely working animals—Rainbow Roots Farm is vegetarian.) She planted peach trees that should start bearing fruit in three to four years.

The farm offers a CSA (community supported agriculture), a practice where members pay in advance to receive a share of the farm’s produce each week. The CSA has grown from 30 members in Scholz’s first year to 80 in 2021, with a projected 100 members in 2022. She also sells produce to local restaurants and events like the Farm to Street Dinner in Iowa City and Farm Cycle, a bike tour organized by Bike Iowa.

“Iowa City has been an amazing place to start this business,” Scholz said. “It seems like everybody is into local food. We have several farms in the area that do 200-person CSAs, and there’s still room for me to have a 100-person CSA. The Iowa City farmers market has been amazing. People go there to get their groceries for the week, which you don’t see in every town.”

Because of this strong support for locally grown food, Scholz said she is far ahead of where she expected to be when she made her original business plan.

“I’m probably doubling what I thought I would make by year three,” she said.

Another sign of her growing business? She now has five employees—all of them women. “This was the first year I’d been able to hire help,” Scholz said. She added that while she didn’t set out to hire only women, the dynamic has been rewarding. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about regenerative agriculture that women and non-binary folks are attracted to. We are nurturing. That’s what we do on the farm. We nurture the land, the plants, each other, our customers. And we’ve become really good friends. It kind of feels like we have our chosen family now, our farmily.”

Making ends meet as a young farmer

The next step for Scholz is making enough money to pay herself, which she expects to be able to do next year. Scholz pays her employees but takes no salary. Instead she earns money during the winter and spring by coaching the Iowa City High School girls’ soccer team and working office jobs.

It’s common—and necessary—for young farmers to support themselves with off-farm work, Scholz said. “They have student loan debt. If they don’t have a partner, if they don’t have an off-farm income, they can’t support themselves. That’s the system that we’re a part of. If food was worth more money and we weren’t competing with Wal-Mart, it would be a different story.”

The work is hard and the schedule intense. During the height of the season, Scholz is up and in the field every morning by 5:30. She works until 12:30, when she takes a break to handle other responsibilities like payroll and marketing. If time allows, she’ll take a nap. Then she’s back in the field from 6:30 to 9:30. “I do that seven days a week for nine months straight,” she said.

That kind of labor is physically and mentally exhausting, even for farmers who start young, Scholz said. She doubts that she will be able to farm past the age of 40. “My mind and body would be so burned out. Young people get interested, but the system is set up so that everyone is burnt out and tired, and only the toughest of us stick it out, but not for our whole lives.”

Despite her rigorous day-to-day schedule, Scholz still finds time to advocate for the rights of current and future young farmers. She is the president of the Eastern Iowa Young Farmers Coalition, which advocates for policies that would benefit young farmers—“all the agricultural laws right now pertain to conventional farming, which isn’t anywhere near what we’re doing,” Scholz said—and discusses ways that farmers can collaborate through equipment sharing, land sharing, crop sharing, and other methods in order to help each other grow. She also serves on the board of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN).

“We’re doing this hard work because we know it’s right, yet we don’t have any money, we don’t have health insurance, we don’t have a retirement account, and it’s so hard to not burn out from this model. Farming collaboratively, cooperatively, that is a way that we can do this. There’s so much more to eating local than, ‘tomatoes taste good when they’re harvested ripe.’”

While many farms in the Iowa City area use organic practices, Rainbow Roots Farm is one of nine that are USDA certified organic, according to the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database. Scholz said being certified is important because the federal government only counts certified farms when deciding how much money to direct toward organic farming subsidies or grants. “It’s so much more work and money but I think it’s important in the long run and I think if everybody got on board it would make a bigger impact,” she said.

More women taking leadership roles in agriculture

Women have always been involved in agriculture, but their contributions were often undervalued even though their work was essential to the farm.

Traditionally, women who farm alongside their husbands manage the finances, pay the bills and co-sign loans in addition to the physical labor of farm work, said Cheryl Tevis, president of Iowa Women in Agriculture. But a growing number of women are becoming farm owners and agribusiness professionals and taking leadership roles in farming organizations. Many are also taking on marketing responsibilities, which can be one of the most difficult aspects of any farm business.

“Agriculture is a very challenging way to make a living,” said Tevis. “Farming requires a skill set that incorporates a full range of aptitudes and talents, so it only makes sense to use the full capacity and potential of the farm, and that includes women.”

According to research from Iowa State University and the 2017 Census of Agriculture, nearly half of all farmland in Iowa has at least one female owner. About one-third of all farmers in the United States are women, a 27 percent increase from 2012. Some of that increase may be due to new language in the census that allowed for farms to list multiple primary producers instead of just one, perhaps allowing women who were already farming to be counted.

“Women have always had a seat at the table, it just hasn’t always been at the leadership table,” said Wren Almitra, the women, land and legacy coordinator at WFAN. “Their input hasn’t always been heard, their knowledge hasn’t always been recognized.”

WFAN was founded in 2004 and aims to connect women in agriculture in order to share their experiences, network and promote sustainable agricultural practices and land conservation.

A 2016 study by Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University and Mark Paul of Duke University found that, while women who farm earn roughly 40 percent less than men, even when controlling for factors like experience, farm assets and location, the pay gap is much smaller among CSA farms.

Many women like Scholz are finding a home on smaller farms that use direct-to-consumer and CSA farming models.

“We do know that there are more women farmers who are the primary decision makers and owners, particularly in the areas of agriculture that are more direct-to-consumer sales, or organic, and this has been a trend,” Tevis said.

Tevis is a founding member of IWIA and became its president in 2015. She grew up on her family’s farm in Hornick, Iowa, and farms with her husband in Boone County. She spent 36 years as an editor at Successful Farming magazine, where she wrote about business, farm safety and elevating the role of women in agriculture.

IWIA was founded in 2005 to help women gain information, resources and community connections to help with the issues that they’re facing on their farms, and to network with other women. Key topics at its most recent annual conference, held at the FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny, were conservation, climate change and weather extremes.

“We want to support farmers no matter what type of agriculture they’re in. Agriculture is a big tent. There is room for products to be raised in different ways,” Tevis said, including conventional large commercial farms and smaller organic farms. “There are many ways to thrive in agriculture and we’d like to be supportive of women who are exploring alternatives to the traditional.”

IWIA board member Debra Schuler, who has worked for 35 years at the agricultural brokerage firm Smith Land Service Co., said she is invigorated by the interactions she has with other women in agriculture, including meeting Sue Martin, CEO of AG and Investments Services, at IWIA’s 2021 conference.

“I tell my friends I was born in the right era,” Schuler said. “There are more women landowners now than any time previous. There are more female agribusiness professionals than ever before. There’s an increasing number of women in leadership roles at extension councils, cooperative boards, corn growers and soybean association boards, just to name a few. We all have a voice. It’s important to tell our story, or someone else will try to write it for us. Farming is not just a vocation or business, it’s absolutely a way of life. And a tremendous one at that.”

Scholz understands that farming is a critical way to make needed change in the world and hopes to see more young people inspired to become a part of the farming community like she did when she started Rainbow Roots Farm.

“One thing I always say to young people, ‘You’re never too young to be interested in farming and you’re never too old to start farming,’” Scholz said. “It’s important that we get more people doing this work, because the world’s burning. If we can try to work together to fix this system I think a lot of other systems will fall into place as well.”